Climate change is threatening the Cambodian rice industry, and it is marginalised communities that will be worst affected unless the government takes action, according to a new study.
The study’s authors, Sokuntheavy Hong and Jun Furuya, took historical climatic, socioeconomic and rice-yield data as their benchmark, and used economic and climate forecasts to estimate future rice crops and prices through 2030.
Looking at both moderate and extreme economic and climate change scenarios, they found that it is not a matter of whether rice prices will go up in coming years, but by how much. In the worst-case scenario, the authors predict that by 2030, rice prices will have increased by as much as 1.52 million riel ($370) per tonne – or 88 per cent above the price of $420 a tonne, reported in December.
When those price rises come, they argue, it will be Cambodia’s poorest citizens who suffer most.
“Poor households spend 60 to 80 per cent of their household incomes on food, so if the price goes up, it can impact their access to health care and their children’s education,” Hong said yesterday.
The solution, she said, is for the government to implement a rice policy that prevents violent fluctuations in rice prices.
“The price will increase; the government should be prepared for that,” Hong said. “They can have procurement like in Thailand, where they buy from farmers at a fixed price and some kind of subsidy for consumers [to protect them from price increases].”
But not everyone agrees with such an approach.
“That’s not how markets work, you end up with dependency,” said World Food Programme country director Gianpietro Bordignon. “Cambodia produces much more rice than is consumed locally. The official stats over the last five or six years talk of 9 million tonnes, and consumption is half of that.”
“Now we have a free market, the government does not buy rice,” said General Department of Agriculture director-general Mak Soeun. “What we can do with the smallholders is to support them as cooperatives and help them to grow good product to meet the market’s demand.”
But one proposal offered by Hong that everyone agreed with was to implement better irrigation systems to counteract the reduced rainfalls associated with climate change.
“The main factor is water,” Hong said. “If you irrigate, then the increase to the price of rice under climate change will be less.”
Soeun said the Agriculture Ministry’s engineering department is constantly exploring better irrigation systems but that implementation is the responsibility of the Ministry of Water Resources, whose representatives could not be reached.
Socheath Sou, director of NGO Live and Learn Environmental Education, said that the effects of climate change on Cambodian agriculture have been seen for some time now and more needs to be done to counteract it.
“We have to have good planning; we have to have financial capacity to deal with the impact. We have to have a group of people with good knowledge of climate change adaptation and we need to have good technology,” Sou said. “Without technology, we can’t do anything.”