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A farmer harvests rice in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district earlier this year. More than 185,000 hectares in 13 provinces have been affected by drought this year, according to a recent report. Vireak Mai

Drought batters 13 provinces

Amid what some meteorologists have dubbed a “Godzilla-like El Niño”, drought conditions during Cambodia’s scheduled monsoon season have significantly worsened from what last year were termed historically bad levels, a new report from the Ministry of Agriculture shows.

According to the report, which was signed by Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun on August 26 and obtained yesterday, 185,451 hectares in 13 provinces – the vast majority containing mature crops rather than seedlings – have been struck by drought-like conditions.

The figures mark a sharp uptick from the 116,129 hectares hurt by a lack of rain during the 2014 wet season.

“Until now, there is little rain in some areas that are lacking water to support rice farming,” the report states.

Lay Piset, chief of the Agricultural Department in Pursat, said that many rice farmers, especially in the province’s Bakan district, which has been particularly hard-hit by drought, have not been able to complete their scheduled harvests.

“The drought this year is so serious,” he said. “Compared to last year . . . there is little rain. It is not enough to farm rice.”

Men Seout, a chief in Battambang’s Phnom Prek commune, confirmed that farmers in his area are also suffering a severe shortage of water to adequately harvest their crops.

“They are waiting for rain,” he said. “It seems to be taking a long time to come this year.”

But the hold-up will likely continue due to the massive El Niño currently under way in the Pacific, said Ian Thomas, an adviser with the Mekong River Commission. “It’s the biggest one ever seen by satellite, and it hasn’t peaked yet, and it will go into next year,” he said.

While the monsoon season is normally characterised by a tripartite pattern – rain, dryness, rain – Thomas warned that this El Niño may simply spell dryness, and further drought, for the remainder of the season.

“I can see the rice growing, but it probably won’t be as good as other seasons,” he said. “But I don’t really know what will happen, because this [sort of storm] has never happened before.”

Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, confirmed that drought conditions remained serious, though farmers could mitigate damage by using land wisely. “Farmers would have to resort to growing different crops like sweet potatoes and beans,” he said. “From December on, it’s a good time to grow non-rice crops.”

Koma added that some farmers have stored rainwater for irrigation, but admitted that issues may still ensue if current conditions prevail.

“If there is no rain, there is no water to store,” he said.

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