Lightning deaths in Cambodia

Last year 165 people were killed by lightning strikes in Cambodia. Another 140 were injured, and over 60 cattle were lost. By contrast, 26 people were killed in the United States, one of the lowest years on record. If the rate at which Cambodians are being killed by lightning were adjusted for population, in the United States the toll would amount to 600 lives.

Southeast Asia Globe, July 18, 2011


Lighting strikes kill dozens of Cambodians every year, but the death toll keeps rising

First there’s the soft breeze that picks up the leaves and lifts the heavy afternoon heat. Then the low rumble of distant thunder and flickering light on the horizon, before the awesome Monsoon storms come, with their life-giving rains and merciful cooling of the malevolent air. But these are double-edged storms, as liable to kill as to irrigate parched earth.

In June, Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) announced that 86 people had already died in lightning strikes this year, more than double the number killed during the same period last year. Casualties are increasing, from 45 in 2007 to 114 in 2010, and potentially 150 this year. It is an astonishing figure for a country of 15 million people.

The skies above Siem Reap

The skies above Siem Reap

Vietnam, with a population of 87million, reports about 100 such deaths a year. Globally, the frequency of lightning strikes is estimated at 50 flashes every second. That’s 1.4 billion flashes a year, a quarter of which touch the ground. Cambodia lies where the majority of the world’s thunderstorms occur. On the flat,waterlogged spaces that characterise the country’s agricultural landscape, people who work that land are especially vulnerable.

“The sound was weird, like it came from the ground, like a bomb,” said Ry Arida, originally from Takeo Province. Aged 13, she witnessed a friend being struck by lightning as the pair tended to their cows. The boy and the cow he was riding were killed outright, their bodies left blackened and limp. Last year, 65 cattle met a similar fate. “My grandparents would tell us that when there is a storm, we had to go straight home. Since we don’t know where the lightning would strike, we might as well just walk straight. They thought that if you were killed by lightning it was because you had to die then. There was a new home and a new body waiting for you that you must go to. Now, I think it’s just bad luck.”

Most gods have thunder and lightning on their side. In Norse and Greek mythology respectively, the mighty Thor and Zeus are inextricably linked with storms’ natural power. In Cambodian mythology, the goddess of the oceans, Moni Mekhala, wages perpetual war with the giant storm spirit, Ream Eyso. The crash of thunder and lightning reflects the heavenly battle as his axe smashes into her diamond-filled glass ball.

In Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist society in which spirituality plays a pivotal role, lightning strikes stoke superstitious beliefs. “Some of my mother’s friends thought that it could be because someone married the wrong person and then they would get hit,” said Arida. Others believe it is because the victim saw a spirit.

Awareness of the associated dangers is slowly spreading via TV and schoolbooks,  but the casualty rate remains high. Ma Norith, NCDM’s director of information and international relations, is stumped. His department is planning a new interministerial information campaign in the near future. Experts from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology are currently being trained in France to use a new radar that might help prevent future fatalities.

Dr Juergen Grieser, a German meteorologist and risk management expert, points to a map of global lightning frequency. “The fact that many people spend quite some time outdoors seems to be much more relevant [than the frequency of lightning strikes]. One hundred years ago, when many more people were outside in Germany, the death toll due to lightning was about 300 a year. Now, it is only six a year.” The monsoon season started early but fitfully this year and will continue to bring much-needed rains to Cambodia for another four months.

The flipside of that vital life source is the deadly energy it comes with and the catastrophic socioeconomic consequences for many families. Key to stemming the flow of casualties will be education: making sure rural communities understand the awesome force of nature and how to escape it.

SEAG Flashpoint, July 18, 2011

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