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A child carries water from a pool in Banteay Meanchey province earlier this year after drought conditions in the Cambodia caused widespread water shortages.
A child carries water from a pool in Banteay Meanchey province earlier this year after drought conditions in the Cambodia caused widespread water shortages. Hong Menea

It’s time to move towards environmental sustainability

Yesterday marked the annual World Environment Day, a time to reflect on the importance of protecting the environment.

In September, the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), seven of which are environmental. These include promoting sustainable use of natural resources, combating climate change and building sustainable cities.

Achieving each of these goals is crucial for societies for shared and sustainable prosperity. This is the case for Cambodia too. Development must go hand in hand with environmental protection. In the Cambodian context, this point relates to a series of particular environmental challenges that require urgent attention and actions.

The continued degradation of forests, lands and water and its consequences for wildlife and biodiversity pose a challenge, particularly because they adversely affect the lives of rural communities, especially women, who depend on trees, fuelwood, crops and fish for subsistence and income.

Another very serious challenge is the accelerating effects of climate change. Studies indicate that Cambodia is among the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, subject to increasingly severe droughts and floods.

The heat wave and the accompanying drought this year is one of the worst in decades and has disrupted the availability of water for farming and drinking. Farmers were hit hardest since they largely rely on rain-fed agriculture. The massive flood in 2013 affected almost two million people across 20 provinces, at an estimated cost upwards of $700 million.

Furthermore, the impact of climate change tends to be exacerbated where ecological and social systems are more fragile and less resilient. Fish or forest products can provide a safety net for people if agriculture fails. Watersheds can mitigate the damage done by floods and droughts.

Unfortunately, once these resources are depleted, they offer no such benefits. Degraded ecosystems and natural resources thus make rural people more vulnerable to climate-related disasters.

Cambodia’s constantly increasing demand for energy also impacts resource depletion because fuelwood is a primary energy source. A recent study by the Group of Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity reports that the annual demand is around 5.5 million tonnes of fuelwood.

Out of this amount, 2.9 million tonnes is used for domestic cooking in rural areas and the rest is used for industries, including in garment factories. The report warns that this significantly contributes to ecosystems degradation.

But it is not only rural areas that face environmental challenges. Urban population growth leads to increases in waste and pollution. This is more problematic because Cambodian cities, Phnom Penh included, do not have incineration plants capable of treating hazardous waste.

The absence of solid waste collection and appropriate treatment facilities is harmful to public health as well as to the quality of water, soil, air and ground water. Similarly, air and water quality is negatively affected by the emission of pollutants produced by industrial activities, transportation and solid waste burning practices.

To attain environmental sustainability and sustain Cambodia’s path to development, it is therefore more than timely that the government has recently decided to initiate environmental governance reform.

The Environmental Code and a National Environment Strategy and Action Plan (NESAP), both being developed by the end of 2016, seek to create an enabling legal and policy environment that will make it possible to achieve environmental protection while supporting sustainable development.

Among other things, the code will entail legal provisions to strengthen the conservation of natural resources and wildlife, build climate resilience, promote the use of renewable and environmentally friendly energy, and build sustainable cities with the capacity to deal with air and waste pollution.

Along with an enabling legal and policy environment, it is essential to effectively manage natural resources through the proper use of scientific knowledge and the establishment of adequate monitoring systems. It is worth noting as well that the practical implementation of environmental laws and policies depends on human and financial resources.

For instance, the proposed jurisdictional reform in the natural resources management sector creates an excellent opportunity for strengthening conservation and biodiversity efforts. Effective implementation of the decision will thus require location-specific management plans that address geographically unique environmental and development challenges.

Further, such plans will have to draw relevant lessons from scientific assessments of the relations between critical ecosystems and biodiversity protection, the requirements of peoples’ livelihoods and the aspiration to use land for development.

Effective enforcement of environmental laws and policies depends on the development of adequate technical and financial skills in the relevant government institutions.

Equally important is the enhancement of infrastructures in support of environmental sustainability and protection. In the case of droughts and floods, for example, this includes weather stations and early warning systems that can provide in-time information to government agencies and local communities.

In the end, however, the key requisite for successful environmental governance is that Cambodian citizens are actively listened to and engaged in environmental issues. After all, Cambodian people, in rural and urban areas, have first-hand knowledge of how they are affected by their environments.

This knowledge must be activated as part of adequate environmental responses. Stakeholder engagement and leadership – broadly conceived as citizen involvement – must therefore be a core element in Cambodia’s path towards sustainable environmental governance.

Napoleon Navarro is the senior policy adviser at the United Nations Development Program in Cambodia.

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