Cambodia has been slow from the blocks when it comes to assessing the impact of global warming, but environmental jobs are starting to appear as the country wakes to the threat.
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON AND ELEANOR AINGE ROY (INSET)
With global warming putting coastal regions in the path of rising sea levels, job opportunities are also expected to be on the rise for environmental science students like Uk Leakhena (inset), who is studying the effect of climate change on Sihanoukville’s coastline (above) for her thesis.
CLIMATE change may not be everybody's favourite type of change, but the study of the unfolding disaster is certainly deeply in vogue. Everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Stephen Hawkings has weighed in on it, and youth everywhere have responded strongly to the wider environmental movement.
Everywhere but Cambodia, that is. Here, climate change is proving slower to catch on, competing as it does with the more immediate threats of poverty, HIV/AIDS and the general challenges facing any developing country.
However ,things are starting to change and, according to experts, studying climate change could prove a wise and lucrative career move.
"I have heard from lecturers at the Royal University of Phnom Penh that all students graduating in recent years with a bachelor of science majoring in environmental science have gotten jobs," said Nop Polin, national co-ordinator of the local Climate Change Unit of GERES (Groupement Energies Renouvelables, Environnement et Solidarite), a French NGO working in the carbon credit market.
"Some have gotten high-profile jobs, and even though lecturers would like them to partake in research for a little bit of money, they refuse because they have better offers."
However, to compete for jobs with expatriates, Nop Polin said students needed to travel overseas to find post-graduate opportunities unavailable in Cambodia.
The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) currently has 110 students enrolled in its four-year environmental science course, which has a climate change component introduced only in 2006. This year, four students have undertaken climate change-related research for their final year thesis, but course lecturer Kok Sothea said more and more students were becoming interested every year.
There is only one school ... that trains students in environmental science, and this is not enough.
"I think these students will become potential resources for Cambodian society," he said. "The job market for our graduates is wide open. Five batches of our alumni have found good employment, and some have had chances to pursue further study overseas."
Kok Sothea believes climate change is an inter-disciplinary dilemma, meaning more needs to be done to promote cooperation between students from environment studies and those in fishery, forestry, geography and water resources. "Climate change is now one of the hottest topics around the globe, so educating our students is vital," he said.
Uk Leakhena, a fourth-year environmental science student at RUPP, is in the process of writing her final thesis on sea level rise in coastal Sihanoukville.
She first became interested in climate change after studying the subject in her third year and taking a three-month internship in the climate change department at the Ministry of Environment. After completing her thesis, she would like to study overseas and then return to Cambodia to work in the sector full-time.
"A lot of students are interested in this subject now. I have had five students contact me recently, wanting to get involved with my research," she said.
"The problem is, there are not enough internships available for students to learn about climate change hands-on. The most useful resource for me has been finding advisors and tutors to teach me, and there needs to be more opportunities for this type of learning available."
Ngov Veng is one of the lucky ones. Also a fourth-year environmental science student at RUPP, he has been interning with the GERES Climate Change Unit for the past seven months, researching unsustainable fuel wood consumption in Phnom Chumriey in Kampong Chhnang province.
Ngov Veng, whose parents are vegetable sellers, first became concerned about the effects of climate change when he learned about acid rain in high school. He was worried that changing weather patterns would adversely affect his family's livelihood and that of the wider agrarian-based population in Cambodia.
He said he planned to form a climate change discussion group and share reports and ideas via email after he finished his thesis.
"I think one of the biggest challenges for the sector is human resources," he said. "There is only one school - The Royal University of Phnom Penh - that trains students in environmental science, and this is not enough.
"To combat climate change we have to change human behaviour. The first goal is to improve general knowledge, and the second is to change public attitudes. But to be honest I am not interested in that - I care about the science, and for that I will have to get a scholarship to study overseas."
Opportunity in crisis
Callum McCulloch, project manager for Fauna and Flora International's University Capacity Building Program, said NGOs in Cambodia were suffering under the strains of the economic crisis, and many were looking to replace highly paid foreign experts with local talent.
He also predicted a rise in the NGO conservation sector in the coming years - meaning more jobs - as the burgeoning middle class found more time and money for the cause.
McCulloch believed Cambodian students were more than qualified for the transition as they increasingly came equipped with the critical thinking skills required, namely those geared towards problem solving and creativity.
"Foreign experts are expensive, and local experts are cheaper, so there's a change occurring in the conservation field," he said. "I believe this is a good opportunity for these guys to really get into roles which were previously taken by foreign experts, and I think it's a good thing - it's a great thing.
"They are very capable and it had to happen sooner or later, and it's better to happen now."