The Mekong Eye Original was produced in cooperation with The Nation.
The afternoon clouds did little to take the edge off the extreme heat Yan Horl endures toiling in his rice field. He arrives home exhausted. Not even half an hour later, intense thunderstorms bring heavy rain and lightning strikes. Now wearing only shorts to counter the heat and humidity, Horl and his neighbor discuss the growing hardship changing weather patterns have brought to them and others in their community persevering to make ends meet by cultivating food.
Just a few years ago, the 58-year old farmer could eek out a living from his one-hectare plot in Trapeang Cham village in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province. But his yields that routinely exceeded three tons, now barley surpass two as rising temperatures and a greater propensity for disease reduce productivity.
Worse still, his inputs of fertilizer, insecticides and diesel to fuel his water pump have all had to increase.
Horl’s travails are not unique, and illustrate just part of a deeper story of threats to Cambodia’s food security and the farmers responsible for delivering it.
“I pump water onto my rice field for two days in a row and just a few days later, the water dries up. But if it rains, it rains too much and insects come to destroy our rice,” Horl adds.
The end result, he’s not making any money. He received only US$515 for his last harvest, none of it went toward supporting his family.
There is a physical toll too Horl stresses, as temperatures in the field are noticeably hotter than five to ten years ago.
“And when I’m home I turn on the fan around the clock. There is nothing to stifle the rising heat, which also affects our health,” he says.
The gloomy picture nationwide
Yang Phirom, an organic rice farming expert, says that between 85 and 90 percent of the Cambodian population are farmers who largely depend on rain. He says that climate change is contributing to a decline in agricultural output.
“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,” says Phirom, who is also a former adviser to the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture.
Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management recognizes that, “low agricultural yields due to extended drought has increased,” adding insult to injury of Cambodia’s own role in perpetuating it.
Vicheth Chan, program manager at the NGO Save Cambodia’s Wildlife has stated that, “the main factors that have caused both droughts and flash floods are heavy loss of forests and lack of flood management systems”.
Though 80 percent of the country’s population reside in rural areas, and their daily lives and well-being are tied to the forest, the government denies that such deforestation is occurring along with its detrimental effects on farmers.
Just last month, following Worldwide Fund for Nature’s release of findings that included Cambodia’s role in the depletion of forest cover within the Mekong River basin, the government’s response was that such research was, “unacceptable”.
“The government hasn’t acknowledged that deforestation contributes to climate change and irregular rain fall yet… [even though] it affects the social economy,” Phirom says.
Abandoning the farm
Back in the 1990s, says Horl, it was common for some family members to periodically go abroad 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 off to Thailand to work in the fishing industry, with no plans to return.
Parents don’t want their children migrating and working in harsh conditions, Phirom adds, but because farming can’t be relied on as a livelihood anymore, they migrate toward better economic opportunities.
Prey Veng province has one of the highest migration rates in the country; it is also one of the poorest. Trapeang Cham is home to 128 families, but more than 50 percent of its population now migrates domestically and internationally, says Horl.
At least a million Cambodians are presently working in neighboring Thailand and some 1.2 million Cambodians in total are working abroad sending US$3.8 billion remittances back home according to the Labor ministry.
There departures are not helping an agricultural workforce that has already been in decline. Since 1993 the percentage of Cambodians working as farmers has dropped by half, from 80 to 40 percent. The agriculture ministry expects this decline to continue, forecasting the percentage of those working in the agricultural sector to drop to 29 percent by 2030.
The faces left behind
At first glance, Horl’s village looks likes many in Cambodia, but one quickly recognizes a whole segment of the population is missing—working age men.
Sieng Hay, 24, rises early in the morning each day to prepare breakfast for her three-year-old son, her husband’s parents, and a nephew and niece before heading out to their rice field around 6 am.
Hay inherited the expanded domestic and farming responsibilities when her husband Lok Hea and his two brother-in-laws migrated to work as fishermen in Malaysia.
She farms half a hectare of rice: scattering the grain, managing the irrigation, clearing weeds, and applying fertilizers.
While returning home, Hay cuts grass for her three cows, hunts for crabs and snails, and collects vegetables like morning glory and water lily.
Wearing clothes soiled from farming and carrying a heavy sack of grass, Hay arrives home exhausted, but rushes to make lunch. Then it is time to feed the cows, do laundry, houseclean, and pump water from a family’s well.
“With my husband away, I do all of his work. When he’s home, I have some free time…it is very difficult,” she says while holding her son.
Hay laments that there are no other opportunities beyond farming from which to generate income locally.
“The rice yield is just enough to eat, so [villagers] always migrate. We don’t even have enough money to buy fertilizer or to support our farming,” she says.
With frequent changes in weather, including irregular rain fall and heavy storms followed by days of intense heat, rice plants can’t grow properly and die, she explains.
“Climate is changing. It’s very hot because of mass-logging elsewhere, but it affects us here. The forest is decimated and causes the temperature to rise to a level that’s hard to endure,” she says.
But day in and day out, it’s the loss of working-age adults to migration that’s the most difficult. The older generation, like Hay’s husband’s parents, Chhim Lok, 65, and Ngin Nay, 72, now look after three grandchildren.
San Ron, 58, whose son too has migrated, observes that the heat is much stronger now than when he was young, making older people feel weak and unwell.
“I never experienced this before. It rains now, but I still sweat,” San says, adding that he believes that residents will continue to migrate unabated.
“We don’t have enough labor, so it’s even difficult for those left behind to organize and celebrate any social events,” adds Hay.
Struggling to respond
Prime Minister Hun Sen may deny Cambodia’s deformation rates and its downstream impacts on localized climate change and livelihoods, but he does acknowledge climate change and its impacts on the agriculture sector.
“It used to be 30°C or 33 °C and it [rice] could survive. Now it cannot because it [temperature] is higher and higher,” the Prime Minister said in May.
“The floods can be bigger than before too,” he added.
To adapt to changing climate conditions, the government has bred new rice species in addition to distributing over 10,000 tons of rice for people affected by recent droughts and floods.
But for Trapeang Cham village, it’s an ongoing struggle against rising temperatures, domestic water shortage and insufficient irrigation.
Yan Horl says that in the 1990s, villagers retrieved water from three wells that were less than nine meters depth. As ground-water shortages began to take hold, the families employed a local company to sink a well 16 meters further. But such local outlays are not enough, says village chief Chy Luk, saying that rising temperatures cost farmers more money, yet hopes the village can invest in an additional pond.
It is unclear, however, how another pond might help with the kind of droughts the village and country now experience. In 2016, for example, 15 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces and 2.5 million people were affected by be the worst drought conditions in the country’s history.
The Government forecasts that climate change is expected to cause a 2.5 percent reduction in Cambodia’s GDP by 2030 and a 10 percent reduction by 2050, with notable effects within the agricultural sector.
The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MoWRAM)’s Climate Change Strategy Plan 2013-2017 records that the year 2000’s flood destroyed some 370,000 hectares of rice fields in addition to over 300,000 hectares of other related crops in 21 provinces, damaging 6,081 homes, leaving 3.44 million people homeless and killing 347 residents, 80 per cent of whom are children.
Cambodia has been severely attacked by terrible floods seven times since 1960s. The government estimated that the flood damage is worth US$160 million, highest amount between Late 1990s and early 2010s.
Dr. Tin Ponlok, the Environment Ministry’s general secretary, noted during a climate change workshop in Phnom Penh in May that in 2013 alone, flood affected many provinces along the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong region, damaging national economy worth US$365 million, that is equivalent to 15 percent of the national budget. “So the effect is huge,” he said. “In short, this is the result of climate change.”
Dr. Ponlok says that climate change is a major threat to poor countries like Cambodia, whose economy largely relies on the agricultural sector.
While the government predicts that Cambodia will achieve upper-middle income status by 2030, Dr. Ponlok feels that climate change will require this to take longer.
“The rising heat severely impacts the industrial sectors and agricultural industry,” he says.
Anna Guittet, a counselor for governance, climate change and gender at the Embassy of Sweden, which has supported efforts to combat climate change in Cambodia since 2008, says that Cambodia’s vulnerability to climate change renders targeted support on climate change mitigation and adaptation particularly relevant.
“Any severe climate event risks have severe negative impact on the livelihoods of a large portion of the population. A country like Cambodia cannot wait and needs to tackle these issues now,” she says.