In some parts of the world, the debate still rages on whether climate change is real. But here in the floodplains of the mighty Mekong River, about an hour’s drive east from Phnom Penh, people in Prey Veng province have seen up close how climate change has threatened their livelihoods.

During the rainy season from May to October, the storms have become more frequent and more severe, exacerbated by the overflow of the Mekong River. So severe, in fact, that many old canals have been damaged, blocking villagers’ access to drinking and irrigation water from the reservoirs. During the planting season, higher temperatures and a lack of rainfall have led to intense drought, which means no irrigation water at all, making it difficult for rice farmers to make a living.

In 2018, 27,000 hectares of land in Prey Veng was damaged by flood and another 29,000 hectares by drought, leading to as much as US$16 million in losses, according to the provincial department of agriculture. In 2020, floods affected 19 out of 25 of Cambodia’s capital and provinces, damaging many types of rural infrastructure. By 2039, the government forecasts a 12.6 percent increase in annual rainfall during the rainy season, compared with figures from 1986–2005. That’s not good news for low-lying Prey Veng province, home to two of the nation’s largest rivers—Mekong and Tonle Bassac.

“Climate change impacts on the frequency and intensity of rain, temperatures, and sea level rise. Their consequences on water availability will have a strong effect on our economy,” says the Secretary General of the Ministry of Environment’s National Council for Sustainable Development Tin Ponlok.

Investment in infrastructure and agriculture development

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been helping Cambodia combat climate change through the US$588 million Strategic Programme for Climate Resilience (SPCR), an investment plan approved by the government and funded by the Climate Investment Funds’ Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience.

ADB administers the programme, which includes 7 investment projects aimed to strengthen the country’s rural and urban infrastructure and agriculture development, including irrigation, seeding, and post-harvest activities. It also included an US$11 million technical assistance programme, which concluded in June 2021 and showcased approaches the government can adopt to integrate climate resilience into development planning. The programme has led to the development of new regulations, technical guidelines, and legal requirements on the construction of rural infrastructure specific to the nation’s three distinct geographic regions: the coastal areas, highlands, and central lowlands.

Srinivasan Ancha, a Principal Climate Change Specialist at ADB who oversees the SPCR, says the programme is helping empower Cambodia’s vulnerable groups to combat climate change.

“Agriculture not only is the most vulnerable sector, but supports the most vulnerable groups, including women and the rural poor,” says Mr. Ancha. “The programme helps rural residents develop practical approaches to combat climate change and reduce disaster risks, strengthening the safety net and security of vulnerable populations.”

The SPCR, for example, helped improve the Damnak Chheukram irrigation system near Pursat city by building a new barrage to regulate water flow in the Pursat River and reduce flooding, as well as a 16.5-metre main canal, secondary irrigation systems leading the water into rice fields, and 29 buildings along the canal.

Another SPCR project, the Climate Resilient Rice Commercialisation Sector Development Programme, has helped farmers in Prey Veng, Battambang, and Kampong Thom provinces adopt modern technologies to improve agricultural productivity and combat climate change.

One of the innovative technologies demonstrated by the project includes laser land leveling. Laser land leveling equipment flattens land with a deviation of 3-6 centimetres. That means the same amount of water and fertiliser can be applied everywhere in the field, cutting down on expenses while boosting rice yields. As a result, said Pol Oum, a farmer in the Kampong Trabek district, the yield on half a hectare of land rose from 20 sacks of rice to 29 sacks, while also cutting down on the use of gasoline.

The programme has helped boost crop yields by 25 percent by giving farmers easier access to quality seeds, teaching them drying and storage techniques, and improving the resilience of rice varieties to climate change. It helped increase paddy production to 9.5 million tonnes in 2020, up from 8 million tonnes in 2012.

Thun Somali, of the Prek Changkran commune, learned how to grow, harvest, store, and transport quality seeds that fetch higher prices. She is a coordinator for 30 farmers under contract with the Bopea Senchey Agricultural Cooperative, which orders the production of climate-resilient varieties, dries, cleans, and sells the seeds on the market.

A well-functioning canal leads to more, diversified crops

In the Romchek commune, where the drought has shortened the planting season to two to three months, residents have benefited from SPCR technical assistance that showcased approaches the government can adopt to integrate climate resilience into development planning.

A US$30,535 demonstration project, for example, has rehabilitated a 1,050-metre canal. The stretch of the canal, which was too shallow to store water, has been strengthened with two new single-pipe culverts. The slopes have been reinforced with rock beds held together by metal wires. The project, which will be scaled up by the government and communities to cover the entire 3.5 kilometres of the canal, will help connect the commune to a reservoir 3 kilometres away.

Chin Kuong has high hopes the canal will make her life better. Sitting with a group of village women, she told a visitor that the drought had left the family with very little to live on, and her husband had to leave the area to find construction jobs to make ends meet. Without any well in the village, she has to travel far to fetch drinking water. But when it rains, the muddy road next to the canal is almost impossible to navigate.

The road will become less prone to flooding when the canal is functioning. As part of the canal rehab project, Kuong and 200 other households in 200 villages will also learn how to choose and plant about 10 drought-resilient rice varieties, which will need less water to grow, said project consultant Sam An Cheab. The villagers will also learn how to grow watermelons and other higher-yield crops.

“The canal is beautiful,” Ms. Kuong says. “With the canal, we will also have access to roads. It will be much easier to travel, and we will have water for the crops. I can grow more crops, and it will be enough to eat for the family.”

Source: Agence Kampuchea Press

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