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Climate Change

Thursday 9 December 2021

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Fishing boats seen floating at Kampot beach, on October 2, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)


TRAPEANG SANGKAE, KAMPOT — Fisherman Mert Youb doesn’t want his teenage son to make his living at sea.

“I want him to study and become a teacher or do other work, because I think fishing at sea could be really risky in the future. I don’t want him to be like me,” Youb told VOA Khmer in September, at his home in Tuek Chhou district’s Kampong Kes village.

“Last month, there was a boat that sunk due to strong wind, but the fisherman was rescued on time,” he added.

Climate change is bringing more storms and strong winds to Youb’s coastal community, making life even tougher for fishermen already facing declining ocean life due to illegal fishing practices and unchecked development ravaging the seascape.

These days, Youb’s daily catch of shrimp, crabs, octopus and small fish is about equal to what he used to catch in shrimp alone — though higher prices for his haul means he still brings in about 90,000 riel ($22.50) in a 12-hour day.

Mert Youb, a fisherman in Kampot province’s Teuk Chhou district, talks to VOA Khmer on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)
Mert Youb, a fisherman in Kampot province’s Teuk Chhou district, talks to VOA Khmer on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)

Fishing net on a docked boat near Teuk Chhou bay area, in Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Fishing net on a docked boat near Teuk Chhou bay area, in Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Global experts say one major effect of global warming, more frequent and intense weather, will hit hardest in developing countries that rely on fishing for livelihoods and sustenance.

That’s already playing out in coastal zones in Cambodia, where sea levels are slowly rising and storms are adding a new element of danger to an already hardscrabble way of life.

Les Kert, another fisherman, said his teenage son dropped out of school and is now laboring on fishing boat, earning 30,000 riels ($7.50) to 40,000 riel ($10) per day. He said he also wanted his 15-year-old son to stay in school, “but he said he was tired of studying during COVID-19 and he wanted to help parents since he sees parents in difficult time.”

Kert agreed that his line of work is increasingly dangerous. “If there is rain or wind, it can risk our lives,” he said. “My wife always cries when we meet strong wind.”

Both Youb and Kert said rapid development of the coastline and illegal fishing practices like electrified nets and industrial-scale trawling — often by Vietnamese boats crossing into Cambodian waters — were largely to blame for their troubles.

“Before I could fish here, but now it has been filled with land so fish can’t live here,” said 48-year-old Kert, adding that he and his wife now fish off a nearby island.

But erratic weather and increasing temperatures are compounding their struggles.

“The weather has changed completely. In the past, we had the same strong wind, but it occurs predictably. But now it can happen at any time,” said Youb. “Sometimes, when we place nets in the sea for fishing, big waves come and make it difficult to fish.”

And they both worry about what it means for the next generation. “I think my younger generation can’t work at the state-run bodies with high positions,” said Youb. “So, they rely on fishing…If we lose places to fish, what can they hope for?”

“In the future, they can only work as laborer for others since they can’t fish at sea,” said Kert.

Les Kert navigates his fishing boat in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)
Les Kert navigates his fishing boat in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)

Fishermen navigate their boats near a development area where a part of Teuk Chhou bay is infilled, affecting fishstock in Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/វីអូអេ)
Fishermen navigate their boats near a development area where a part of Teuk Chhou bay is infilled, affecting fishstock in Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/វីអូអេ)

All of Cambodia is “highly vulnerable” to climate change, due to so many people living on the margins and limited government resources to help them, according to United Nations reports and the Cambodian government.

However, few areas are feeling the effects as strongly as the 450-kilometer coastline stretching from Kep to Kampot to Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong provinces, where agriculture, fishing, tourism and shipping are all vulnerable.

Cambodia’s sea level could rise by more than half a meter by 2090, inundating 25,000 hectares and forcing thousands to relocate, according to the government’s 2013 Climate Change Strategic Plan. Temperature are expected to rise by between 0.13 and 0.36 degrees per decade.

According to a study on public perceptions of climate change in Cambodia, published earlier this year, people in the coastal region are “particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”

“They were the least likely to feel confident about preparing for extreme weather and the most likely to say they needed government support to address the changes they were experiencing,” says the study by National Council for Sustainable Development.

And yet coastal people were also “the most likely to say that they did not know how to take action,” it added, citing lower income and education levels as a possible explanation.

Mangrove forests in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Mangrove forests in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Sim Him, chief of Trapeang Sangkae fishery community in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, talks to VOA Khmer on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)
Sim Him, chief of Trapeang Sangkae fishery community in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, talks to VOA Khmer on October 3, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)

Sim Him, chief of Trapeang Sangkae fishery community, which has been turned into a community ecotourism site, said the changing climate was hurting humans and wildlife alike, noting recent storms knocked down 300 homes in the area.

And the rising temperate is reducing fish production, Him said. “Now there is an increasing heat related to climate change so fishermen lose income,” he added.

But the biggest threat to his community, which revolves around its mangrove forests, is disputes over who controls the land and sea, and the creeping threat of so-called development.

“There is an attempt to get our community’s land. If there is more and more encroachment, our community will be ruined,” he said.

Mov Chheang, Trapeang Sangke commune chief, said the number of fishing families have decreased, as locals go to work on construction sites or in factories.

“We put climate change in our five-year plan,” he said, meaning that more villagers were educated about climate change. The message was driven home in 2019 when storms destroyed a number of houses in the commune, he added.

Hak Mao, director of the Department of Climate Change of the Environment Ministry, said the government was aware that climate change would bring more serious storms and floods to the coast, but said it wasn’t keeping data on the current conditions.

“We just know that wind is more serious now since it is frequent,” he said.

For fisherman Les Nos, 37, its the unpredictability — of the weather, his daily catch, and his income — that has him on edge.

Every day he heads out on his motorboat at 5 a.m. and returns home to his fishing community in Kampot province at 10 or 11 p.m.

“Some days, I can catch around 5 to 7 kilograms per day. And some times, I can catch only a few kilograms of fish,” Nos said. During a bad stretch, it’s a struggle to come up with money to feed his kids — aged 2, 6 and 7 — and send them to school, he added.

And as the sea becomes increasingly choppy, he only sees things getting more dire. “I am concerned as the weather becomes worse and worse, I won’t be able to fish since there are big storms and waves,” he said.

A farmer is seen walking her cattle in a rice field affected by spilling sea water last year in Kampot province. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)


CHAMPOU KHMAO VILLAGE, PREAH SIHANOUK PROVINCE​ — Time passes but the rice cycle stays the same for Nget Srey and other farmers in this remote village in coastal Preah Sihanouk province.

Or at least it did until two years ago, when the saltwater started spilling over the dam blocking nearby sea tributaries, flooding their rice fields.

Last year, Nget Srey’s paddy was almost ready to harvest when her two-and-a-half-hectare field become inundated with seawater, decimating her crops, slashing her main source of income and, she now worries, destroying her way of life.

“My paddy was really good by then and saltwater spilled over and it died out. So did other neighbors’ rice paddies,” said the 58-year-old farmer in Prey Nob district’s Champou Khmao village.

“Now I am really concerned that I can’t do farming anymore,” she added. “Last year there were three floods. It has never happened like that.”

Nget Srey sit at her home as she talks to VOA Khmer in Prey Nub district of Preah Sihanouk province, on October 5, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Nget Srey sit at her home as she talks to VOA Khmer in Prey Nub district of Preah Sihanouk province, on October 5, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

This rice field in Kampot province was also affected by rising of sea water. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
This rice field in Kampot province was also affected by rising of sea water. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Nget Srey and her neighbors, like coastal farmers around the world, are feeling the effects of saltwater intrusion, a phenomenon in which seawater infiltrates freshwater sources such as groundwater, rivers and aquifer. And it’s being accelerated by a combination of unchecked development and climate change.

While reports forecasting the effects of climate change in Cambodia have predicted that saltwater intrusion will threaten coastal agriculture, the government’s point person on global warming said he wasn’t sure how much of a problem it was for farmers along the 450-kilometer coastline stretching from Kep to Koh Kong.

“There is no data showing saltwater intrusion,” said Hak Mao, director of the Department of Climate Change of the Environment Ministry, “but there might be some areas affected and we need to study more.”

During a trip to coastal communities earlier this month, a half dozen farmers confirmed that it was affecting them. And as farmland turns more saline, some farmers are giving up rice cultivation altogether, leaving them without a reliable food source or a financial lifeline.

Sitting in front of her house in Tuol Tortoeung commune, Nget Srey, the mother of six, said she could only cultivate 20% of her normal paddy rice yield last season, which was hardly enough to feed her own family for the year.

“If the rice is good, I can produce around 10 tons per year. But last year, I could harvest only two tons,” she told VOA Khmer in a recent interview, adding that most years, she is also able to sell around 10 million riels, or $2,500, worth of rice.

A farmer of 20 years, she also rented a piece of farmland last year, with a promise to pay the land owner a ton of rice come harvest time. The seawater wiped out those plans, and the owner sold the land to another person who is now using it to raise shrimp, which need the saltwater.

Nget Srey still has her own two and a half hectares, and she is still growing rice on it. But she is feeling vulnerable. “I am still worried about saltwater spilling again since the dam dike is still low,” she said. “If seawater spills from the dam for one or two days, it will flood the rice field.”

Just a stone’s throw away from Nget Srey’s house is Sorn Touch, another rice farmer who said saltwater flooded his three hectares of paddy field late last year, costing him around $1,000.

“I have lived here for more than 30 years, and there was never such big water,” the 60-year-old told VOA Khmer. “Last year, there was a lot of water.”

Normally, he said, the water rises from October to December, but it was becoming less predictable — and more difficult for the dikes to hold it back.

“Saltwater easily gets into our land via the dams,” he said, adding that the dams should be higher to prevent seawater from entering fields at the end of the year. “The dams are low,” he said, while “the seawater rises higher.”

Sorn Touch, a rice farmer in Preah Sihanoukville province’s Prey Nub district, talks to VOA Khmer on October 4, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)
Sorn Touch, a rice farmer in Preah Sihanoukville province’s Prey Nub district, talks to VOA Khmer on October 4, 2021. (Lors Liblib/VOA Khmer)

The conditions make farming precarious, but Touch sees little choice. “It is difficult to do farming here, but we have rice fields here, so we have to do farming every year,” he said.

Like Nget Srey, Touch and his wife, Sem Rem, 54, also rented land nearby to grow rice to eat and sell. But she completely lost her harvest last year, putting her out about $1,500.

“Last year, I couldn’t harvest even a seed. The land is not good since it is still saline. It was complete destruction,” said Sem Rem, a mother of five. “This year, I’m not farming on the rented land since I am afraid of losing it again.”

While saltwater intrusion can be caused by a number of human-caused factors — from climate change to deforestation and river dredging — rising sea levels are a major contributor.

In Cambodia, the sea level could increase by more than half a meter by 2090 under the worst climate scenarios, which would inundate some 25,000 hectares, significantly increase vulnerability to storms and negatively affect coastal tourism, according to Cambodia’s Climate Change Strategic Plan, a government document published in 2013.

In Kampot province’s Treuy Koh commune, 40-year-old farmer Deu Bern said saltwater destroyed patches of rice fields last year — including half a hectare of her own paddy.

“Now people here have stopped growing rice. There is only me doing it. “Some have sold their land already,” said the mother of two daughters, aged 17 and 14.

“When saltwater pours in the rice field, the soil becomes red, dies out and becomes saline,” she said, adding that villagers can’t grow rice unless they pump freshwater into the field to clean the soil.

In the coming decades, coastal areas and the central plains, according to the 2013 report, are expected to become increasingly vulnerable to flooding, affecting agriculture, fisheries, tourism, shipping and other industries.

Hak Mao of the Environment Ministry said sea levels could rise by as much as one or two meters by 2100, based on some scenarios, which would only compound the devastation.

He said Cambodia’s government has “done well” to lessen the impacts of climate change, explaining that things could be much worse. But he recognized that Cambodia is highly vulnerable to climate change, due to factors including its reliance on agriculture, financial limitations and poor infrastructure.

“We observe that Preah Sihanoukville province is the most seriously impacted by climate change. But in the long run, if sea water level rises as forecast, Koh Kong province will be more vulnerable to floods,” he said.

A development area takes place near a bay area in Preah Sihanouk province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
A development area takes place near a bay area in Preah Sihanouk province, on October 3, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

A wet area where mangrove trees grow in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, October 2, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
A wet area where mangrove trees grow in Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province, October 2, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

But Hang Sophea, a 38-year-old farmer in Koh Kong province’s Mondol Seima district, felt like more could be done to address the saltwater intrusion, noting that dam dikes in the area were small and often broken.

“I don’t know whom I should ask to help. But I want authorities to fix the dykes and build them higher,” she said.

The mother of two, who is now eight months pregnant, is taking a break from farming her three hectares of low-lying land, since she’s about to deliver a child and her husband is busy with farming other crops.

But she worries that in future years, it will be the seawater that prevents her family from having an annual rice crop. “I am still worried about saltwater flooding into the rice field, she said, “but I have to do rice farming since I have the land and I need rice for food and to feed the chickens.”

Without rice to feed the chickens and ducks she raises, “we can’t have savings. We just live from hand to mouth,” she added.

Sophea’s neighbor, Ho Sophal, 58, a rice farmer and primary school teacher, blamed the floods in part on the nearby forests being destroyed. “Seawater is rising every year in the area around the sea tributary,” he said, adding that the dikes are not high enough to hold it back, “which I am worried about.”

Sophal believes in scientists’ warnings that the rise of the sea will eventually inundate the lower areas along the coastline, which he blames on global warming caused by human emissions and deforestation. And he is worried the rice fields won’t be the only thing destroyed in his coastal community.

“It is always risky to live nearby saltwater,” he said. “I am concerned that a big rise in the seawater could wash villagers’ houses away in the future.”

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