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 global climate change, Cambodia is preparing to adapt.
In the ninth Century, a thriving kingdom, the Khmer Empire, spread across parts of what is now 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 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.
The element that had been central to the kingdom’s rise — water — was quite possibly also its downfall.
Fast forward more than one thousand years 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 percent of the country’s annual precipitation. When they do, the Mekong’s tributaries and Tonlé Sap swell with water. Lush greenery is restored, and 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.
These changes affect 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.
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.
Recognizing the need for nation-wide climate-resilient planning, Cambodia’s government has been working with UNDP to expand climate infrastructure and build forecasting and early warning equipment for those working in agriculture and water management.
The project is supported by the Least Developed Countries Fund. 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.
Last year UNDP began collaborating with the NGO DanChurchAid to establish drought information hubs.
A partnership with the NGO People in Need is focused on extending an SMS-based early warning service across the country and increasing village-level disaster preparedness, through Disaster Management Committees.
Work is underway to better understand and respond to flood management. A partnership with the intergovernmental Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia 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 Cambodia. Trainings on drought-resistant agricultural techniques, drawing on the manual, have been carried out in Takeo and Kampot. Training is planned in the provinces of Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang.
In February, because of drought, the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, called on farmers to cultivate dry-season rice during the dry season.
Over the past two decades, Cambodia has made significant progress: strengthening its economy, reducing poverty, improving maternal and child health, and increasing the number of children going to school. More tourists visit each year, keen to experience the ruins of Angkor, the capital Phnom Penh or southern coastal towns and beaches.
Away from the tourists’ gaze, the nation continues to work hard to further its economic and human development.
Over one thousand years after the decline of Angkor we cannot know for sure what drove its decline.
But with early warning and action, Cambodia will build a climate-resilient sustainable future.
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
Words by Kate Jean Smith, Communications Specialist, Climate Change Adaptation, UNDP. Photos by Arantxa Cedillo, Ratha Soy, Manuth Buth, Samruol Im of UNDP Cambodia and Flickr Creative Commons. Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.