Disasters and emergency response

The Lower Mekong is one of the most disaster prone regions in the world and its five countries are frequently affected by natural disasters such as flooding, typhoons and droughts.

Earthquakes, floods, storms and droughts

Thailand and Myanmar were among countries hit by the 2004 tsunami that killed 228,000 people, and in Thailand alone, resulted in damages of more than US$2.2 billion. 1 In 2008, Myanmar suffered Cyclone Nargis, which caused the country’s worst natural disaster on record, killing 84,537, affecting 2.4 million more people, and causing an estimated US$10 billion in economic damage2 In July 2015, Myanmar was again hit by a large typhoon, Cyclone Komen, causing massive flooding and storm damage in its  western region. As of  August 2015, Myanmar was still scrambling to respond to the emergency, which  affected 1.6 million people3, with costs still being estimated. At the same time, northern Vietnam fell victim to a week-long monsoon, resulting in record rains, and leading to floods and landslides that  were particularly damaging in Quang Ninh province (see also “large scale accidents and man-made disasters” below.)

disasters-and-emergency-responseAs devastating as those  disasters were, the most expensive disaster the region has seen  to date was the 2011 flooding that inundated large areas of Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam and cost Thailand alone an estimated $46 billion4, making it the sixth costliest natural disaster in history, as of 2015.5 While the floods were blamed on exceptionally heavy monsoon rains, in Thailand there were disputes over whether mismanagement of Thai dams had contributed to the crisis. Bangkok was largely saved from flooding but at the cost of other areas. Thailand’s auto industry, a major contributor to its GDP, suffered significantly. The floods are correlated with a significant contraction in Thailand’s industrial growth in 2011. (See “Industry sector annual growth” on Industries.)

Although the Lower Mekong Basin is naturally subject to cycles of seasonal flooding and occasional drought, these are exacerbated by  loss of forests and changes to natural hydrology. The average annual flood damage for the Lower Mekong Basin is estimated to be US$60–70 million per year and is concentrated in Vietnam and Cambodia.6 Floods are also the main cause of disasters in Laos, in terms of both frequency and consequence. In 2014, Cambodia experienced severe flooding from the Tonle Sap eastward, while there were simultaneous droughts in Oddar Meanchey in the northwest, and Takeo in the south. 7

In early 2015, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam all experienced severe drought. In March, Thailand declared 28 provinces disaster regions, with drought having destroyed 112,000 ha of farmland and affecting more than 63,000 families.8 By May, 400,000 hectares of farmland in the Vietnam’s  Mekong Delta had been affected by prolonged drought and saltwater intrusion.9 In June, Cambodians were reporting that wells were running dry.10 In July and August when deluging rains threatened crops in some provinces, other Cambodian provinces were still in drought.

Vietnam, with its long South China Sea coastline, is prone to typhoons, which average five to six per year and result in flooding, infrastructure and property damage, and sometimes high human casualties. In 2009, the week-long Cyclone Ketsana lashed the Lower Mekong peninsula. After hitting the Philippines, Ketsana made landfall in Vietnam, destroying or damaging nearly half a million homes and requiring the evacuation of more than 400,000 people, before continuing westward. Both Cambodia and Laos also suffered significant damage.11

The region is not without risk of earthquakes. Myanmar lies along the Sagaing fault-line which means that earthquakes are a significant hazard. The most recent are the 2011 Tachilek and 2012 Shwebo earthquakes, both at 6.8 magnitude, which left hundreds dead and many more injured.12 Thailand sits on 14 fault lines crossing 22 provinces, though its earthquakes have been less severe than those in Myanmar. The most recent severe earthquake in Thailand was the 2014 6.0 magnitude Chiang Rai earthquake, which damaged houses and property.13 The 2004 tsunami was a knock-on effect of a major earthquake in Indonesia.

Other disasters

Historically, forest fires have not been a major concern in the Lower Mekong countries but are expected to be more frequent as temperatures increase and the region endures longer and more intense dry spells. In one such dry spell in early 2015, fires raged across parts of Thailand and Vietnam, destroying thousands of hectares of forest and causing life threatening air pollution.

Frequent urban fires in the region’s densely packed cities destroyed major markets in every Lower Mekong country in 2014 and 2015. They are often associated with faulty electrical systems and dry periods.

Other large-scale accidents and man-made disasters also threaten the environment and public safety. For example, an oil spill occurred off the coast of Thailand’s Rayong province in 2013, with varying estimates of its damage, also demonstrating the lack of preparedness to deal with such emergencies.14 In July 2015, heavy rains triggered landslides and collapsed a number of small coal mines, burying  a  town in northern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province, dumping toxic waste into Ha Long Bay and potentially threatening the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site. Vietnam responded swiftly to the accident, securing World Heritage Site from pollution, but overall damages amounted to at least US$123.8 million; seventeen people were killed.15 The incident highlighted risks associated with industrial development, particularly when combined with a natural disaster.

The Lower Mekong, along with the rest of ASEAN, is vulnerable to pandemics. Since 2000, the region has contained outbreaks of SARS and avian flu.

A Vietnamese poster warning about H5N1 (Bird Flu), 2007. Photo by: Joe Gatling. License under: Attribution 2.0 Generic

A Vietnamese poster warning about H5N1 (Bird Flu), 2007. Photo by: Joe Gatling. License under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The Mekong region has been identified as high risk for climate change. Increases in temperature, changes in seasonal precipitation, and the length and intensity of dry spells will have enormous implications for agriculture and fisheries, with the potential to threaten food and water security and increase tensions between countries.

Much of the Lower Mekong region is in low lying areas making it extremely vulnerable to rising sea level and salinization. A predicted sea-level rise of 30cm by the year 2050 is expected to accelerate salt water intrusion.16 In some areas of southern Vietnam, salt water has already intruded up to 60km17 upstream of the Mekong Delta into local river systems, threatening thousands of hectares of rice and shrimp farms and affecting fresh water supply.

Other disasters associated with environmental change are landslides and river bank collapses, which follow on forest clearing and river dredging. These have led to loss of life, land and sometimes property in all countries.

Cambodia’s rate of death by lightning has been estimated at 7.8 deaths per million people for the years 2007-2011, one of the highest lightning death rates in the world.18 Vietnam and Thailand also have high rates of lightning strikes. Some experts in the region believe that lightning incidents and casualties have been increasing in recent years, as temperatures also increase.19

The threat of pandemics in Southeast Asian and worldwide is expected to rise due to global travel, rapid urbanization, environmental changes, and increasing virulence of disease. ASEAN and its member states are pursuing strategies to reduce risks, respond to outbreaks, and contain disease but the limitations of health care systems in several Lower Mekong countries add significantly to that challenge. Efforts to stop ebola from entering the Mekong states during a severe outbreak in parts of West Africa in 2014 are an example of the attention that governments are paying to such threats.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR)

Of the Lower Mekong countries Vietnam and Thailand have the most developed DRR capacity. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) has so far invested €30.2 million under the Disaster Preparedness Programme (DIPECHO) in the region, to help the Lower Mekong countries and their communities better prepare for natural disasters and  build resilience.20 Similarly, USAID’s Lower Mekong Initiative Pacific Resilience Disaster Response Expert Exchange promotes disaster preparedness among the governments of the five Lower Mekong countries.

Myanmar - One of the winners of the ASEAN and SAARC drawing competition for 2011.  Photo by: UN ISDR. License under Creative Commences Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Myanmar – One of the winners of the ASEAN and SAARC drawing competition for 2011. Photo by: UN ISDR. License under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

ASEAN initiatives

In 2005, ASEAN states signed the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), which is among the first legally binding disaster management agreements in the world. The agreement led to the establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in 2011 in Bali, Indonesia. The AHA Centre facilitates cooperation and coordination among ASEAN member states with the UN and international NGOs for disaster management and emergency response.

Working through the Climate Change and Adaptation Initiative and two programs, the Flood Management and Mitigation Programme (FMMP) and the Drought Management Programme (DMP), the Mekong River Commission (MRC) assists four  countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) on flood and drought forecasting and implementation of regional drought and flooding mitigation and adaptation strategies. Flood forecasting is managed by the Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre in Phnom Penh.

In the aftermath of the SARS crisis, ASEAN acknowledged that it lacked effective pandemic response mechanisms and institutions at both the national and regional level. To address this challenge, ASEAN established the ASEAN Technical Working Group on Pandemic Preparedness and Response in 2008, and adopted the ASEAN Work Plan for multi-sectoral Pandemic Preparedness and Response. ASEAN also made clear that a pandemic would constitute a disaster in the context of AADMER.

Last updated 15 February 2016


  • 1.  ReliefWeb. “South Asia: Earthquake and Tsunami – Dec 2004.” Accessed 22 June 2015. http://reliefweb.int/disaster/ts-2004-000147-idn.; Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. The Economic Impact of the 26 December 2004 Earthquake and Indian Ocean Tsunami in Thailand. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/C202A7FB40C2F5CE492571CE0002F96C-adpc-tha-17aug.pdf. View this on Open Development Datahub
  • 2. Government of the Union of Myanmar, ASEAN and the UN. Post Nargis Joint Assessment, July 2008. Accessed 15 June 2015. http://yangon.sites.unicnetwork.org/files/2013/05/post-nargis_joint_assessment_all_pages.pdf. View this on Open Development Datahub
  • 3. Vogt, RJ. 2015. “Flood Coordination Drastically Improved, But Not Without Flaws.” Myanmar Times, 20 August. Accessed 20 August 2015. http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/16072-flood-coordination-drastically-improved-but-not-without-flaws.html
  • 4. The World Bank. Thai Flood 2011: Rapid Assessment for Resilient Recovery and Reconstruction Planning. Bangkok: World Bank. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2012/06/12/000356161_20120612014615/Rendered/PDF/698220WP0v10P106011020120Box370022B.pdf.
  • 5. Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). Emergency Events Database. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.emdat.be/disaster_list/index.html.
  • 6. Mekong River Commission. State of the Basin Report 2010, Summary. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission. Accessed 27 June 2015. http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/basin-reports/MRC-SOB-Summary-reportEnglish.pdf.
  • 7. Finney, Richard. 2014. “Cambodia Hard Hit by Floods and Drought.” Radio Free Asia, 25 August. Accessed 2 July 2015. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/double-08252014165854.html.
  • 8. Ani, Sandra and John Le Fevre. 2015. “Destructive Drought Cuts Swathe Through Thailand Agricultural Sector.” The Establishment Post, 26 March. Accessed 2 July 2015. http://www.establishmentpost.com/destructive-drought-cuts-swathe-thailand-agricultural-sector/
  • 9. 2015. “Mekong Delta Faces Drought, Increased Saltwater Intrusion.” Cambodia Herald, 18 May. Accessed 2 July 2015. http://thecambodiaherald.com/cambodia/mekong-delta-faces-drought-increased-saltwater-intrusion-8590#sthash.6hEyzuPY.dpuf.
  • 10. May Titharra. 2015. “Nary a Drop to Drink.” Phnom Penh Post, 22 June. Accessed 2 July 2015. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/nary-drop-drink.
  • 11. Australian Red Cross. “Typhoon Ketsana 2009.” Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.redcross.org.au/typhoon-ketsana-2009.aspx.
  • 12. National Centers for Environmental Information. “Significant Earthquakes Database.” (Search parameters 2011-2012, Myanmar.) Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/nndc/struts/form?t=101650&s=1&d=1.
  • 13. National Centers for Environmental Information. “Significant Earthquakes Database.” (Search parameters 2014, Thailand.) Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/nndc/struts/form?t=101650&s=1&d=1.
  • 14. Fuller, Thomas. 2013. “Thai Officials Play Down Effects of Oil Spill.” New York Times, 23 August. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/world/asia/thai-officials-play-down-effects-of-oil-spill.html?_r=1.
  • 15. 2015. “Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province, Ravaged by Floods, Should Re-plan Residential Areas: Minister.” Tuoi Tre News, 4 August. Accessed on 20 August 2015. http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/29621/vietnams-quang-ninh-province-ravaged-by-floods-should-replan-residential-areas-minister.
  • 16. Smajgl, A., T. Q. Toan, D. K. Nhan, J. Ward, N. H. Trung, L. Q. Tri, V. P. D. Tri and P. T. Vu. 2015. “Responding to Rising Sea Levels in the Mekong Delta.” Nature Climate Change 5: 167–174.
  • 17. Cosslett, T. and P. Cosslett. 2013. “Water Resources and Food Security in the Vietnam Mekong Delta.” Natural Resource Management and Policy.
  • 18. Wilson, Kenneth. 2013. “Death, Injury by Lightning Strike in Cambodia can be Reduced.” Cambodia Daily, 18 March. Accessed 22 June 2015. https://www.cambodiadaily.com/opinion/death-injury-by-lightning-strike-in-cambodia-can-be-reduced-15021/; Holle, Ronald A. 2008. “Annual Rates of Lightning Fatalities by Country.” Paper presented at the 20th International Lightning Detection Conference, Tuscan, Arizona, 21-23 April. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.vaisala.com/Vaisala%20Documents/Scientific%20papers/Annual_rates_of_lightning_fatalities_by_country.pdf. View this on Open Development Datahub
  • 19. Khadka, Navin Singh. 2014. “Are Lightning Deaths Increasing?” BBC World Service, 14 March. Accessed 22 June 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26554974.
  • 20. European Commission, Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. “Mekong Region (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam) ECHO Factsheet, March 2015.” Accessed 27 June 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/mekong_en.pdf. View this on Open Development Datahub
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