About 40,000 Battambang rice-farming families already suffering steep losses from a severe drought are at risk of seeing their crops wiped out entirely by devastating floods as late seasonal rains start to kick in.
A drought that meteorologists have blamed on the tail-end of an El Niño weather cycle has already damaged rice crops planted on more than 49,000 hectares in the province, the heartland of Cambodia’s rice production.
And while rains have started to fall in parts of the province, the dry spell’s total damage could top even last year’s record-setting drought, which saw 60,000 hectares of the province’s rice-planted fields wither under the baking sun.
“The drought [damage] is going to be more serious than last year’s if the coming weeks do not bring sufficient rain,” Prom Voek, an official in Battambang’s provincial agricultural department, said yesterday.
About 1 million people live in Battambang, with most dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, he said. Eight of the province’s 13 districts have been severely affected by the drought.
“On average, one family holds at least 1 hectare of rice fields, so we can estimate that about 40,000 farming families have been impacted by the drought,” Voek said. “All the biggest rice-producing areas have been hit by the drought, and farmers could lose about 2.8 tonnes of paddy rice per hectare.”
But some farmers fear Mother Nature is gearing up for a one-two punch. For while the onset of rain could help with the drought, runoff from the province’s parched soil could also trigger flash floods, leading to more devastating losses.
Va Saroeurn, president of Mongkol Agricultural Development Cooperative in the province’s hard-hit Sangke district, recalls the devastation caused by earlier severe floods.
“We had really bad flooding a few years ago in which all our rice fields were damaged,” he said.
Saroeurn said farmers in the cooperative, where nearly half of the 350 hectares collectively planted with rice this season have been damaged by drought, are praying for rain. But they are also apprehensive, recognising the higher risk of flooding.
Yet even with enough rainfall in the coming weeks, he estimates that half of the cooperative’s damaged rice crops will die before harvest, casting hundreds of impoverished farming families deeper into debt.
“We farmers are dependent on capital borrowed from microfinance institutions,” he said. “If our rice crops are damaged, we will face trouble paying off those debts.”
According to Hem Sophal, director of the statistics bureau at the Ministry of Agriculture, crops in five provinces have been affected by drought, including Battambang, Takeo, Svay Rieng, Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Speu.
However, he does not expect the overall damage to surpass that of last year’s drought, which damaged crops on nearly 200,000 hectares in 20 provinces.
“The impact of this year’s drought will not be as severe as the one we had last year,” he said.
Hun Lak, vice president of the Cambodian Rice Federation (CRF), played down the risk of flash floods.
“In general, in Cambodia we do not suffer much as a result of flooding, because floods are a short-term phenomenon,” he said. “Drought is a bigger issue for us.”
He said farmers depend on the sky for their livelihood, and when the rains fail, whether due to climate change or abnormal weather, farmers are pushed deeper into poverty. Lak said the government should work quickly to restore existing water-control networks and upgrade irrigation systems.
“The climate is always changing and this impacts the agricultural sector, not only Cambodia but in every country,” he said. “However, if we have a proper water system, it can help farmers climb out of poverty.”