Hungry Cambodia at the Mercy of Climate Change

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, November 26, 2002 (ENS) – Cambodia, already one of the most disaster prone countries in Southeast Asia, is now going through cycles of drought and flood due to global climate change, according to the Cambodian director for the United Nations World Food Programme. Some 670,000 Cambodians will need thousands of tons of food aid in the next five weeks because their crops have been wiped out, the agency said Monday.

World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director Rebecca Hansen emphasized that these new food shortages must serve as a “wake up call” to the "startling weather patterns that have sabotaged the Cambodian rice crop of vulnerable farmers" in affected areas for the past three years.


Flooded Cambodia (Photo courtesy IFRC)
The WFP has identified 187 “priority communes” out of a total of 1,621 where there has been either too little or too much precipitation for the crops.

Instead of distributing straight food relief to the people in these areas, Hansen says the WFP is providing food for work. Over 1,700 metric tons of food is being distributed for disaster mitigation projects such as reservoir rehabilitation, community ponds, dikes, and dams for irrigation purposes.

This food will benefit an estimated 56,000 people in 116 villages in eight of the most affected provinces.

Hansen says next year the WFP will support community rice banks and rainwater reservoirs. “It is vital to build these defenses against food shortages in the future,” she said. “To ignore the threat of climate change is to gamble with people’s lives.”

Cambodia has the typical Southeast Asian annual flood season starting in August when torrential rains fill rivers to overflowing.

Rohan Kay of the International Red Cross wrote in September 2001 that rural Cambodians traditionally view the annual floods is a blessing, not a curse. "Without such waters carrying nutrient rich silt over their fields, farmers would harvest few crops. But last year, the floods were worse than normal. Cambodia weathered three floods, not the usual one," Kay wrote.

In 2000, the Mekong Delta countries, including Cambodia, experienced the worst floods in 70 years. Eighty percent of Cambodia's rice harvest was destroyed in 2000 with only half replanted in time before the rains ended.

The damage from the 2000 floods was still being dealt with when the 2001 floods arrived. "Hundreds of thousands of people have had insufficient time to get back on their feet after being knocked down by last year's floods," said Seija Tyrninoksa, head of the International Red Cross Cambodia delegation.


A man pushes his boat over submerged fields in Prey Veng province about 20 miles from Phnom Penh (Photo courtesy IFRC)
When last year’s floods hit, the WFP provided emergency food aid to some 95,000 people who lost their homes or rice crops.

In 2001 and again this year, the country has been parched by severe drought before the floods came. In some areas of the country two planting seasons in a row were lost.

Now the World Food Programme, through the UN Disaster Management team, is collaborating with the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to purchase local rice, fish and vegetable oil and deliver it to more than 10,000 hungry families. About 6,500 metric tons of food aid will be required, Hansen said.

A new study by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies shows that the number of people in the Pacific Rim region affected by natural disasters increased by 65 times over the past 30 years.

The study quotes scientists who predict that the El Nino warming ocean phenomenon will give rise to even more cyclones and droughts around the Pacific Rim this coming year.