The El Niño Effect

Cambodia's Minister of Environment, H.E. Say Samal
Cambodia's Minister of Environment, H.E. Say Samal

Cambodia’s Minister of Environment, H.E. Say Samal

As Cambodia’s dry season gets into full swing, farmers across the country are suffering from the crippling droughts that has seen many lose two rice harvests, with the worst yet to come. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS

“Many rice farmers have had to work with land that is bone dry,” says Sam Vitou, executive director of the Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC), which works to promote farming in Cambodia. “They have been left with nothing and many are heavily in debt.”

With monsoon season failing to fall, the kingdom’s paddies, which are usually knee-deep with water by September, remained barren, and many crops died as seedlings shortly after the planting season, which traditionally starts after Khmer New Year in April. In some villages in Kampong Speu province, a reported 90 percent of crops failed, and large swathes of Battambang – dubbed the rice bowl of Cambodia – and Pursat have suffered.

In June, the National Committee for Disaster Management warned the abnormal weather conditions had the potential to lead to food shortages, and the El Nino phenomenon could be to blame. “If the conditions of the weather prolong, it will damage the rice because our water resources have dropped and it will cause food shortages,” committee cabinet chief, Keo Vy, said.

In August, a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries supported these concerns, revealing a staggering 185,451 hectares were in drought conditions – a dramatic increase from the 116,129 hectares the previous year.

“Many farmers have to borrow money to buy seed and equipment,” says Vitou.

“How are they supposed to pay this back when they have no crops to sell? It is devastating and the true effects will not be felt until late this year.”

El Nino is being blamed for the freak weather that has wreaked havoc across the globe since surfacing in spring last year. Experts claim it was behind October’s devastating landslide in Guatemala, the deadly heat waves in India and Pakistan, and for supercharging what became the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.

The World Meteorological Organisation warns the El Nino effect will continue into the first quarter of this year, with damage anticipated to surpass that of the 1997 to 1998 occurrence – the strongest on record. That caused more than 23,000 deaths from natural disasters, increased poverty by 15 percent in some countries, and resulted in $45 billion of damage worldwide. The last El Nino caused shortages in Cambodia that saw an additional 100,000 extra participants in the World Food Programme’s Food for Work scheme.

Already across the region, reduced rainfall in the upper Mekong areas of Laos and Cambodia has led to salt water from the sea penetrating further into the Mekong Delta by about 50km to 80km, leaving many communities with crippled irrigation systems, dead fish and a lack of fresh water.

The smog that choked swathes of Southeast Asia in October was also partially fuelled by El Nino. While the annual peat fires in Indonesia are a deliberate attempt to clear land for palm oil plantations, in 2015 they burned fiercer, further and for longer than normal as the usual extinguishing monsoons failed to arrive.

Thailand has been struck by its worst drought in a decade, and the Tonle Sap River ran at its lowest level in 30 years. In the Philippines, where low rainfall and high temperatures ravaged the country’s agriculture, electricity providers struggled to cope with the extra demand for air- conditioning. e lack of rain has also resulted in lower rice production in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, with USDA forecasting rice production will fall by about four percent in Thailand.

“ These farmers need help if they are to survive,” warns Vitou, who is urging the government to offer assistance to the country’s predominant agriculture sector by creating more irrigation systems and reservoirs, and farming crops that rely on less water. “More needs to be done to help farmers with these problems in the future, and fast.”

In Thailand, measures have been put in place to conserve dwindling water reserves and plan for drought conditions. In July farmers were ordered to postpone planting rice until August. “We have seen nothing here in Cambodia,” adds Vitou.

Minister of Environment H.E. Say Samal says the effects have been exacerbated by climate change, which can be felt across the globe, and is an issue that the kingdom is tackling. “The weather patterns are something that is affecting families across Cambodia, whether big or small,” he says. “ They are all equally affected.”

He says infrastructure is being built to withstand flash flooding and dykes are being created in coastal areas. Some provincial authorities have also taken measures to help pump water into farmers’ fields in a bid to save crops.

However, if Cambodia is to survive in the future, Say says the country needs to shift from an agricultural-based economy towards an industrial-driven economy to help stabilise the economy and prevent farmers suffering from the inevitable effects of climate change, which, like El Nino, is expected to cause more drought, in the long-term.

“Cambodia has shown its commitment to the world that we take climate change very seriously,” he says, referring to December’s UN Climate Talks in Paris (COP21), which he attended with King Norodom Sihamoni who delivered a speech on climate change. “We are responsible for our humanity and the livelihoods of our children.”

But with the potential harm El Nino poses in the short-term and climate change in the long-term, taking action now is essential for farmers’ livelihoods. “In terms of food stability, survival, this needs to be taken seriously. We need action now,” urges Vitou.

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