THE Ministry of Environment has told Cambodian rice farmers to refrain from planting crops in the midst of a drought heightened by record temperatures due to this year’s El Nino phenomenon. Temperatures are expected to peak in April and May.
“Every year, [farmers usually] harvest crops several times [each year], but due to the impact from El Nino this year, the government is appealing to people not to plant during this period,” Neth Pheaktra, the spokesman and secretary of state for the Minister of Environment, told The Post.
Communities in 16 provinces around the Kingdom have reported water shortages due to higher than average temperatures – a stark reality for a nation more accustomed to dealing with floods than droughts.
A tributary of the Tonle Sap river in Kampong Thom province has dried out, where a local rice farmer said he had been relying on eating lotus roots to survive.
“My farm usually only produces one harvest each year, so I’m used to living on lotus roots, but there are some farmers who grow two yields each year and they can now only produce one,” he said.
About 75 per cent of the Kingdom’s agricultural land is devoted to growing rice, and Cambodia exports about three per cent of the world’s supply, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO].
Pheaktra said his office, in conjunction with the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, has been distributing fertiliser and water to communities hit by drought.
The Mekong River Commission [MRC] Secretariat, which works to jointly manage the water resources of the river shared by member nations Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and its sustainable development, told The Post that it “stands ready to support its member countries, including Cambodia, which is experiencing abnormally higher temperatures”.
“It is a good move by Cambodia’s Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology to notify farmers earlier so that they can be more vigilant."
“Most farmers will get lower rice yields and perhaps insufficient agricultural crop production due to insufficient rainwater [in Cambodia’s case]."
“In some areas such as Kampong Cham and Takeo, there are some potential plant diseases and strange insects [which may take hold] by high air temperature. The situation is normally resolved when the rain comes,” it said.
Pheaktra said that temperatures in Cambodia will reach 40-42 Celsius between April and May this year.
“Higher temperatures associated with El Nino can lead to forest fires and water shortages,” he said.
The MRC Secretariat said that along with lower agricultural productivity, people’s livelihoods and health could be affected this season.
“Drought causes water shortages in communities which need water for daily use. People need to go far to fetch water for daily consumption from wells or natural ponds.
“Water quality can also become the main issue when water for daily needs cannot be supplied. This can cause some major waterborne diseases to affect local households, such as diarrhoea,” the MRC Secretariat said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen called the last El Nino fuelled drought in 2016 “the worst natural disaster to hit Cambodia in 100 years”.
Fortunately, climatologists consulted by the Mekong River Commission predict that this year will not be as severe as the 2015-16 phenomenon.
“Unlike this year, the El Nino of 2015-16 was considered a double El Nino event as it was supposed to arrive in 2010-11 but did not happen until 2015-16.”
The Ministry of Environment is undertaking efforts to avoid a similar fate this year.
“We cannot water [crops], and in some areas, the shortage of water [has restricted] daily activities . . . the El Nino phenomenon is not just affecting Cambodia, but also other countries in the Mekong region like Myanmar, Vietnam [and] Laos,” said Pheaktra.
Farmers usually adjust for the dry season by planting fewer crops, especially rice. However, a later arrival of the monsoon season and prolonged dry spells during the wet season may cause them concern this year.
“It is usual for farmers to get enough rain during the wet season or irrigated water from irrigation systems connected to their land. When [dry spells continue too long], crops become prone to die out,” the MRC Secretariat said.