For thousands of years, Cambodian farmers have tilled their lands according to the rhythms of the annual monsoon. Now, as the region faces changing rainfall driven by the onset of global climate change, the Southeast nation is taking action to prepare and adapt.
The mighty Khmer Empire
In the 9th Century, a thriving ancient kingdom, the Khmer Empire, spread across parts of what is now modern-day Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam. The capital Angkor, which boasted up to one million residents, is thought to have been the world’s largest pre-Industrial city.
Each year, millions of tourists travel to see its ruins.
Yet as visitors marvel at the architecture of the temples, what aerial laser surveys have revealed is even more impressive: a vast urban complex of roads, canals and reservoirs. A prosperous city built on water, linked closely to the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonlé Sap.
Mysteriously, in the early 15th Century the kingdom was abandoned. Many researchers now believe the collapse was climate-related, brought about by decades-long drought followed by intense flooding.
Thus the element that had been central to the kingdom’s rise – water – perhaps became its downfall.
Fast forward to the present and water remains central to Cambodian life and development.
Each year (usually between May and November), monsoonal rains sweep across the country, bringing almost 80 per cent of the country’s annual precipitation. When they do, the Mekong's tributaries and Tonlé Sap swell with water, lush greenery is restored, the floods carry nutrient-rich silt to nearby farmland.
With the onset of climate change, Cambodians are seeing changes. Temperatures are rising; the arrival of the monsoon is becoming less predictable; floods and droughts are increasing in frequency and severity.
The impact on already-vulnerable rural households can be ruinous, destroying or reducing the yield of crops and household income, tipping some into unmanageable debt and poverty.
The implications go beyond families to affect wider communities and the country at large. Extreme weather has implications for national food security and an economy in which agriculture constitutes approximately 23 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Farmers are having to adjust. While in the past, they largely relied on traditional wisdom and experience to read the weather and determine what to plant, when to plant and when to harvest, over the past decade, they have been less able to rely on that knowledge.
Empowering farmers to manage drought
Recognising the need for national climate-resilient planning and for communities, the government of Cambodia has been working with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to expand climate infrastructure and build forecasting capacity for early warning and the agriculture and water management sectors.
Under a project supported by the Global Environment Facility's Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF), much has been achieved.
Over the past year, 53 automatic hydrological and meteorological stations have been installed across vulnerable provinces, with the stations capturing and transmitting real-time data.
A partnership has been forged with SERVIR-Mekong to step-up drought monitoring, analysis and forecasting.
Since last year UNDP has been collaborating with NGO DanChurchAid to establish drought information hubs.
A partnership with NGO People in Need is focused on extending an SMS-based early warning service (EWS1294) across the country and increasing village-level disaster preparedness, through participation in Disaster Management Committees.
Work is underway to better understand and respond to flood management. A partnership with the intergovernmental institution Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES) is aimed at enhancing the country’s institutional capacity to produce and act on climate forecasts.
Most recently, the project has joined with DanChurchAid to provide training on drought management, including publishing a manual tailored to the Cambodian context. Trainings on drought-resistant agricultural techniques, drawing on the manual, have been carried out in Takeo and Kampot. From June, training is planned in the provinces of Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang.
In February, the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, called on farmers to cultivate dry-season rice only once during the dry season due to the drought.
Prepared for the future, ready to adapt
Over the past two decades, Cambodia has made significant development progress: strengthening the economy, reducing poverty, improving maternal and child health, and raising the number of children going to school. An increasing number of tourists are arriving each year, keen to experience the ruins of Angkor, the capital Phnom Penh or its southern coastal towns and beaches.
Away from the tourists’ gaze, the nation continues to work hard to further its economic and human development.
We cannot know for sure what drove the decline of Angkor. But with early warning and action at the local level, Cambodia will build a climate-resilient sustainable future. Cambodia stands ready to prepare and adapt.
For more information on the project 'Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems to Support Climate-Resilient Development in Cambodia', please visit www.adaptation-undp.org. This story was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Cambodia.