Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Can Cambodia’s farmers survive climate change?

Aug 05. 2018
Sieng Hay, 24, works alone in her families rice field now that declining productivity due to climate change has caused her husband to seek work in Malaysia. picture: HENG HAK
Sieng Hay, 24, works alone in her families rice field now that declining productivity due to climate change has caused her husband to seek work in Malaysia. picture: HENG HAK
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Special for The Nation

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THE afternoon clouds did little to take the edge off the extreme heat Yan Horl endures toiling in his rice field in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province. He arrives home exhausted.

Just a few years ago, the 58-year-old could eke out a living on his one-hectare plot in the village of Trapeang Cham. Yields that routinely exceeded three tonnes now barley surpass two as rising temperatures and a greater propensity for disease reduce productivity.

Horl’s travails are not unique, and illustrate just part of a deeper story of threats to Cambodia’s food security and farmers responsible for achieving it.

In the end, farmers like Horl are spending more money on fertiliser, insecticides and diesel to fuel their water pumps.

“I pump water onto my field for two days in a row and a few days later the water is all dried up. But when it rains, it rains too much and insects come to destroy our rice,” Horl says.

Yan Horl (left) and his neighbor discuss the growing hardship changing weather patterns have brought to those in their community persevering to make ends meet. picture by HENG HAK

None of the US$515 (Bt17,000) received from his last harvest went toward supporting his family.

Then there’s the physical toll. “There is nothing to stifle the rising heat, which also affects our health,” he says.

Yang Phirom, an organic-rice expert who previously advised the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, says that nearly 90 per cent of the Cambodian population are farmers who largely depend on rain. 

With the arrival of climate change, he says, “Sometimes it doesn’t rain and it’s very hot, making the rice yield drop. In contrast, when it’s almost harvest season, rain falls and destroys the harvest.”

Back in the 1990s, Horl says, it was common for family members to head abroad off and on for a few years and send money home. He and many of his friends did so. Now they don’t come back. His daughter Vanny and son Vanna have both gone to Thailand to work in the fishery industry, with no plans to return. 

At least a million Cambodians are currently working in Thailand. Trapeang Cham is home to 128 families, but Horl reckons that more than 50 per cent have migrated because farming is too risky and there are no 

 other opportunities.

Though Cambodia remains an agricultural country, farm employment is declining dramatically from 80 per cent in 1993 to about 40 per cent last year and projected to fall below 30 per cent by 2030.

Women who are often left behind inherit expanded domestic and farming responsibilities. Ever since her husband left to work in Malaysia several years ago, Sieng Hay, 24, has risen before dawn daily to make breakfast for the six-member family before heading out to the fields. While returning home, Hay collects grass for the family’s cows, hunts for crabs and snails, and cuts vegetables to make dinner.

Struggling to respond

To adapt to changing weather conditions, the government has bred new rice species in addition to distributing over 10,000 tonnes of rice for people affected by recent droughts and floods.

As Trapeang Cham continues to face rising temperatures, domestic water shortages and insufficient irrigation have become more frequent.

Yan Horl says that, in the 1990s, villagers retrieved water from three wells that were less than nine metres deep. As groundwater shortages began to take hold, the families employed a local company to sink a well 16 metres further. 

Such local investments are insufficient, however, says village chief Chy Luk, adding that rising temperatures cost farmers more money. Luk, whose son and two grandsons have migrated, hopes the village can build an additional pond.

But it’s unclear how the pond will help them overcome the kind of drought the country experienced two years ago when 15 provinces and 2.5 million people were affected.

Heng Hak is an independent journalist based in Phnom Penh. The story was produced in cooperation with Mekong Eye, a project of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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