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Farmers and Fishermen Warily Eye Changes to Climate

Cambodian fishermen move their fishing net from the Mekong River as they catch fish at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, file photo.
Cambodian fishermen move their fishing net from the Mekong River as they catch fish at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, file photo.

Fishermen say their catch this year has been too poor to live on.

In the Kampong Phluk fishing village on the Tonle Sap lake, home to thousands of families in Siem Reap province, fishermen say their catch this year has been too poor to live on.

Rising temperatures lately and drought have shrunk the size of the lake, and the size of the catch. This means less fish to live on, or more danger in seeking out the fish that have fled deep inside the massive lake, which sit in the center of the country and is a major source of food for millions of people.

Ker Chhorn, a 46-year-old fisherman on the lake, has been fishing for 20 years and has 10 children to support. His daily catch is somewhere around 70 kilograms a day, he told VOA Khmer. That’s down from last year tenfold; he typically catches 700 kilograms per day. He blames the warm weather, which keeps the fish deeper under water or hidden in the mangroves. “We can’t catch enough,” he said.

This and other signals of a changing climate have the country’s fishermen and farmers worried. They are the kinds of change experts warn could be exacerbated by global warming, though tying specific weather anomalies to climate change can be difficult.

On the Tonle Sap, fishermen use rudimentary tools, such as nets and rods, with crude motorboats to get around the vast lake. They are heavily reliant on the lake for sustenance, and therefore deeply sensitive to change.

Sorn Chea, 60, a fisherman from Boeung village, in Siem Reap district, said irregular rainfall and a shallower lake have meant fish moving to deeper waters. “When we fish in deep water, we can’t go far, because of strong winds and rain,” he said. “So we’ve decided to cut our business short. We dare not go far. We’re waiting until the wind and rain recede before we go out to fish again.”

He worries that future generations will have fewer fish, and may not even see some species. “If the lake is small and there are fewer fish, it will be difficult for farmers and fishermen both,” he said. “The only hope they have is fish.”

Out here, much of the economy relies on the fish. A falling catch worries people like Muth Thary, a 39-year-old fish vendor at Phsar Leu market. The fish she’s been buying recently have been smaller than in the past. She blames climate change for decreased rainfall, less water, and less catch. Some fishermen have quit altogether and now work construction or other jobs. “They cannot find enough catch to support their livelihoods,” she said.

The impact of an unhealthy Tonle Sap spreads far and wide through Cambodia, which has traditionally relied on fish from the lake and the Mekong River as a major food source. But changes in Cambodia’s climate in recent years has also made it hard for farmers. Irregular rainfall and changing seasons put crops at risk.

Moeuy Ly, a 52-year-old farmer in Bakorng village, Siem Reap, said his cucumbers are damaged by heavy rain. “If there’s no rain, it’s OK. But if the rain keeps falling, the crops will surely be damaged.”

He’s had to change the way he waters his crops, and in front of his house, he’s planted gourds beans and potatoes.

Sam Vitou, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said the organization is teaching farmers to raise diverse crops and livestock as a way to adapt to climate change. Rising temperatures, changing rain patterns and even more disease could all come from a changing climate, forcing people to quit growing crops in some areas or move out of them altogether, he said.

CEDAC trains farmers to grow cheaper crops of better quality, through natural methods, he said. That will help them adapt to changes. For fishermen, the government must also act to curb illegal fishing practices that do more damage, as well as find ways for climate adaptation.

Warmer water means less oxygen is absorbed from the atmosphere, putting a strain on fish, he said. But manmade change, like the cutting down of mangroves, also has an impact, as does the use of fertilizer and chemicals on crops, which runs into the water.

Yok Sok Sophors, an agronomist at the Food and Agricultural Organization, said climate change has the potential to impact Cambodia severely. Humans are the leading cause, he said, through greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

“We have a lot of concerns,” he said. “We have to strengthen their ability to adapt, through such means as reforestation, along with training them about planting technology, to create options for them to support their livelihoods. These are the ways to help them adapt to climate change.”

Loek Sothea, humanitarian coordinator at Oxfam, said change affects each household differently, according to means of coping. Water for the household, or crops, changing rain, the force of rain—all can have an impact.

Ning Ny, chief of Kampong Phluk commune, in Siem Reap, said almost 100 percent of the households here are fishing. The community has had to adapt, he said, setting up safety zones for boats and digging a pond to store water when things get too dry, or in case there’s a wildfire. “We have our own source for water,” he said.