Doctrine divides, Action unites


  January 2014


Disasters, Development and the Environment

Hor Hen

Both legal and illegal logging in Cambodia have stripped the land of trees needed to minimize the effects of flooding.
Exposing illegal logging, however, has resulted in the murder of environmental activists and journalists in recent years.
(Photo from


Many natural disasters occurred throughout the world in 2013. Some of the worst were Typhoon Haiyan and the Bohol earthquake in the Philippines, Cyclone Phailin in India, Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid in Mexico and a series of tornadoes in the United States.

World Vision reported that Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in November killed nearly 6,000 people and left more than 3.6 million others displaced. Meanwhile, a month earlier a nearby area of the Visayas region of the Philippines was devastated by an earthquake that registered 7.2 on the Richter scale, killing 222 people, displacing 350,000 others and destroying about 73,000 buildings—the deadliest earthquake to affect the country in 23 years. During the same month of October, people in eastern Indian felt the power of Cyclone Phailin, the second strongest cyclone to ever reach landfall in the country, unsettling the lives of more than 13 million people. On the other side of the world in North America, Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid hit Mexico in September with heavy rains that created floods and landslides. In just the state of Guerrero, Hurricane Manuel disrupted the lives of more than 200,000 people. As for the United States, more than 900 tornadoes touched down throughout the year with at least 30 people killed.

Natural disasters are major destructive events—typhoons and other serious storms, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.—that, as noted above, are deadly and demolish people’s homes and businesses and shatter their livelihoods, all of which severely impact a local economy and can even negatively alter a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Every year millions of people must begin to rebuild their lives because of natural disasters. In a short period of time—sometimes in just a matter of minutes—a country or even several countries, such as during the earthquake and resulting tsunami in South and Southeast Asia in 2004, can be overwhelmed with devastation and tragedy. One of the major and most urgent consequences of natural disasters are the displacement of people that creates a plethora of problems for those who survive as well as for the authorities—the immediate need for shelter, food, health care and for truly powerful calamities the long-term concern of proper sanitation and education for children.

Natural Disasters and Their Effects in Cambodia

As described briefly above, natural disasters around the world annually kill thousands of people, displace millions more and reduce their properties to rubble. However, the destructive forces of nature can be exacerbated by the decisions and actions of people before the natural disaster even strikes.

Cambodia, a country of more than 180,000 square kilometers, is, of course, not immune to these whims of the weather as well as the man-made conditions that make the outcomes of natural disasters more destructive and painful for people. Deforestation, for example, during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s negatively affected the environment and reduced biodiversity. In the intervening decades since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, illegal logging throughout the country and the mining of gems in the western areas of the country near the Thai border have intensified environmental degradation.

After the Khmer Rouge period ended, the Cambodian people and its government have had to face the problem of widespread poverty. In order to develop and improve the economy, the Cambodian government has extensively sold the country’s natural resources, resulting in the cutting of forests and the mining of underground minerals through land concessions that are often granted to foreign companies. Meanwhile, because of lax government oversight that is often abetted by corruption, numerous illegal activities to fell trees for private profit have also thrived, so much so that thousands of hectares of forest have been cleared of trees without any tax revenues or other benefits flowing to the government and hence the people.

Over the years, Cambodia has faced many natural disasters, especially floods, whose impact has been compounded by environmental destruction that is linked to corruption as well as the genuine need to alleviate poverty described above.

In 2013, for example, the Mekong River flooded, killing at least 168 people and throwing the lives of more than 1.8 million others into chaos and turmoil. It also inundated nearly 370,000 hectares of rice paddies with more than 110,000 hectares of this agricultural land, or 4.4 percent of the total rice-planted areas of the country, destroyed.

As a result of the floods, people had to move to seek a secure place far away from their homes. When they move to a temporary shelter, however, they face many problems and challenges: they lose access to safe food, clean water, education for their children and medical care, the latter being especially important in their new surroundings where there is often poor sanitation in overcrowded conditions that invites illness and other health problems.

In conclusion, natural disasters in Cambodia and around the world overturn the normalcy of life, bringing death, destruction and displacement to people. In addition to being deprived of the most basic necessities of life and suddenly finding themselves vulnerable and insecure for often an indefinite amount of time, they also must contend with the loss of their homes, jobs and often other loved ones. For many people, they suddenly may discover that they are poor with few resources and options. For those who were previously poor before the destructive forces of nature struck, they may find that they are now even more impoverished. These adverse impacts of natural disasters on people are often intensified by deforestation, mining and other economic pursuits that contribute to environmental degradation that amplifies the destructive forces of nature. Consequently, nature retaliates through stronger storms and floods, etc. Thus, protecting the environment is, in the end, protecting ourselves, our families, our communities, our countries. People cannot prevent natural disasters from occurring, but they can minimize their impact by curtailing the man-made activities that intensify their effects by respecting the environment instead of treating it as just another commodity to exploit for profit.

* Hor Hen is a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore, India. He lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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