This special report was produced through a collaboration between Mekong Eye and the Bangkok Post.
The arrival of May once reminded Lin Na that the first rain of the year was on its way. The ground in her small village of Prey Veng province in southern Cambodia would start to soften, dampened by rainfall. This time each year, she would help her family cultivate a two-hectare rice field, the main source of food and income for them throughout the year.
But these fond associations with the rainy season have faded into mere memories. The month of May no longer means anything to her.
Now Lin Na lives in rented accommodation with her family in Chon Buri. She left their farmland in Cambodia to work for a Thai seafood distributor for whom she fillets fish.
She earns four baht per kilogramme of fish for removing their heads. The average amount she can produce daily is 50kg, offering a better pay cut than she could reap as a farmer.
Her husband and her father, who are also former rice farmers, now work on Thai fishing boats. They are like many of her who relatives have migrated to Thailand over the years.
Chronic poverty and a lack of jobs in Cambodia were part of what drove them out of the country.
But the problem also pertained to what falls from the sky.
“The rainy season is no longer the rainy season, nor is summer like summer any more,” said Lin Na. “I can’t remember when exactly the unpredictable weather started. But our crops started failing. We couldn’t make yields from farming any more. So eventually we had to leave behind our farm.”
Once deemed part of the “great green belt” of Cambodia, Prey Veng sits on the floodplains of the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Farmers used to enjoy seasonal flooding that brought nutrient-rich sediments to the soil and lush forest. But the province has lost much of its pristine character due to environmental degradation and man-made natural disasters.
During the civil war and armed conflict that took place from the 1960s to the 1990s, illegal logging was widespread in Prey Veng, among several other provinces, as the Khmer Rouge regime exported timber en masse to Thailand and Vietnam to fund the troops.
Today the logging industry is riddled with corruption from having to meet demand for timber in the black market. Decades of unregulated deforestation have led to environmental disasters like flooding and drought that have victimised millions of people in these areas.
Cambodia remains among the world’s poorest countries years since the civil war.
The country may be free from civil war now, but it’s fighting a new war of sorts as climate change aggravates poverty and already precarious environmental conditions.
Farmers in Prey Veng have experienced storms triggering flooding outside of monsoon season in recent years. Rice plants approaching ripeness were lost in the inundation.
At the same time, periods of drought have been prolonged, leading to crop failures.
In the worst of years, both flooding and drought have occurred, meaning farmers could go a full year without any income.
The intensity and frequency of environmental disasters on the rise, coupled with fears of impending poverty, have provoked a rise in out-migration from Prey Veng.
Lin Na’s husband Nuan described the current feeling of their community as “depressing”.
“There’s only less than 10 young and strong men in the community,” he said. “All the rest are women or elderly. It’s very quiet whenever I visit there.”
Over time, Cambodians have slowly trickled into Thailand. At a fishing village on the coast of Chon Buri, a four-hour drive from the Thai-Cambodia border, whole rows of single-storey accommodation are occupied by Cambodian migrants.
Migrant women can be seen seated on stools in front of their rented units, filleting fishes or cleaning fishing nets as part of their daily tasks, while the men are away on fishing boats.
But those who manage to get days off from their employers rest in their rooms. Some workers lie in hammocks while listening to pop music from their smartphones. Children run from one room to the other. The smell of raw fish hangs in the air.
It is common to see migrant families crossing the border together, bound by the same hope that they can find opportunity in Thailand that is impossible to find at home.
Climate change is expected to lead to a surge in internal and international migrants seeking refuge from extreme weather conditions, sea rising and crop failure — threats that remain serious should we fail to limit global temperature rise to well below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the increasing incidences and intensity of extreme weather events will lead to displacement due to the loss of residential areas and economic disruption.
Over the long term, these environmental changes will significantly affect migration flows and the trend of rural-to-urban migrants. The IPCC has predicted that the risk associated with extreme weather events will continue to increase as the global mean temperature rises.
According to the Cambodian National Committee for Disaster Management, flooding and drought have been the country’s most threatening and recurrent environmental disasters since 1996, affecting over 12 million and 2.8 million people respectively.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2018, conducted by the non-governmental organisation Germanwatch, ranked Cambodia 15 out of the 182 countries most affected by extreme weather from 1997 to 2016. The country has lost US$243 million in purchasing power parities.
The ten most affected countries in the report feature other developing nations including Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The local livelihoods and economy of these countries depend largely on natural resources with local populations that have limited adaptive capacities to climate change.
“Migration has long been identified as a central strategy for reducing a household’s vulnerability to environmental risks and economic shocks, such as crop failures or loss of productive assets, by offering income generation alternatives,” said Troy Dooley, programme manager for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Cambodia.
“Cambodia’s dependence on natural resources, exposure and sensitivity to climate change, its relatively limited adaptive capacity, increasing pressure on the lives and livelihoods of rural communities caused by the intensification of environmental degradation, natural disasters and climate change are expected to escalate the current trend of high rural to urban migration and international migration in the coming years.”
As of March, Thai government data showed that over 770,900 Cambodian migrants, meaning 5% of the total population of Cambodia, are currently living in Thailand. Some NGOs estimate that the actual number could be up to one million.
The IOM’s 2016 report, Assessing Vulnerabilities and Responses to Environmental Changes in Cambodia, states that the majority of Cambodian migrants enter Thailand illegally, with less than 10% migrating through official channels. This can expose them to exploitation and abuse by traffickers.
Other common destinations for Cambodian migrants are Malaysia and South Korea.
Women are increasingly migrating, although they have traditionally been tasked with taking care of the house.
During the drought crisis of 2015, Thun, a Cambodian migrant, and his wife decided to cross the border into Thailand on foot. They paid a broker to meet them at the border and take them to a fishing operator in an eastern province, making them indebted to the loaner.
“The year we moved out from our village was so hot, we were basically burning,” said Thun, a former farmer at Mean Chey commune in Kampong Thom province. “We had to pay the unexpected costs during the drought. It was out of control.”
The worst drought to hit in several decades was caused by a long period of strong El Nino reducing rainfall across Southeast Asia. A total of 2.5 million people from across Cambodia suffered water shortages.
A canal nearby Thun’s rice field dried up. He had to buy diesel to operate a water pump for extracting groundwater, but still his rice plant stood dying in the heat.
Crop failure meant increasing debt for his family. With no food and income from farming, he had to borrow money from a loaner to feed his family of seven. To make matters worse, he had already incurred debt from another extreme weather event four years ago when he lost harvested cassava to the off-season rain. The debt accumulated from these events led he and his wife to eventually migrate, leaving their children behind.
Small-scale farmers face higher stakes than large-scale ones in extreme weather events. According to the World Bank, growth in the agricultural sector reduced poverty headcounts in Cambodia from 50% to 21% between 2007 and 2011. However, the number of vulnerable people has increased significantly, especially small-scale farmers owning less than a hectare of land.
Their ability to adopt more productive technology and integrate into modern food value chains are limited, especially without the necessary infrastructure like irrigation systems.
On handling the hostile weather, Thun says, “No one can help us. We must help ourselves.”
THE DRIVE TO ADAPT
“Cambodia is one of the countries expected to be much more vulnerable to climate change,” said Maryann Bylander, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, the United States. “That’s not necessarily because of the specific vulnerability that Cambodia has as much as its lack of capacity to adapt.
“There’s a lot of talk about how could we increase adaptation strategies. How can we create policies and programmes that will help people adapt to the ways that the environment is likely to change in ways that are going to improve their livelihoods? In that conversation, there needs to be a broader recognition that people are already migrating in response to climate change and environmental stress.”
Her study on the role of environmental shocks on migration in Chanleas Dai, a rural commune in Siem Reap province that experienced several consecutive years of flooding and droughts, found that migration becomes “a choice informed by several years of seeing the risks and rewards of investing in rice farming.”
It has further become a strategy for locals to cope with landless, land-poor, indebted households and low-risk alternatives.
NGOs projects have been implemented in Chanleas Dai to increase small-scale agriculture capacities, deploying strategies like increasing crop yield, crop diversification and deploying new strategies for selling crops in local markets. However, the programmes have been unsuccessful in keeping people in the community due to their inability to lessen the threat of environmental insecurity, and the availability of easier and more secure income abroad.
“Policies around climate adaptation seeking to lessen vulnerability in a place of climate change and in areas where migration is already common are probably not very successful because they are not accounting for the ways people are already coping with problems,” said Bylander.
Disregarding migration as part of a coping strategy with such problems as environmental stress could force migrants into even more vulnerable conditions.
In June last year, the exodus of migrant workers unexpectedly disrupted the Thai economy after the government implemented a new law featuring tougher prison sentences and expensive fines for migrants living and working undocumented in Thailand. Though the government has eased up on certain penalties under public pressure, the fear among migrant workers remains.
Border posts in Thailand were flooded with unregistered migrant workers rushing to leave the country. Some carried only a few belongings with them — sacks with clothes, bed linens, pillows, small TV sets and fans.
Several Cambodian migrants were reported to Khlong Luek Boundary Post in Aranyaprathet, the Thai border town adjacent to Poi Pet town of Cambodia, to surrender to police as they requested deportation.
Khom, a Cambodian migrant worker, decided to stay in Thailand despite her undocumented status. She hid in her rented room while her daughter fled back to Cambodia, fearing arrest.
Khom’s family has been indebted since their cassava plantation failed to make profit after several droughts. They sold their farmland to pay off only a portion of the debt. She says her daughter will likely have to return to Thailand soon, although she will face the risk of arrest by Thai officials and human trafficking.
Other migrant workers who left during the mass exodus shared their intention to return to Thailand as they were unable to continue farming, nor pursue any stable economic pursuit at home.
The migrant worker law was implemented due to international pressure on Thailand for failing to halt human trafficking. The country has been criticised for treating international migration like a security issue instead of embracing the reality that migrants play an important role in the Thai economy.
With the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeding 410 parts per million in April, the highest CO2 in millions of years, according to measurements from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, it begs the question: who will be responsible for human displacement caused by climate change?
As people clamber to leave their homes and cross borders, security measures are only being tightened to block them from escaping these unlivable places.
Thailand, one of Southeast Asia’s top carbon emitters, has implemented mitigation and adaptation action plans to improve water management efficiency, sustainable tourism, human security and settlement. However, migration has yet to be considered a key part of the climate strategy.
“The impact of climate change on international migration has yet to fully manifest in Thailand,” said Pirun Saiyasitpanich, director of the Climate Change Management and Coordination Division of Thailand. “However, in the scenario that the world fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will not be able to avoid disasters that displace large numbers of climate refugees.”
The Cambodian government has implemented the Climate Change Strategic Plan 2014-2023 stating the needs to increase adaptive capacity for local populations, especially those in the agriculture sector. Prime Minister Hun Sen has acknowledged that flooding can damage the country’s economy. He even encouraged “green growth” to combat climate change.
However, his economy policy may tell a different story. Since the 2000s, conflict over land and natural resources have worsened as the government hands out long-term land leases to foreign and domestic investors under the Economic Land Concessions policy. Some investors have reportedly ignored social and environmental precautions, with irresponsible development causing local communities to suffer from land loss and environmental degradation. Under these conditions, it has proven more challenging for locals, especially the poor, to increase their adaptive capacity.
Late in the afternoon, Haroun Sles, a young Cambodian farmer turned fishing boat worker, often visits his future mother-in-law at her rental accommodation in Samae San fishing village in Chon Buri. He too left his small farmland as it is no longer profitable. His fiancé is waiting for him in Cambodia.
“I began to see my fortunes change since I moved here two years ago,” he said.
“I’m saving money to marry a woman and buy a new land. I’ll try planting rice again. Why not? With enough savings, I will install an irrigation system on my land, and it will work out this time. But it won’t happen so soon. I need more time. I can’t go home right now.” n
This story is produced in collaboration with The Mekong Eye, a media resource for sustainable development, a project of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
See related story on climate migration https://www.mekongeye.com/2018/07/16/strong-cities-needed/