In parts of Cambodia, rain has been so scarce that rice farmers have already lost two harvests. But there is little help, or even recognition of the problem
Lorn Lim tended to his barren paddy last Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to grow rice this year.
By now the paddy ought to have been flooded up to his knees. Instead, his tenth of a hectare of land in Kampong Speu’s rural Chbar Mon district was bone dry save for a few muddy patches.
While September is late in the year to transplant rice from dry soil to the paddy, it was Lim’s first attempt – his two previous crops all died as seedlings for lack of rain since he began trying in June.
He only had one more shot at cultivating his field, he added, and he wasn’t optimistic. “I’ve started to plant it today, but I don’t have hope for the result,” he said.
Lim was being helped in the field by about 10 children. He explained that all the teenagers and young adults had recently migrated to the cities for the same reason: their families had given up farming this year, leaving the older kids to find work in urban centres.
But because the 34-year-old’s children are all too young to work in garment factories or on construction sites, Lim decided to stay on the farm for one last try before he himself finds new work.
“I am doing it because I am a farmer and I cannot stay still without doing anything,” he said. “Farming is my job so, whether it gives results or not, I need to do it.”
Chbar Mon’s problems aren’t unique. This year, large swaths of western Cambodia have experienced little rainfall and failed crops since the traditional planting season began after Khmer New Year.
The culprit, according to global consensus, is a particularly strong incident of El Niño dubbed “Godzilla” in the American press.
Trouble from afar
Meaning “The Little Boy” in Spanish, El Niño refers to the periodic but drastic natural warming of seawater in the equatorial eastern Pacific that occurs every few years.
According to a statement issued by the World Meteorological Organisation, the ongoing El Niño is looking to be among the most severe in the past 65 years.
And it has yet to reach full steam.Maximum strength, according to the monitoring group, is expected to be reached between October and January and persist through the first quarter of 2016.
The climatic effects of El Niño vary throughout the world, with heavy rainfall reported on South America’s western coast and warm winters in the northeastern United States.
In Southeast Asia, the usual consequence is lost rain for a period stretching at least a year.
The Kingdom is no stranger to the phenomenon – the last extreme El Niño event to rock Cambodia created at least 100,000 extra participants in the World Food Programme’s Food for Work scheme in 1998 due to shortages.
And while Cambodia is far more food secure than it was in 1998, experts said that the El Niño-related weather phenomena striking the Kingdom is comparable to that last disastrous year, if not worse.
“The rain isn’t coming the normal way across the Pacific through Vietnam, it’s coming from the Gulf of Thailand,” said Ian Thomas, technical advisor to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The result, he said, is a “rain shadow” throughout much of western Cambodia, where the Cardamom Mountains interfere with storms coming from the southwest.
Satellite images of crop coverage corroborate Thomas’s explanation: Phnom Penh, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng have been largely unaffected, while large swathes of Battambang, Pursat and Kampong Speu have alarmingly low levels of farmed land.
Ang Tamao, chief of Chbar Mon’s Ang Tamao village in Kampong Speu, said 90 per cent of the crops had failed in a town where 95 per cent of residents are farmers.
“Even though there is more rain in other provinces, we don’t get any heavy rain that could be kept for farming,” he said, adding that the village pond had long dried up and was useless to the 115 families living there.
Thomas said that the continued effects of El Niño would likely prevent annual dry season planting normally enabled by irrigation.
“It hasn’t finished yet, and it’s going to get stronger, so we’re back into a drought as soon as this rain is finished,” he said, referring to the flurry of rain showers that arrived this month.
But while neighbouring countries have taken action – the Thai government has issued directives to conserve dwindling water reserves – the Cambodian government has yet to respond.
Speaking last week, Chan Yutha, spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MoWRM), insisted that the Kingdom hasn’t even felt the direct effects of El Niño.
“Cambodia has never got El Niño directly before,” he said, adding that it was more Thailand’s problem.
“El Niño is not far from our country, because it happens in Thailand.”
Yutha said that La Niña – El Niño’s opposite phase that sees decreased Pacific Ocean water temperatures – would bring rain to the country shortly, though he wasn’t sure when.
But the government spokesman’s statement – according to scientists, UN officials and the government’s own meteorologist – contradicted the basic science behind El Niño.
Um Rina, MoWRM’s chief meteorologist, said Cambodia felt the effects of El Niño between approximately April and June, and at other times in recent decades corresponding with global incidences.
“Cambodia faced El Niño because it is a universal phenomenon,” he said, before adding that Cambodia was currently in a “neutral” weather state with neither El Niño or La Niña.
Orla Fagan, regional public information and advocacy officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Yutha evidently “didn’t know what he was talking about”.
“Southeast Asia is currently going through El Niño – one country doesn’t experience something different in the region,” she said.
Dr Douglas Parker, Professor of Meteorology at the University of Leeds, said that the changing ocean currents thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean significantly altered rainfall in Southeast Asia.
“El Niño is a phenomenon of the Pacific Ocean. But its impacts are felt, to varying degrees, right around the world,” he said via email.
“So it’s true that El Niño is not happening in Cambodia directly, but El Nino does influence Cambodia’s weather significantly.”
La Niña, he added, was not likely to be imminent.
Any government facing El Niño’s effects in its country, Parker said, needs to be aware of the risks and respond accordingly.
“This is a global issue, particularly in the developing world where ordinary people are vulnerable to seasonal and multi-year climatic changes, and where better advice on the national and regional scale could really help them,” he said.
Thomas of MRC pointed to Thailand, where authorities took swift action to plan for drought conditions, as an example of a government responding promptly to the threat.
In July, Thai authorities ordered farmers to postpone planting of rice until August due to predicted low rainfall.
“The Thais have been doing quite a lot to keep the farmers happy, [whereas] the Cambodian government hasn’t done anything,” said Thomas.
“It’s going to be interesting to see which one actually works.”
When Thailand issued the directive in July, Cambodia’s MoWRM spokesman Yutha brushed off concerns of drought in the Kingdom, telling the Post that Cambodia’s “rainfall is expected to be even better than last year”.
By the end of August, however, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries issued a report revealing that 185,451 hectares had been struck by drought, compared to 116,129 hectares in 2014.
Clinging to hope
Speaking to Post Weekend earlier this week this week, Yutha maintained that Cambodia is only experiencing a late monsoon season that would soon see crops blooming.
“When the monsoons come across the mountains, it will cause rain in the drought areas,” he said.
Dr Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), said he also thought the Kingdom’s recent droughts had finally subsided.
“I suspect that more rain will come. Normally, it comes like that in a late monsoon,” he said, adding that farmers could start planting rice this week.
Thomas acknowledged that abundant rainfall in Phnom Penh and other areas was counterintuitive to understanding the drought.
“Here in Phnom Penh, [rainfall] seems to be doing quite well – how can it be a drought when the river is so full?” he said, adding that much of the country was in good shape.
This week saw increased rainfall – and even flooding – as Typhoon Vamco hit the Kingdom from the Pacific. On Thursday, authorities reported that 1,760 houses and hundreds of hectares of farmland were destroyed in Kampot after a hydroelectric dam was opened after heavy rainfall.
But this week in Kampong Speu’s Chbar Mon district, signs of drought were everywhere in a community economically crippled by poor farming.
A vigorous end to the rainy season, said local farmers, would be the only way to salvage anything from the year’s work. Farmers said that they were preparing for the worst, however, by brainstorming new ways to win bread for their families.
“If there are no results, I won’t have money to buy seeds for next year,” said Chhoun Thea, a 42-year-old farmer.
His paddy was full of stubby seedlings with a sickly yellow tint instead of healthy lime green.
At best, Thea estimated, he will harvest 40 per cent of his initial crop.
With no children old enough to take on labour-intensive city jobs, he said he will likely be forced to sell his one cow to buy seed next year.
When asked about El Niño, he said he had never heard of the phenomenon scientists blame for his plight.
“I never heard about El Niño, and I never heard anything from media like radio or TV about farming,” he said, adding that the area was also devoid of developmental NGOs.
Lorn Lim, who was attempting his third and final planting on Tuesday, said he’d require three months of solid rain to get a decent crop.
“If there is no result from farming, I can only get money as a construction worker to feed my family,” he added.
But Thomas said even in the best-case scenario, the Lorn Lim family couldn’t expect to support their crops past the end of October.
“If they planted the shortest-term 60-day rice they could just about squeeze it in and harvest,” he said, adding that it was still a mystery as to whether the rainy season would end early.
He said the odds of crops surviving beyond that point would diminish to near nil.
“After the rains are finally finished, I’m pretty darn sure the odds are rather heavily stacked that we plunge right back into serious drought conditions as ‘Godzilla’ El Niño starts to really kick in at full power.”