For some, the wooden huts perched high atop poles surrounding Cambodia’s vast Tonlé Sap lake are just another picturesque tourist stop. But for six-year-old Lor Chaneut, they were home. When the floods came most years, these poles would keep her and her family dry. When they came in 2011, the age-old ways of dealing with the rising water in a country dominated by regular monsoon floods were simply not enough.
The rising waters didn’t just drown livestock and ruin crops; they swept away Lor’s parents’ savings and brought mosquitoes and disease. Lor – along with hundreds of others – came down with potentially fatal dengue fever. If aid agencies were able to better identify, understand and visualize flood risks to vulnerable communities like Lor’s, relief would arrive sooner and the impact of the flood could be reduced.
Devastation and disruption from flooding is an annual occurrence in Cambodia, affecting hundreds of thousands of people through death, disease, damaged crops and property, or lost livestock. For groups like the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), understanding the vulnerabilities of different communities is critically important when deciding where relief efforts should be focused during disasters.
“We work through partner organizations who have limited resources on the ground. So when disaster strikes, knowing where and when to deploy relief teams for maximum impact is critical,” explains Gisele Henriques, Resilient Livelihoods Adviser, CAFOD.
Cambodia’s tropical climate is dominated by monsoon rains from May to October, with the Mekong River valley flooding with such regularity that rural communities can lose millions in damaged crops, property and relocation expenses every year. The human cost is even more significant: nearly 2,000 lives have been lost as a result of flooding in Cambodia in the last 20 years.
In 2013, Dr. Stephen Edwards, Deputy Director of the University College London (UCL) Hazard Centre, brought together Aon and CAFOD to improve visualization of flood risk for communities in Cambodia. The project was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and emphasized the benefits of using risk analysis tools to help NGOs improve disaster risk reduction.
“This innovative project demonstrates the powerful role universities can play in brokering partnerships between risk management professionals and non-profits for humanitarian good,” says Edwards.
The team deployed Aon’s ImpactOnDemand® software, an innovative data visualization and mapping technology originally designed to help businesses forecast risks posed by weather and natural catastrophes. “By adding population data into the tool alongside geographic and historic flood data, we created detailed risk assessments for vulnerable communities that enabled scenario planning and rapid decision-making for when floods occur,” explains Brad Weir, Head of Analytics, Aon.
ImpactOnDemand was used as a low-cost method to create risk maps for rural communities across Cambodia. “NGOs and aid agencies like CAFOD have a vast amount of population data they’ve collected on the ground, but traditionally they’ve lacked the capability to model and visualize it,” explains Edwards. “Our aim was to integrate this data with the expertise and analytical tools of Aon to create risk maps.”
With detailed maps visualizing different flooding scenarios in easy-to-understand ways, relief workers were able to use ImpactOnDemand to make better decisions on the ground quickly – even accessing the tool in the field on their smartphones so that they could effectively deploy aid to affected communities. Ultimately, these insights can help increase long-term flood preparedness for rural communities.
Aon’s data-driven solutions are helping solve the perennial problem of flooding in Cambodia – improving the country’s disaster response and resilience. “Having a tool that is accessible and mobile makes all the difference to those who are actually deployed and trying to respond to the situation,” says Henriques. “When you have a disaster you have to respond quickly, and having good data at hand can be a matter of life or death.”