Banking on the seasons
Smallholder farmers in rural Cambodia tread a fine balance between self-sufficiency and mounting debt, a balance that could be tipped by climate change.
PREY VENG, Cambodia – For poor rice-growing families in rural Prey Veng province, Cambodia, there is a fine balance between too little rain and too much, which can easily lead to a spiral of debt when crops fail.
Prey Veng is at the heart of the Cambodian Mekong floodplain, around 100 km by road from the capital, Phnom Penh.
Agriculture is the main occupation in communities throughout the province, and in each rainy season the villagers hope the rain will fall at the regular time, in the right quantity and with good distribution to grow their crops, mainly paddy rice.
But the farming calendar is disrupted if the early months of the rainy season are too dry, as is increasingly the case. If the rain falls heavily later in the season, the fields can be flooded for too long. In either case, the result is the same – low yields.
For women like Nou Sokhy, 55, six months of each year is normally spent planting, tending and harvesting rice. To break even after each harvest, her family must produce three tons of rice in the rainy season from their two hectare plot in Sang Ke Chong village.
This provides one ton of surplus that she can sell to pay for fertilisers and the additional labour she needs to work the land; otherwise, she has to take out loans.
But Sokhy still owes money from successive bad seasons, and for her, breaking even means paying interest and not accumulating more debt.
The family owns one and a half hectares of land and rents the other half-hectare for about 300,000 Riel (about US$75) for the 6-month cropping season.
“Each year I buy five sacks of fertiliser, then pay ploughmen to come and plough the field and also have to hire labourers to help with the harvest. My children who stay with me are too small for that now,” she says, adding that the costs total about 175,000 Riel.
Sokhy is a mother of eight, and her two eldest daughters have left to work in Phnom Penh with families of their own, sending home what they can of their wages.
“If the harvest yields three tons, we keep two for the family to eat, including some seed for next year, and sell the rest to pay for the costs, but even this usually doesn’t cover them.”
But when the rain arrives too late, the yield is sometimes less than a ton, and Sokhy must give some of the rice to the landlord and borrow from money lenders to feed her family.
In 2011, Sokhy’s family had a good season, using a faster growing rice variety and producing the needed three tons of rice, but on lower ground less than 1 km away, the story was quite different.
Gesturing to the field behind his thatched bamboo house, Chhom Hai explained how the flood waters kept rising.
“The flood came gradually to our land, increasing day by day, and lasted about six weeks,” said Hai, 36.
“If it had stopped below the top of the plants, or only lasted 20 days, it would have been ok. But it was impossible to manage this amount of water,” he said.
“All of our rice was destroyed, and our chickens died of disease.”
With only one third of a hectare of land, Hai could only watch the days go by as his family’s food supply for the next year spoiled.
To raise income for buying food when the crops fail, Hai has to travel for construction work for part of each year, leaving his wife to care for their home and two children.
Hai sees little choice in how to carry on in the next rainy season, “We will continue to grow our rice the same way, how can we change it? We have no way to prepare for such floods.”
Sang Ke Chong village’s head, Khim Kong, 57, has observed changes in the cropping season, and worries how unpredictable rainfall will affect his community.
“In the past, the rainy season always started in May, but now it’s happening in June, and seems to get later and later,” said Kong, a difference that is critical to the planting calendar.
“There used to be a six month dry season, followed by a six month rainy season, but now the dry season is longer, and it’s very hot some days, even in rainy season,” he said.
Recent MRC research covering the period 2010-2050 points to hotter temperatures and potential changes in seasonal rainfalls in Cambodia under certain IPCC climate change scenarios, which would worsen both drought and flood periods.
“Climate change may increase uncertainty and risks of climate hazards, especially extreme flood and drought events in rain-fed areas of the Lower Mekong Basin in particular,” said Nguyen Huong Thuy Phan, Coordinator of the MRC’s Climate Change and Adaptation Initiative (CCAI).
Phan added that for the local people residing along the Mekong, their daily livelihoods rely very much on the climate conditions such as temperature, rainfall and humidity and the Mekong water resources. Any change in climate conditions and water availability will therefore cause adverse impacts on their lives and life-supporting systems, including income and water and food security.
CCAI is a long-term programme aiming to understand and reduce the impacts of climate change on the people and ecosystems of the Lower Mekong Basin, by assisting the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam in planning for adaptation.
The initiative is supporting two pilot demonstration projects in Prey Veng and Battambang provinces to help local authorities and communities find ways to adapt to changing climate and ecosystems.
For more information on the CCAI, Click here.