Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Around 85 percent of Cambodians depend on the land, putting them very much in harm’s way when it comes to climate change.
THE threat of climate change is gradually making its way to the top of policymakers agenda's worldwide, but in Cambodia such action is proving slower to catch on.
But with 85 percent of Cambodia's 14 million people living in rural areas and largely relying on the land for their survival, according to United Nations estimates, the issue could soon be a critical one.
What will these people do if the land begins to revolt?
GERES, an environmental NGO, released a climate change awareness report in March that showed that 85 percent of Cambodian people are already beginning to see the effects of climate change.
The report cited "unprecedented occurrences of pests, unseasonable rains, droughts and floods" in many areas of Cambodia and said these exacerbated the difficulties faced by people reliant on agricultural systems for their livelihood.
"People speak of the increase in temperature, the irregularity of the wet and dry season, and the growing prevalence of floods and droughts," said Nop Polin, national climate change awareness coordinator in GERES's Climate Change Unit.
"However, one of the main challenges in the battle against climate change in Cambodia is that most people don't know why these changes are occurring. They don't understand the term climate change or any of the causes - such as smoke and deforestation. Without understanding the scientific links they don't care about things like cutting down the forest."
According to the report, 61 percent of people interviewed stated they were "very concerned" about climate change, and 97 percent of those that had heard of climate change said they believed they would be affected.
The most important thing is for people to start taking individual responsibility by choosing to change.
However as an indication of the low level of detailed knowledge concerning climate change, most respondents to the GERES survey viewed climate change as a localised issue.
Ing Heng, deputy dean of the faculty of science at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has seen firsthand the changes documented in the GERES report. "The changes taking place day-to-day are not very noticeable," he said.
"But if we look back 20 or 30 years, old people will tell you the weather was different then. Young people today don't appreciate the difference because they don't know what it used to be like here."
Worse to come
But these changes being noted across the land are just the beginning.
According to the UN Development Programme's Environmental and Energy Team Leader Lay Khim, if Cambodia fails to respond swiftly to the threat of climate change it faces the possibility of sea level rises of 20 to 60 centimetres by the end of the century, an increase in malaria and other waterborne diseases, acute water shortages and a shortage of clean water.
Lay Khim is adamant that the Cambodian government must start preparing more long-term strategies to deal with the looming threat of climate change and prioritise communication with development agencies and NGOs. Climate change needs to be addressed as a development issue, he said, and co-operation between government departments - such as health, environment and agricultural - is crucial.
"We need to get serious about long-term policy planning," he said. "Scientists are aware of the threat but we don't yet know how big it is, and it's very important to start preparing the mindset of the population today, and also investigating investment options in technology, in information, in capacity building to prepare communities for the changes that will come."
The Ministry of Environment established its own climate change unit in 2006, but many experts are concerned that with only seven full-time employees its capacity is too limited.
Nop Polin was also concerned the unit was not focused enough on awareness raising and was worried about political interference in environmental concerns.
"Deforestation is one of our major concerns but it is very hard to talk about it - even people from the Ministry of Environment find it hard to talk about - because it involves high-ranked people doing such things," he said.
"In our reports we just recommend re-forestation - instead of explicitly criticising deforestation."
Ing Heng criticises the climate change unit for being ‘all talk, no action' though he concedes that their resources are too limited to do any substantial good.
Lay Khim called for the unit to expand and better support the development partners starting to take an interest in Cambodia's environmental issues and provide technical support to the industrial sectors to integrate climate change policies into their business plans.
"I envision over the next two to three years there will be more and more demands on this office to provide more co-ordination, better information sharing and better support of development partners," he said. "At its current capacity it will not be able to provide these services."
In the face of growing acknowledgement of the threat of climate change, NGOs working in the sector are finding there skills and knowledge in demand.
For instance, GERES has lately had requests for carbon audits from Phnom Penh hospitality business the FCC, the British Embassy and UNDP. It has also had over 100 applicants apply for a training course on climate change it will run in July.
But for Ing Heng, a lack of money to implement the programs required to address the impacts of global warming means it is ultimately down to individuals to make the changes needed for their own families and communities.
"Cambodia is a poor country and it doesn't have much money to spend on climate change," he said.
"Rural people care for the forests, they care for the land, but at the moment they are too poor to look after it properly. People in the cities have a high knowledge of climate change - but they are not doing anything.
"The most important thing is for people to start taking individual responsibility by choosing to change."