Climatic Catastrophe

Can Cambodia Adapt to a Changing World?

By Sam Campbell, Economics Today

cambodia-flagImpoverished, low-lying and at the mercies of flood and drought, few places are more susceptible to the devastating effects of climate change than Cambodia.

The dangers are difficult to overstate: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a 40cm change in sea level rise will displace as many as 55 million people by 2080 in South Asia. In the short-term, the UNDP Human Development report estimates that developing countries will need around US$86 billion each year for climate change adaptation by 2015.

The Cambodian government is apparently aware of the danger, noting that, “As an essentially agrarian country, the Kingdom of Cambodia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change” in their National Adaptation Program for Action (NAPA), a plan to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Source: Water and Climate Change in the Lower Mekong Basin: Diagnosis & Recommendations for Adaptation (Interim Report) by Water and Development Research Group, Helsinki University of Technology and Southeast Asia START Regional Center, Chulalongkorn University

Source: Water and Climate Change in the Lower Mekong Basin: Diagnosis & Recommendations for Adaptation (Interim Report) by Water and Development Research Group, Helsinki University of Technology and Southeast Asia START Regional Center, Chulalongkorn University

Considering that UN Framework Convention on Climate change stated that adaptation had hardly even been considered in Cambodia as recently as two or three years ago, even this acknowledgement is an achievement. But with floods, droughts, windstorms, high tides, salt water intrusions and malaria outbreaks set to increase in both frequency and duration, and the additional threats of underground water salinization and seawater intrusion in coastal areas, doubts over the kingdom’s ability to adapt linger.

Indonesian Ambassador to Cambodia Ngurah Swajaya told the 5th Asia Economic Forum Apr 7 about the increasingly destructive effects of climate change for Indonesia. “A study undertaken by Indonesia’s Meteorological bureau indicates that in 16 cities in Indonesia … had experienced more than one degree temperature increase in the past 10 years. The increase of one degree in the period of 10 years is disturbing. This changes the weather pattern. It shortened the rain season to only 5 months and lengthened the dry season and drought. The rainy season usually … [now causes] severe floods.” Even as cities flood, Ngurah Swajaya said, only 80 percent of the total demand for fresh water can be met during the rainy season, and a mere 20 percent during the dry season.

Economic losses caused by natural disasters in Indonesia amounted to tens of billions of dollars, the ambassador stated, and 70 percent of all of the natural disasters in Indonesia are climate change related.

“The challenge of climate change, particularly its impacts to food and energy security is an issue that requires our immediate and collective response,” he said. “What we need now is [not just] developing common understanding, but also concrete actions.”

Andrew Mace, UK ambassador to Cambodia, had similar advice, calling climate change “a vital issue for all our futures.”

The link between the economic crisis and climate change is increasingly recognized, he said, and the issue was discussed at the recent G20 summit in London. Recovery from economic crisis should be “inclusive, green and stable,” despite pressures to focus on economic growth at the expense of the environment.

“It would be easy to prioritize short term stimulus over the longer term restructuring of our economies towards a low carbon future,” Mace said. “The price of inaction vastly outweighs the costs of stabilizing emissions. Action has to happen now. The economic case remains that we cannot cause delay. So far, the actual effects of climate change on the ground have outstripped even the worst case scenarios of climate models.”

Governments across the world have unveiled massive stimulus measures earmarked to ease the effects of the financial crisis that have great potential to start the world on the path to a low carbon future, the ambassador said. But these funds must be spent on the research and development of new technologies, instead of projects based on the old high carbon model. The lack of infrastructure in developing countries like Cambodia may for once be a blessing, he claimed, in that these nations have a blank slate to proceed directly to new technologies without expensive waste of replacement. With the right investment climate, Asia could also become a source of low carbon innovations that are rolled out across the globe, especially in the energy sector. “Asian economies are ideally placed to benefit from those opportunities.”

The UK embassy’s own official environmental policy; including re-using rainwater, running vehicles on bio-diesel and installing compost bins, are at least a step in the right direction.

But the Cambodian government seems firmly focused on projects that may worsen the effects of climate change rather than mitigate them. Information in the public sec-tor shows that over 60 hydropower projects are planned for Cambodia’s three main watersheds—the lower Mekong Basin (LMB), including the Tonle Sap Lake, the Cardamom Mountains and the Prey Long wilderness—which may have catastrophic consequences for millions of Cambodians.

Indeed, one of these areas, Prey Long, remains completely unprotected under Cambodian law, with Economic Land Concessions, mostly agro-industry such as massive rubber plantations, planned for the near future.

Worries that continuing encroachment into these last remaining watersheds, vital for the agriculture that is Cambodia’s lifeblood, may be a detrimental error, especially given that melting Himalayan glaciers— the source of drinking water for 1.5 billion people in Asia and the main source of the Mekong River—could disappear in 25 years.

Even the meager measures listed in Cambodia’s NAPA—mostly reactive infrastructure projects like river and sea dykes, irrigation and hydro-engineering projects—are hampered by “A number of barriers … [that] include: (i) inadequate technical, financial and institutional capacity of government agencies and of local communities in dealing with climate hazards, and limited coordination among them; (ii) limited integration of climate change issues into national policies and programs; and (iii) limited awareness of climate change issues,” according to the government’s NAPA.

Some are already warning that retreat may be the best strategy in areas where major climate change impacts are expected within the next two decades. Cambodia does not have long to re-examine its priorities.


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