Climate change in rural Cambodia: a complex crisis

When I was in Cambodia to conduct research on rural social change in July this year, I was struck by the parched fields of cracked earth—land that should have been an ocean of green rice paddies was bare. Farmers said the monsoon rain which normally comes in May hadn’t arrived. It marked the third season of extreme temperatures in five years. The Mekong River, which flows through Cambodia and is vital for fishing and agricultural dropped to its lowest level in 100 years. This year’s drought was particularly bad, probably due to an El Niño weather effect. Unfortunately climate research suggests extreme weather events like this are only going to get worse.

Regional dam building also exacerbates the climate crisis. As farmers desperately waited for water in July, the Jinghong dam further up the Mekong River in China’s southwest Yunnan province held back water to maintain electricity supply to China’s cities. China, and to a lesser extent Laos, are constructing massive dams along the Mekong to secure energy security for their growing populations. The upriver hydroelectric dams make Cambodia’s extreme weather worse. In the rainy season, the waters from the Mekong flow to the Tonle Sap lake which expands four times in size and sweeps larvae and tiny fish into lakes and floodplains. Low river levels threaten fishing and farming around the lake. With hundreds more dams planned on the Mekong and its tributaries, downstream countries are at risk of both drought and sudden flooding when water is released or when dams burst, as occurred in Laos last year.

Alice Beban village bare land5

Cambodia is vulnerable to climate change. IMAGE: Alice Beban

The human cost of climate change

Cambodia is consistently ranked one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.  Almost three quarters of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods making them most at risk from the increasing severity of floods and drought.

I recently worked with an international team of researchers sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation to survey 600 farming households in Cambodia. More than 40 percent of households had experienced severe crop failure due to flooding, drought or pest infestation in the last twelve months. Most families don’t have access to state protection or private insurance, so when crops fail, people borrow money to keep the family afloat. Cambodia now has one of the world’s highest levels of microcredit penetration per capita. Debt levels have grown at four times the rate of rural incomes in recent years. Families who can’t repay debt are often coerced into selling up. Millions of rural Cambodians are only one poor harvest, flood or medical emergency away from losing their land. 

Alice Beban fishing family 2

Family fishing on the Tonle Sap. IMAGE: Alice Beban

The effects of climate change are exacerbated by geopolitics and a thirst for economic growth. Over the past fifteen years I’ve watched Cambodia emerge from post-conflict disarray to become economically prosperous. Many benefitted, but wealth has come on the backs of poor rural farmers. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) consolidated power by allocating land, forest and mining concessions to people who finance their political campaigns and global corporations who bring in foreign investment. The threat of violent state repression makes it difficult for Cambodians to resist.

Cambodian farmers see how the problems of climate change are connected to these economic and political issues. One farmer told me he was stressed because he was over a month behind with rice transplanting because of lack of rain and other related problems.

“The weather is one thing… it’s changed, definitely. But it’s also the market. Rice is so cheap… if we think of the fertilizer, the seed, we don't make any money. And all the good land goes to companies and they ruin the land. They are taking everything… they will take mine too. Any that's left, people have to sell because they can't make a living. But what can we do?”

This “land grabbing” has resulted in over a third of the country’s arable land being transformed from smallholder farms and forests to agribusiness plantations in just a decade. It’s led to widespread displacement of rural people, loss of ancestral lands, and pillaging of the nation’s forests. Forced off their land with nothing, rural people drift to find work in the city or across the border in Thailand.

New Zealand’s connection

New Zealanders may feel far removed from this land grabbing. Yet these plantations fuel global consumption of products made from industrial rubber, wood and biofuels. They supply feed for the growing pork and poultry industry. New Zealand’s largest bank ANZ provided finance for a Cambodian sugar plantation, which has since been linked to abysmal labour policies and violent displacement of farmers. Decent compensation still hasn’t been paid to those affected.

“We don't know how to do other jobs. We want to work on the land. But the government doesn't help us with market, training, anything like that. So we make a loss, and then we have to sell the land cheap…. In a few years, there will be no land left.”

This farmer’s words suggests tackling climate change in Cambodia requires recognition that climate change alone is not the problem.  It’s intertwined with unequal market opportunities, a lack of state support, and the influx of agribusiness companies that squeeze farmers onto small, unproductive plots. A broader re-structuring of economic relations is needed if those who rely on rural livelihoods are to survive and even flourish.

 - Asia Media Centre