Laos Villagers provided with cell phones to help improve accuracy of flood warnings

Vientiane, Lao PDR, 21st Sep 2009

Lao villagers are being provided with cell phones and trained to use them to report the likelihood of localised flooding to the Department of Meteorology & Hydrology - the national agency responsible for flood forecasting.

Villagers have this week been provided with 12 phones, flood markers and other equipment, as well as training as observers to take wet-season water level measurements in 19 remote villages in Hatxayfong & Sikkothabong Districts, near Vientiane. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) supported scheme is part of a regional trial to increase the level of involvement in the flood forecasting process for communities living on vulnerable flood plains and to boost the capacity of national flood forecasting agencies.

"Villagers take measurements twice a day, from newly established flood markers in the flood plains and then report these figures via text message," said Hatda An Pich, Operations Manager of the MRC's Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre (RFMMC) based in Phnom Penh, which is responsible for forecasting flooding on the mainstream of the Mekong.

The MRC says that the information is then entered into a computer and a flood forecast is fed back to villagers by their respective national flood forecasting agencies. The villagers then publicise the information on MRC provided billboards at central locations in the flood plains - and advertise any imminent flood threat via loudspeakers.

The village based flood monitoring on the flood plains will complement and contribute to the regional flood forecast that the MRC produces daily in the wet season, based on information collected at stations on the mainstream of the Mekong. The Department of Meteorology & Hydrology will now be able to do a computerized comparison with the flood situation on the mainstream and the MRC says that the two different data sets will offer greater accuracy and therefore more precise flood warnings to communities.

Flood plains villagers in the trial districts will now get up to two days notice of any impending floods, enabling local populations to prepare themselves for severe flooding and evacuation, as well as take measures to protect cattle and other livestock. The broader picture that develops over the long-term of flood patterns in specific areas will help villagers design better irrigation systems as well as plan what types of crops they should plant.

The information gathered by observers can also be used by the Department of Meteorology & Hydrology to develop maps and other computer simulation models for predicting when flash floods will be most likely to occur in remote areas, how people can adapt to these floods and how they can better plan land-use.

"Until now, receiving information for flood monitoring from remote flood plains has been difficult, as establishing lines of communication and a formal government structure has sometimes proven to be expensive," said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat. "However, the expanding cell phone network and decreased price of communications technology in recent years has made the approach of involving villagers to monitor and measure water levels more feasible and provides a cost effective solution."

The training and equipment allocated to villages, which also includes boats, bikes, petrol for motorcycles, measuring equipment and notice boards for the villages, is part of on-going MRC supported efforts to improve Department of Meteorology & Hydrology flood forecasting on Mekong basin tributaries.

"The MRC is investing significant time and resources into improving short to medium term flood forecasts," said Mr. Bird. "Involving villagers themselves in this process is part of efforts to increase the accuracy of flood forecasts on tributaries and between the main flood monitoring stations on the mainstream."

This latest scheme is one of many to increase the detail and accuracy of flood forecasting following the devastating August 2008 Mekong floods that spread across Thailand and Lao PDR.

"Since the floods occurred we have been applying a range of new models and techniques to increase accuracy. This also includes better communications systems, like this scheme using cell phones, to get that information to national forecasting and disaster response agencies," said Mr. Bird.

-ends-

Notes to Editors

The 2008 flood season in the Lower Mekong Basin saw rivers reach their highest levels since 1966 between the Chinese border and Vientiane/Nong Khai. Extensive flooding occurred in Lao PDR and Thailand, mainly in rural agricultural areas but also within urban areas. Parts of the city centre of Luang Prabang were flooded as well as areas on the outskirts of Vientiane and Nong Khai. More than US$ 135 million worth of damage was caused, with Thailand and Lao PDR bearing most of the brunt of this loss.

The Regional Flood Mitigation and Management Centre gathers information from water monitoring systems all over the Mekong Basin, from Yunnan Province in China to the Delta in Viet Nam. Readings are collated and potential floods predicted. News and warnings are then sent out across the region, helping authorities and communities to prepare for events as early as possible. As the heart of the MRC Flood Management and Mitigation Strategy, the Centre also provides training and technology transfer to specialists in the four MRC Member States.

The MRC is the intergovernmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. In dealing with these challenges, it looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.

For More Information

Ms Tiffany Hacker, Interim Communication Advisor
Tel: +856 56120695 or +856 21 263 263 Ext. 4703
Email: damian@mrcmekong.org

Mr Khy Lim, Communications Officer
Tel: +856 20 5622 8131
Email: khy@mrcmekong.org

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