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Cambodia’s rice bowl remains half full

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A rice field in Battambang dries up in the heat of a prolonged drought last year. Hong Menea

Cambodia’s rice bowl remains half full

Dust swirls in the distance of vast rice fields flanking north-connecting National Road 6. It signals the start of the dry season in Cambodia. There is no human activity, as the heat is stifling.

March to June are the hottest months. The balmy days can hit 43 Celcius, triggering the brisk sale of air conditioners and fans in the cities. In the provinces though, farming communities brace for the harsh weather.

Every year, the drought is said to be longer than the previous year although rainfall is projected to rise in wet seasons. Most times the outcome is different.

In Toul Chreav village in Pursat province, traditional rice farmer Say Ny prepares for the solo planting season that begins in May.

He remains placid on this year’s performance, although last year’s harvest yielded good results due to higher rainfall. “I will leave it to nature to determine output,” he said.

Nearby, a long canal project is taking off. It is the first he has seen despite talks of it in previous years. The promise of uninterrupted supply of water is alluring, yet Ny remains sceptical.

“I have never seen an agriculture infrastructure built here. We have solely depended on rainfall to feed our fields for generations,” said the 52-year-old farmer who owns 10ha of rice fields, inherited from his ancestors.

His scepticism has a deeper inference.

Agriculture infrastructures have been built in farming provinces, with many in the pipeline but these architectures lack insight.

Seen as game changers to rice production, with the likelihood of raising output, irrigation canals are only so good as being connected to a water source.

As of 2008, rice farming constituted 2.6 million hectares out of 3.31 million hectares of arable land.

Permanent crops and rubber plantations made up less than one million hectares.

Out of the total land, only seven to eight per cent is irrigated while 10 per cent is supplementary irrigated. The remaining 80 per cent relies on rainfall.

In 2017, 28.5 per cent of the national climate budget was spent on irrigation, the highest allocation compared to other climate-related segments such as road improvement, climate-affected livelihood, and climate disaster preparedness and management.

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Irrigation and water supply fall under the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MoWRAM), which soaked up the largest funds at 37 per cent of the budget that year, said a report produced by The NGO Forum on Cambodia entitled Cambodia’s Citizens Climate Budget for 2017.

“Water is the biggest problem due to extreme weather. Rice farms cannot survive drought. Animals also suffer.

“So, the authorities dug out irrigation canals but the water has since dried because it was not connected to a water source.

“This is prevalent in many provinces,” said Keo Keang, an independent consultant for the farming and climate change industry.

From her observation, some 80 per cent of the community she worked with usually leave their provinces to take up construction work during the dry season to make ends meet, and return later in the rainy season.

“Many farmers simply give up because they cannot cope,” said the former president for US-based Heifer International Cambodia, an organisation that supports women farmers.

Year-on-year, the figure fluctuates on unpredictable weather. Last year, rice production totalled 10.6 million tonnes – marginally higher than 10 million tonnes in 2018.

However, this data is a rough estimate procured from various sources, as the authorities claim its disclosure is sensitive, even though the rice sector forms the nation’s second largest export market.

The fact that the farming industry teeters on the onslaught of climate change with secretive figures, questionable budget allocations for climate projects and the lack of initiative to see them through, is somewhat damning.

In Cambodia, about 75 per cent of the population is involved in the agriculture sector. The sector contributed 32.1 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011.

Having said that, the Climate Change Strategic Plan (2014-2023) identifies agriculture as being the most affected by it, with 90 per cent of losses from extreme events related to crop harvest failure.

And this impact is closely connected to water resources shortage.

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It also threatens Cambodia’s food security, and hits on the poverty level as crop damage and lower wages can push the highly indebted communityfurther below the line.

Given the gravity of the impact, the government has been gradually increasing climate change expenditure.

Its proportion to the GDP, the expenditure rose marginally to one per cent in 2017 from 0.9 per cent a year ago, underpinned by larger external and domestic fundings.

In absolute terms, total climate expenditure rose 23 per cent to 912 billion riel ($221 million) in 2017 from 770 billion riel in 2016.

Unfortunately, only 10 per cent was spent on the agriculture and fisheries sectors.

Despite the increased allocation, the sum is paltry compared to the total national budget of 20,556 billion riel in 2017, and when balanced against the actual benefit to combating climate change.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance’s Climate Public Expenditure Review 2017 (CPER) revealed that once climate change relevance weights are applied to the budget, it only constituted 3.2 per cent of the total public expenditure, the same level in 2016. It dipped from 4.3 per cent in 2015.

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Simply put, 70 per cent of that total budget was spent without climate change benefits, 27 per cent with partial benefits and only three per cent with exclusive climate benefits.

“Climate change is cross-cutting. There are 14 ministries to tackle and respond to climate change. How is $225 million sufficient to cover sub-national levels?” asked The NGO Forum’s environment and agriculture programme manager Hok Menghoin.

Cambodia is a tiny emitter of carbon dioxide. In 2000, it released 47.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent into the atmosphere but the forests absorbed 48 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

However, the consequence of rising temperature puts Cambodia as the eighth most vulnerable country to disasters.

What lies beneath?

Here is the rub. It is not just the lack of funds that is scuppering the national climate action plan.

Rather, transparency and accountability over the usage of funds, whether for climate change or other sectors, affect the functionality of climate-related projects.

This is why The NGO Forum asked that civil society organisations and citizens be allowed to participate in decision-making, monitor spending on the ground, and hold the government accountable for managing public money.

Therefore, people and organisations need access to complete, timely, detailed and understandable information on the government’s budget plans.

Another setback is related to the implementation of climate action plans within ministries which involves abiding by climate policies and bylaws in the National Council for Sustainable Development.

“Cambodia wants to align itself with international procedures. We have those policies. They are good and the words are beautiful but what is the point when application is low?” Menghoin said.

The limited ownership of climate action plans in the ministries and its implementation is perhaps related to underfunding, suggests the mid-term review of Climate Change Strategic Plan in 2019.

For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ technical working group, which was created to develop the climate action plan, was unclear of its function after the plan was approved.

Another example Menghoin shares is the construction of a road where the cost is lower than a climate change resilient infrastructure.

“So it becomes a challenge. How does the ministry execute the projects by taking into consideration adaptation and climate change measures when it is expensive? I don’t think many comply due to high costs,” he said.

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This pushes ministries to seek additional financial resources to implement climate action plans as they are short of government funds.

In 2017 alone, some 692 billion riel was required to conduct climate adaptation and mitigation works.

But here too, the CPER warns that climate financing should aim not only at attracting new resources. It should also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of significant climate-related expenditures.

In any case, the government found it difficult to mobilise resources as the action plans were not even integrated in sector plans and the National Strategic Development Plan, which is the basis for budget allocation.

In an interview last month, Ministry of Environment spokesman Neak Pheaktra acknowledged that the success of the Kingdom’s climate goals hinged upon the lack of funds and implementation of action plans by the ministries.

It is not enough that his ministry alone does its level best to meet the goals outlined in its pledges made under the UN Framework on Climate Change and Paris Climate Agreement ratifications.

Pheaktra said there has to be more emphasis on knowledge and capacity building in the ministries that includes training the staff to understand the impact of climate change.

At the same time, it will seek for increased funding assistance from development partners and the Green Climate Fund.

Three years ago, donors for climate change expenditure comprised the Asian Development Bank (35 per cent), China (29 per cent), and Japan (seven per cent).

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The impact from the shortage of funds is apparent for the rice sector, said Directorate of Agriculture director-general Nhim Chhay.

“Often, we cannot do much such as build canals as that comes under MoWRAM.

“Rice needs a lot of water unlike vegetable crops which are able to grow with minimum water.

“We have built grid irrigation for that sector but for rice fields, we are hampered by funds,” said Chhay.

Nevertheless, the department is ready to help farmers by distributing 1,000 tonnes of seeds from its reserve to poor farmers across Cambodia, and provide smart agriculture capacity building trainings.

“We have a 2,000 tonne seed reserve and are trying to develop climate resilient rice varieties.

“This is what we can do now while seeking a higher allocation from the budget. But it is difficult to get more,” he said.

“Some years were good”

For Ny, who works the fields with his 49-year-old wife, the days of rice farming is coming to a close. He plans to retire in 10 years as age is catching up.

“I suffer nearly $2,000 whenever my crop is damaged by drought, floods or pests.

“We had some good years but there were bad years too. Still, I managed to send my seven children to school and university with what we earned and small loans.

“These days, I can’t tell anymore. I don’t make much like before. When it is time to retire, my wife and I will survive by planting fruits and vegetable, and raise cattle for daily living,” he said.

Moving forward, with the unpredictable weather wreaking havoc in the agriculture sector, coupled with weak climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, more farmers might just turn in their tools than risk taking a gamble year after year.

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