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Climate change considered as flooding hits Cambodia

The wet season had come and gone with almost no rain.  Despite the best efforts of the farmers from Tralach commune, in Takeo province’s Traing district, widespread crop failures two years ago brought the community to the economic, and dietary, brink. 

Rice paddies were parched beyond salvaging, said Oxfam spokesperson Brian Lund in a recent interview, adding that the dried mud was nearly too hot to stand on.  

“Usually [the farmers] harvest the rice barefoot, but that year, for the first time, they had to wear shoes,” he said.

This week, farmers in Kratie province are facing the opposite problem.  

Severe flooding in 30 communes across the province has inundated more than 1,000 hectares of transplanted rice seedlings, threatening damage to this year’s crop, said provincial governor Kham Phoeun
last week. As the government evacuated families and cattle to higher ground, many residents were concerned that this year’s harvest would be wasted.

The Cambodian Red Cross has donated food aid and sleeping supplies to evacuated families, but the flooding has cut off roads and, as of yesterday, at least one person had drowned in the rising water.  

According to a statement from the Ministry of Water Resources, heavier-than-normal rainfall over the upper Mekong in Laos and Thailand has caused flooding downstream in Cambodia.       

While both limited in geographic scope, the 2009 drought in Takeo province and the current crises in Kratie may represent two premonitory pieces in a larger climatic puzzle.

Worldwide, greenhouse gas emissions are spurring changes in the earth’s climate, leading to temperature increases and more erratic weather patterns.  In Cambodia, rice cultivation relies on a predictable annual cycle of monsoon rains and dry seasons, and significant crop loss due to the occurrence of floods and drought is quite common.

Although Brian Lund warned that no single weather event, however severe and unprecedented, can be taken as proof of climate change, concerns are mounting.

Cambodia is preparing to deliver its second national communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The report, essentially a progress update on national attempts to deal with climate change, has yet to be finalised but preliminary findings released in March 2010 suggest that Cambodia will face significant shifts in rainfall patterns, with potentially dire consequences for rice yields.  

The study was conducted by the Ministry of Environment with support from the Global Environmental Facility and the United Nations Development Programme. UNDP Program Analyst Kalyan Keo summed up the predictions of the UNFCCC study succinctly: “The dry season will get drier and longer. The wet season will get shorter with more intense monsoons.”  

Brian Lund, whose organisation Oxfam keeps tabs on food security in Cambodia, believes the country is experiencing “a trend towards increased variability in the growing season rainfall, either late starts or interruptions, possibly related to climate change.” He added that parts of the Kingdom might also experience “more intense flooding events.”    

Too little rain means the growing season is shortened or interrupted, leaving farmers with too narrow a window to plant and harvest a full crop, said Brian Lund. Too much rain can also cause problems, flooding rice fields and killing the crop if it remains inundated for more than about eight days.  

Experts agree that implicit in any climate change predictions is a degree of uncertainty resultant from the sheer number and complexity of variables being measured. Still, as Oxfam regional communications officer Soleak Seang explained: “In an agricultural sector that thrives on climatic predictability, increased unpredictability will always have a negative impact on farmers.”

Gunilla Wingqvist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who helped conduct an environmental and climate change policy brief for Cambodia in 2009, wrote in a recent email that “Cambodia is … very vulnerable [to climate change] due to its low adaptive capacity and dependence on climate sensitive livelihoods”.  

Tin Ponlok, project coordinator at the Ministry of Environment’s climate change office, corroborated her conclusion, pointing out that 80 percent of Cambodians are reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods.  

With predictable rainfall providing the essential foundation of the Kingdom’s food security, fluctuations wrought by climate change may leave many Cambodians scrambling for answers as traditional sources of food grow increasingly unreliable. Less than a third of the land under rice cultivation receives any form of irrigation, according to the government’s National Strategic Development Plan Update published in 2009.  

The Ministry of Environment’s 115-page National Adaptation Programme of Action to Climate Change places a high priority on projects aimed at bolstering the nation’s agricultural sector against the harms of shifting weather patterns.

But in the almost five years since the plan was published, very few of its proposed projects have been implemented. More than US$200 million would be required to fully implement NAPA, said the Ministry’s Tin Ponlok, adding that, as of this year, less than $10 million in funding had been allotted to the programme, most of it from international sources.  

NGOs and other organisations have stepped in to try to secure the Kingdom’s agricultural future.  Oxfam is pursuing a system of rice intensification, a modified form of rice cultivation which produces faster-growing crops that are more resistant to destruction by the extreme weather events, said Brian Lund. The system has the potential to boost rice yields to as much 4.1 tonnes per hectare, 1.4 tonnes per hectare above the current national average, he added.  So far 110,000 families have taken part in the project, and that number is growing.  

Oxfam has also spearheaded a microfinance program which allows rural farming communities to pool their savings and distribute small loans to mitigate emergencies, a financial safety net which may become increasingly necessary as climate change puts rural livelihoods at risk. Lund emphasised that: “The adaptations most likely to succeed are those that come from the community itself.”

The UNDP, meanwhile, is conducting a pilot project to restore and maintain the nation’s irrigation networks.  The project aims to equip local villagers with the skills and resources to maintain nearby irrigation works, providing for a more sustainable system of water delivery.  It also hopes to develop a handful of “practical techniques and guidelines” for climate-proofing existing irrigation networks.  

Kalyan Keo pointed to how, in many provinces, increased flooding has caused soil erosion, blocking the flow of water through canals. Problems such as these can be solved cheaply and easily by planting trees or building cement skirts around ditches, she said.

Through cooperation with several other NGO partners, the UNDP has also overseen the establishment of the Cambodia Climate Change Alliance which gives grants to various government ministries to implement adaptation programmes.  The Alliance focuses especially on strengthening the capacity of the National Climate Change Committee, a governmental body established in 2006, and which now counts Prime Minister Hun Sen as any honourary chair, to coordinate the activities of all ministries with regards to issues of climate change.   

Despite the blitzkrieg of food security and climate change adaptation initiatives from the non-profit sector, many challenges remain. Low public awareness of climate change and methods for adaptation, lack of a comprehensive policy and legal framework to address climate change, as well as insufficient funding and political will have all been cited as road blocks to securing Cambodia’s agricultural sector against climate change.  As Oxfam’s Brian Lund put it:“There’s a lot of work to be done.”  The Ministry of Environment’s Tin Ponlok took a slightly more optimistic view, contending that “relatively speaking we have made very good progress with regards to resources available to us,” although he too added that “many challenges lie ahead”.

While Cambodian policy-makers try to mobilise in defence of the Kingdom’s food security, the farmers in Tralach commune are feeling the heat.  

By July, none had begun transplanting their rice crops, a process which normally begins in June.  

Chhuokroth Sin, a 50-year-old resident of the commune, said last month: “[We] haven’t gotten enough rain this year either.”



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