Sunday, October 25, 2009

CAMBODIA: Climate Fight an Uphill Battle, But All’s Not Lost

A farmer ploughs his field 20 kilometres outside the capital Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a country particularly vulnerable to climate change. (Credit:Robert Carmichael/IPS)

By Robert Carmichael

PHNOM PENH, Oct 25 (IPS) - As one of the world’s poorest nations, Cambodia is by definition one of those least able to protect itself from the effects of climate change. As an agrarian society, it is one of those most susceptible to climate change.

To compound the problem further, Cambodia is unlikely to get sufficient assistance from the rest of the world to meet those challenges.

So says Dr Tin Ponlok, the national project coordinator in the Ministry of Environment’s climate change office. But that does not make Cambodia special, he says: That is how things are for most developing countries.

"Poor nations suffer, but they are not the cause of the problem – so what?" he asks, referring to former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s comments about the developing world picking up the bill for the rich nations. "How much power do [poor countries] have? Not much. How much commitment [is there in the developed world]? How much do they give and how much do they support? Not much."

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen made a similar point at the country’s first National Forum on Climate Change on Oct. 19, when he said that developed nations must do more for their poorer cousins.

"The rich countries should be more responsible, as they have more resources to settle this matter," Hun Sen said. "Cambodia is not the country responsible for climate change, but is the victim."

On the final day of the forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia issued its draft position ahead of December’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. As a developing country, Cambodia said it would do "its utmost" to reduce greenhouse gases; in return the rich world must provide cash and technology.

But Cambodia is not just a victim. It is also one of those most at risk from climate change. That was the finding in September by a British research consultancy, Maplecroft, which said the South-east Asian kingdom was the 27th nation most vulnerable to climate change out of 166 countries surveyed.

The index assessed nations on their current vulnerability and their preparedness to deal with climate change. Cambodia fared badly — it is the only country within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that is in the bottom 30 states on the index, and its vulnerability is rated as ‘extreme’. Laos is the next closest at 37. Of those lowest-placed 30 states, 23 are in Africa.

Dr Tin says that Cambodia’s problems in respect of climate change are many, varied and in some cases unique. Firstly, it is a post-conflict society in which perhaps one-quarter of its population died under the Khmer Rouge rule of the late 1970s. That has had knock-on effects in many areas, including in terms of the number of skilled people able to deal with climate change.

"Also, this is an agrarian country where 80 percent of people live in the rural areas, and most of them depend on agriculture," says Dr Tin. "That leaves Cambodia quite exposed to climate change."

He says Typhoon Ketsana, which recently swept through the Philippines and Vietnam before devastating parts of northern Cambodia, highlighted the dangers associated with climate change.

"I don’t say there is an absolute correlation [between Ketsana and climate change], but there is some link between what happened," he says. "I think there is a scientific basis – we have never seen that kind of thing before."

He says that until Ketsana, which killed 43 people here, Cambodia was protected from the worst effects of typhoons by the Cardamom Mountain range in the southwest and the Dalat plateau in central Vietnam.

"That is not enough to protect us any more," he says.

Other risks for Cambodia include increasing frequency and severity of extreme climate events, such as floods, drought, windstorms and seawater surges.

These are all problems in search of a solution. In late 2006 the government released its National Adaptation Programme of Action to Climate Change, or NAPA, which lays out the approach to dealing with climate change in the areas of agriculture, water resources, coastal zone effects and human health.

Among the items on the list of 20 high-priority projects are rehabilitating dams and waterways, planting vegetation to protect from floods and storms, aquaculture, and improving disaster response preparedness in communities.

But three years on, just two of the 39 projects in the NAPA have received funding. Dr Tin says that is standard for developing countries, since rich nations that pledged money to a central fund have failed to deliver.

"The most important thing is that so little funding is available from the international community for those projects," he says.

Despite the lack of progress, Cambodia’s NAPA did elicit some important findings. One was that villagers in almost every province told researchers they suffered from both floods and droughts. That explains the mixed (and as yet unmet) focus on the NAPA’s high-priority projects.

Flooding presents the more significant problem in terms of food security. It caused 70 percent of the loss of rice production between 1998 and 2002.

And although drought was responsible for just 20 percent of the loss, it still affects many Cambodians: Four-fifths of people interviewed suffered from a lack of water for farming during the year, and slightly more than half lacked enough water for personal use. Coping mechanisms were intriguingly mixed – the government paper notes that one in four people "simply organise religious ceremonies in the hope that these will bring rain".

The Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), the country’s main non-governmental agricultural organisation, is helping to raise awareness of climate change. It is running a project that has trained 80,000 rural families across the country on ways to adapt to the expected increasing severity of droughts, floods and higher numbers of agricultural pests.

Kim Than, CEDAC’s director of field programmes, says the NGO decided to add a pilot module to raise awareness about climate change among around 1,000 of those 80,000 families when teaching them how to adapt to the expected challenges they will face. He found that awareness levels were low.

"I have been running the climate change project [to educate people] for two years now – so it is a new thing," he says. "But I find that people rarely know about this climate change problem, so I always make sure to educate them about it and to encourage them."

The project teaches people how to mitigate the effects of climate change and to improve their livelihoods by diversifying away from relying on one crop, typically rice. Kim Than says the looming threat of climate change means that educating farmers about rice intensification – growing more rice on the same amount of land with less water – is key, as is creating multi-purpose farms.

"In that way people won’t just plant rice, they’ll also raise some chickens, or a pig and some fish, and they can plant a vegetable garden," Kim Than says. "We also teach them how to dig a channel that can hold water as well as fish when there is a drought."

He also tells them about techniques on disaster reduction as well as the importance of planting trees, "because it’s important to reduce greenhouse gases," referring to gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.

It all sounds ideal for a mainly rural, developing country, but there is not enough money to roll it out across the country. If and when the funding comes, Kim Than hopes to reach the approximately three million families across Cambodia.

CEDAC’s experience reinforces Dr Tin’s point about a lack of cash to implement solutions. But he admits that is not the only problem. Dr Tin says that three years after the country signed off on its NAPA, other challenges remain.

"Coordination needs to be improved," he says. "Climate change is a cross- sectoral issue, so we have to work together. It’s not just a lack of funding and support from the international community – we need to respond better at a national level."

It seems an almost insurmountable challenge for a country like Cambodia, given the lack of funding, a lack of awareness in rural areas, high vulnerability and few technical skills, among other things. But Dr Tin maintains he is not pessimistic.

"We need to be optimistic – even if sometimes you know you’re fighting a losing battle, you still have to fight," he says.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PM Hun Sen planned to build a house to host Mr. Thaksin. Perhaps it would be a better idea to use that money to help the Khmer victims of typhoon Ketsana.