From rice to riches: adapting to climate change on Cambodia’s coasts

Report
from UN Environment Programme
Published on 28 Jan 2019 View Original

Climate change, deforestation and rising sea-levels have been causing devastating rice shortages for Cambodia’s coastal communities. UN Environment is supporting the Cambodian government in their attempts to promote alternative livelihoods to overcome these challenges.

Until a few years ago, 70-year-old rice farmer Neang Bo had no problem putting food on the table by cultivating fields around her village on the Cambodian coast.

Bo and her husband would harvest around 4 tonnes of rice in Prey Nob district, Sihanouk province. The chickens grew fat pecking on spare grains in the shade of their wooden home on stilts.

“We used to have regular seasons; dry for half the year and rainy for the other,” she said.

“Now, all that has changed and we don’t know when the rain is coming or why it doesn’t come when it is supposed to, so it makes it very difficult to grow rice.”

When the rice yield dropped by half, or sometimes more, Bo found it difficult to pay her grandchildren’s school fees. When the harvest failed completely, Bo, like many of her neighbours in Prey Nob district, turned from vendor to struggling buyer.

“When the floods came and destroyed all the rice, I would have to sell some chickens to get some rice at the market,” she said.

“It was very difficult to even have something to eat.”

Climate change, in the form of storms, deforestation and rising sea levels are threatening communities living on the Cambodian coast, causing floods that lay waste to crops by swamping paddy fields and farmland with saltwater.

At the same time, rising temperatures and increasing periods of drought are also threatening people’s livelihoods.

“Sometimes, the weather is so hot or there is so much rain that chickens die, and when there is so much rain that it floods, the rice can’t grow,” said Eng Somol, Chairman of Agriculture at the Ministry of Environment.

UN Environment and the Cambodian government are helping people living in Sihanouk province to adapt to climate change by supporting alternative livelihoods and projects to protect coastal communities from seawater intrusion.

Bo’s family is one of around 1,000 households who have been given the tools to diversify their livelihoods from just growing rice to raising livestock and fish, and growing vegetables at home.

The three large cement tanks that store freshwater in Bo’s garden now mean that the family can grow vegetables like lettuce, corn and sugarcane, and avoid using the salty well water.

Instead of toiling in paddy fields for potentially little gain, Bo now spends her days in her garden feeding chickens she received from the project in a specially built coop, the carp and tilapia fish in two large ponds, and other animals the family has bought with their newfound profits.

“Now I don’t have to do any other work. I just feed the cows, chickens, fish and pigs,” she said.

To try and protect low-lying rice fields and groundwater from saline intrusion and storms, the project has built and strengthened dykes across the province.

In Prey Nob district, these efforts have stopped saltwater from entering an important rice-growing area by bolstering a seven-kilometer-long dyke that was breaking down due to sinking, thereby increased flooding.

Packing up his rod and reel after a morning fishing off the slim raised pathway separating sea from field, farmer Bun Low praised the construction.

“The dyke has really helped because it stops the seawater from getting into the fields and damaging the rice,” he said.

In Prey Nob district and beyond, rice yields have improved due to dykes rehabilitated by the project and widespread training of the community on climate-resilient farming practices, salt-tolerant rice varieties, how to raise livestock and fish, and climate change threats.

“Families have been finding life difficult here, so we need to give them chickens and fish and other ways to sustain themselves,” said Somol.

To further protect coastal land, UN Environment and its partners have supported the community-led planting of trees to prevent erosion, including mangroves—the first line of defense against the rising tide of climate change.

For further information on UN Environment’s work in Climate Change Adaptation contact jessica.troni@unenvironment.org.