In Cambodia, climate extremes threaten an ancient community

By Oxfam America

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Islamic prayer chants and recitations of the Koran echo through the village of Lovethom, Cambodia. Women wearing hijabs, Muslim head coverings, make their way on a dirt road to the source of the sound—a small mosque near the riverbank.

Lovethom, a small village in Cambodia's northern province of Kratie, is home to a Muslim ethnic group called the Cham. The Cham are descendants of the ancient kingdom of Champa, who migrated to Cambodia from Vietnam after the fall of their kingdom in 17th century.

For centuries, the Cham in Lovethom have benefited from living on the fertile Mekong river flood plains. The seasonal flooding each year provides fish and just enough water for rice cultivation. However, the delicate balance of nature is changing, affecting the livelihoods of the people and altering the structure of this centuries-old Muslim community.

"In the last three years we have experienced unpredictable floods. We plant but we can't harvest; it has never happened like this before," said Mom Mayas, a 47-year-old mother of six. Mom owns a small plot of land where her family has been cultivating rice for over a century.

"The flood plain normally overflows from July until September, then the water starts to recede and that is when we start planting. But in the past three years there has been heavy rain, and after the water level receded in September, it just started to rise again, destroying everything in its path, " she said.

Taking this experience into account, this year Mom did not plant immediately after the flood waters receded. But her efforts were in vain because the water level fluctuated three times in the space of two months.

"I have lost most of my early rice crops because of the unpredictable floods and have only started planting rice seedlings in November—the last month of the wet season," she said.

Because of the recent changes in weather patterns, Mom has sent her two oldest sons to Thailand to work as laborers. She now has no men to help her in the fields—her husband fell victim to the civil war in 1995.

"The boys cannot afford to send money back from Thailand," she said. "At the moment they have only got money to support themselves, while my two girls work on a bean plantation up north. I don't really want everyone to split up like this and be far apart from family and friends as well as the community, but if this is what we have to do, then so be it."

Far from being defeated, Mom says she is doing the best she can to support her two younger sons and 95 year-old mother by pressing palm leaves to sell as thatch walls and roofs as well as selling porridge and banana leaves.

"After being hit three years in a row I have no money left to buy seeds to plant next year, " she said. "I have very little hope now, but I am doing whatever I can so the rest of my children can go to school and maybe have a better life."

Tin Ponlok, National Project Manager for the formulation of Cambodia's National Adaptation Program of Action to Climate Change (NAPA), explained that climate change affects an agrarian country like Cambodia in the form of floods and droughts. "The rural poor with limited resources rely solely on agricultural products," he said, "and climate change is costing them dearly."

Tin explained that people living in lowland areas, such as Lovethom, are the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change because of increased flooding and soil erosion. Research conducted by the Climate Change Office of the Cambodian Ministry of Environment has proven that agricultural productivity has gone down during the past five years because of increased flooding, drought and sea water intrusions.

The eighth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed that least developed countries are most vulnerable to climate change. A decision was made to allocate money to countries which submitted successful National Adaptation Plans.

Tin explained that Cambodia's NAPA identified 39 projects in water resources, agriculture, human health and coastal zone management as urgent priorities. Examples include introducing integrated farming such as cattle raising and vegetable planting so that rice is not the only dependent source of income, and improving irrigation systems.

"Because least developed countries suffer from problems that are caused by somebody else, we think it's fair that we get funding to support our adaptation projects," he said. "We want better commitments towards adaptation from developed countries."