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Drought: a year-round issue

People plant rice seedlings in a rice paddy that is usually submerged last year in Kampong Speu province. Even as El Niño weakens, this year’s forecasts predict that March to August will be hotter than average by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius.
People plant rice seedlings in a rice paddy that is usually submerged last year in Kampong Speu province. Even as El Niño weakens, this year’s forecasts predict that March to August will be hotter than average by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius. Victoria Mørck Madsen

Drought: a year-round issue

Like many Cambodian festivals, Khmer New Year is about the change of the seasons, when farmers enjoy the bounty of their harvest before the rains begin again.

Except this year, it looks like there will not be much rain for the next rice crop. And we’d best get prepared now, rather than wait for the consequences.

You may already be feeling the heat outside the air-conditioned offices and coffee shops of the cities, and rest assured that the poor will be feeling it too.

Government and international organisations are already urging people to save water, and planning for possible food shortages in the worst-affected areas.

Commonly, in Cambodia drought response is triggered when there are three weeks of abnormally low rainfall during the wet season.

Strictly speaking, that doesn’t apply right now, but that doesn’t mean there’s been no dry spell.

Far from it. Moreover, knock-on effects from previous poor wet seasons can make dry seasons longer.

We’re actually in a longer-term pattern of increasingly severe weather that we’re only just beginning to understand. It’s undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change, and by phenomena like El Niño.

Last year saw record sea surface temperature increases, greatly surpassing those seen during other significant El Niño weather events that occurred in 1997 and 1985. Even as El Niño weakens, this year’s forecasts predict that March to August will be hotter than average by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius.

As of March 2016, water shortages were being reported across Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces, with other provinces starting to report similar concerns.

In Koh Kong, an assessment by NGOs Save the Children, Care, and People in Need shows that household daily water consumption throughout March was far less than a typical year.

No water was available through rainwater harvest systems (the main source of community fresh water in March).

That’s not all. Because the staple crops are grown in a year-round cycle, a poor wet season like last year’s can have a knock-on effect. We’re already seeing a possible 5 per cent decrease in rice production compared with this time in 2015.

That may not seem like much overall, but the impact is not experienced evenly across all farmers. Some are harder hit than others, and to a family living on the poverty line, a shortfall can mean the difference between subsistence and crisis.

It’s not just rice, either. In the delicate Mekong ecosystem, water levels were much lower last year, affecting fish breeding. That’s led to a 17.1 per cent reduction in production of the country’s most important source of protein.

There’s also economics involved. When supply is down, prices go up, again meaning that very low-income families can be badly affected. If they can’t afford to eat, they either have to sell their belongings, take out high interest loans or migrate in search of work – disrupting communities and putting the vulnerable at risk.

It’s better to be prepared and be ready before a crisis occurs. Government and partners need to monitor the situation carefully and ensure emergency food and water stocks are ready and available, just in case. We also need to work together on educating farmers on how to deal with the changing climate and make the most of what water they do have.

Meanwhile, a recent University of Stanford study on groundwater and irrigation found that Cambodian groundwater resources are at risk of over-pumping. Stanford’s simulations showed that more shallow wells were going dry during the dry season, “leading to additional wells drying up in as few as two years and remaining dry year-round over large regions in as few as five years”.

In 15 to 20 years, the country’s groundwater levels might drop to a point where suction pumps are no longer able to lift water to the surface.

As groundwater depletes, so do the wells and other water resources that the poor depend on. There will have to be a change in practices and an update to more efficient technology in order to overcome these challenges.

All the above shows that we must continue working on securing longer-term water sources in order to limit the impact of a changing climate on those most at risk. Unlike the land, the needs of the poor won’t dry up.

Peter-Bo Larsen is the country director of DanChurchAid/Christian Aid. Piotr Sasin is the country director of People in Need. They collaborated on this editorial on behalf of the Joint Action Group (JAG), a non-formal group of civil society organisations working in Cambodia on disaster-risk reduction and disaster management.

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