Climate Change and Migration in Cambodia

Climate change, migration and public health are key defining issues of our time. The Kingdom of Cambodia is among countries least responsible for climate change globally, yet, at the same time, it is consistently ranked highest among countries most vulnerable to climate change. Specifically, Cambodia is identified among the three most vulnerable countries in Asia. With communities increasingly affected across the Kingdom, WeWorld NGO teamed up with the Royal University of Phnom Penh to frame the nexus between Climate Change and Migration in Cambodia in a recently published research and two video projects.

The research took place in the context of RESILIACT project funded by the EU Aid Volunteers initiative with the aim to understand the consequences of climate change on life of rural communities in Asia and to investigate the link between food security, migration and climate adaptation.

The researchers found out that the major environmental problems are related to climate change in Cambodia. “The main issues faced by Cambodia are floods, droughts, deforestation, urban waste, and pollution by agriculture such as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” – says Seak Sophat, Ph.D., Vice Dean of the Faculty of Development Studies and a Coordinator of the Master’s Degree Program in Climate Change Science at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“The frequency and intensity of floods and droughts has also increased throughout the country” – adds the scientist. Analysis of historical and projected temperature and rainfall data of Cambodia found that annual mean temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees since 1950 while rainfall is decreasing at the rate of 0.184% per year. Effects of these alterations are already experienced by communities across the country.

“Waiting for Rain” - Impact on Siem Reap Province

WeWorld-GVC conducted field visits and studied the impact of climate change on the communities. In Siem Reap the NGO teamed up with Swiss filmmaker Roman Giger. In the short-film “Waiting for Rain” Giger depicts the plight of communities living on the banks of the Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. 

The lake depends heavily on the yearly monsoon rains and the reversal of the course of the Tonle Sap river, which floods it with water from the Mekong. Thanks to this, the lake’s volume varies considerably over the course of the year. At the peak of the rainy season, in late September and October it expands 10-fold and initiates a seasonal migration of fish and human settlements who depend on it.

In recent years, the lake and its surrounding ecosystems have come increasingly under pressure from deforestation, infrastructure development and climate change which are impacting the natural way of life on the lake.

Chem Oeurn and his family have always lived on the lake. The fisherman notices the impact of climate change on his surroundings. “The weather changes and the forests are disappearing. Because we don’t have enough water, fish won’t breed and spawn eggs.” – he explains. 

Of late it has become increasingly difficult to feed his family and he seeks alternatives to fishing. “Sometimes we have to buy fish from the market.” Members of the family regularly migrate to Thailand or to other provinces. They tried to diversify by starting a small chili farm. However, this year, due to the prolonged drought they managed to harvest very little. At the same time, migration is not a feasible option due to COVID-19 pandemic. 

Internal labour migration in Cambodia

The team of researchers confirmed that Cambodia’s vulnerability is largely due to its relatively low adaptive capacity. “Many choose migration as a solution.” – adds Mr. Sokchar Mom, director of the Legal Support for Children and Women, a Phnom Penh-based NGO, partner of We World. Among push factors for migration the expert enumerates poverty, lack of job opportunities, debt bondage, and increasingly – climate change. 

“Farmers often do not have enough funds to run their family-owned farmlands, so they have to get a loan from microfinance institutions or private lenders. When they fall into debt, they look for a job available in their area. But when there is no job for them, another choice is to migrate to other areas or provinces.”

Climate change plays a role in it as well. “The effects of natural disasters push people to migrate. Farmers depend on agriculture and flooding, drought, and less rainfall are all serious issues for them and they must seek solutions to secure their living.” – adds Mr Sokchar Mom. Preferred destinations of internal migration are Phnom Penh as the economic, industrial and commercial hub, followed by Sihanoukville with its international port and rapid development and Siem Reap – the city of tourism. 

“If climate change keeps unfolding, migration for job opportunities will increase” – adds Dr. Seak Sophat. A Strategic Plan 2019-2023 by the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training shows that the number of jobs in Cambodia increased by 1.3 million between 2013 and 2018. The majority of jobs are in the industrial sector, accounting for 69.8% of the total number of jobs created. The sector that creates the most jobs is the construction sector with 78,000 people employed per year, an increase of 12.9%. The textile, garment and footwear sector employs 73,000 people per year, an increase of 8.5%. Meanwhile, employment in the agriculture sector decreased by 48.2%. 

Difficulties of the Newcomers to Phnom Penh

Farmers abandoning their fields to seek job opportunities in the cities often face health issues caused by air pollution, poor living conditions, deteriorating diet due lack of funds and increasing prices of food. On top of that, lack of family bonding opportunities or a financial safety net take an additional toll on migrants. 

“Phnom Penh will be affected by the high heat in the future. We have a lot of air conditioners, a lot of vehicles, like in Bangkok.” – explains Dr. Seak Sophat.  The nature of work of the migrant workers who often work outside or in crowded factories, excessive overtime and increasing temperatures will further impact the livelihoods of migrants in the long-term. Mr. Phon Pinn is a migrant construction worker now based in Phnom Penh who was interviewed in the second short film project by the WeWorld-GVC. He sees that impact already. “When the weather is too hot, we need to spend (money) on drinking water and food. We also need gloves, hats, and shoes while working. When it rains we are required to stop working, but there is no pay for us while we rest.” 

Mrs Luy Sokunthea who migrated to Phnom Penh in 2004 and works now as a garment factory worker, notices that her health is deteriorating. “The city is so stuffy, there is no breathing air” – she explains to the researchers. “I get sick a lot and I have a cold every month”.

The Way Forward

“Climate change is a regional and global issue, it is not just in Cambodia.” – says Dr. Seak Sophat. “As long as the world does not reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, climate change will continue. The atmosphere cannot be contained – it affects us all. That is why, even though Cambodia is not highly industrialized, it is affected by climate change”.

As a way forward in Cambodia the researchers suggest that, while individual contributions to mitigate climate change are valid, more systemic and rights-based approaches which favor marginalized groups over infrastructure-based interventions are needed. These include, among others, building up social capital, strengthening communal resilience and enhancing co-learning among migrant workers. 

Videos were created in a frame of the RESILIACT Project.

RESILIACT –  RESILIACT-Resilience- strengthening of local communities through a transnational EU Aid Volunteers capacity building action project funded by the EU Aid Volunteers of the European Union. 

 

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