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El Niño raises drought fears

A farmer works in a parched rice paddy in Kampong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district. Experts and government officials are concerned that El Niño will prolong the dry season and affect agricultural production.
A farmer works in a parched rice paddy in Kampong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district. Experts and government officials are concerned that El Niño will prolong the dry season and affect agricultural production. Heng Chivoan

El Niño raises drought fears

Cambodia is looking at a delayed onset of the rainy season, with experts and government officials having raised concerns of a prolonged dry season affecting agricultural production, as the Pacific weather pattern El Niño threatens to bring drought-like conditions.

Ngin Chhay, director of the Rice Department in the Ministry of Agriculture, said that farmers across the country were concerned about the lack of water and the delay in planting crops this season, which traditionally runs from May to November.

“In some provinces, farmers were waiting for rainfall. There was no rain until last week when the rain began, but in some areas only,” Chhay said.

The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology issued a notice in early April stating that average levels of rainfall was expected to begin from April to June. But revised their estimate a month later, saying that May and June will see only light rainfall, with heavy rains expected to begin only in July.

Ian Thomas, an adviser with the Mekong River Commission, said that based on estimates from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Japan Meteorological Agency and NASA, rainfall in Cambodia could fall short of expectations this year.

“All the indicators are that it is going to be a bad year. None of the indicators are getting better,” Thomas said.

He said that El Niño has been known to cause drought-like conditions in the Mekong region and this year’s El Niño is one of the strongest that has been measured by satellites so far.

El Niño is caused by warmer-than-average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean causing changes in weather patterns and can lead to flooding, affect fishing populations and, in the case of the Mekong region, droughts.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been proactively advising farmers to delay sowing of crops this season in order to not waste seeds and planting materials, said Nina Brandstrup, FAO representative in Cambodia.

“FAO can support the efforts of the government, if requested, but we have not yet been requested,” Brandstrup said.

Keo Vy, spokesman for the National Committee for Disaster Management, said that a drought can affect the Kingdom’s food security and that they were prepared with drought mitigation measures in the worst case scenario.

“In the case that drought causes damage to rice plants, we will hand out seeds so that farmers can restore their production,” he said.

Nem Noun, a farmer in Battambang province, said some of the paddy planted in the fields had been damaged due to a lack of water.

“We waited for the rain, but there was no sign. It is a concern for us as last year there was also a drought happening,” he said.

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