The first-ever report on the direct effect of climate change on Cambodia’s population was launched yesterday in Phnom Penh, highlighting significant flaws in the country’s ability to deal with future health, finance and food supply issues.
The UN Development Program’s Cambodia Human Development Report 2011, launched yesterday at Phnom Penh’s Cambodiana Hotel, details contributing factors to climate change issues such as deforestation, mismanagement of rivers and economic pressures on resources, such as timber and other agricultural exports.
The report acknowledges that Cambodia has experienced huge economic growth and made progress in tackling poverty, but “performance has not been even, and costs have been significant,” with poverty alleviation not being felt by those who need it most: rural villagers.
“The voices of poorer, more marginalized people…remain limited,” the report states.
While commending the government’s decentralization and deconcentration program and Rectangular Strategy for Growth, the report criticizes the concentration of power at a national government level in relation to the management of natural resources, saying it leads to inaction of provincial and local authorities as they are left powerless to help aggrieved constituents.
The report also calls into question the “rapid pace of hydropower [dams] on the Mekong,” predicting “serious consequences” for fishing communities and a negative impact on food supplies for the country as a whole.
Contamination of fresh water sources with salt water from a predicted rise in sea levels is already an issue for many Cambodians, with Smach Touch village in Sihanoukville province expected to lose at least 14 hectares of land and 13 fresh water wells to rising sea levels by 2050.
The government’s “hugely ambitious” plans to increase rice exports to 1 million tons per year by 2015 will “have implications for climate change vulnerability,” highlighting failures in irrigation schemes that suggest an inability to balance the boost in production while maintaining environmental safeguards and ensuring a sufficient supply of water for agriculture and other purposes, the report notes.
The “vulnerability” of Cambodia’s forests is not due to the threat of climate change, the report reveals, but of “economically driven pressures on forest resources,” such as logging and large-scale agricultural plantations.
Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in April 2010 showed 956,690 hectares of land concessions had been granted in 16 provinces to 85 companies.
Corruption and slow progress in establishing protected forests areas are listed as two of the main issues in the forestry sector, citing these as a hindrance to full implementation of the UN’s REDD forest protection program.
One of the greatest challenges mentioned in the report is a decrease in health standards of the population and a rise in “climate-resilient” illnesses and “environment-based diseases,” such as the drug-resistant malaria discovered in Pailin province in 2010, and the difficulty in preventing the rapid spread of such illnesses.
Cambodia’s health service, which is already “extremely weak,” will face “significant financial implications” if urgent action is not taken, the report states.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said at the launch of the report that Cambodia needs to put itself in a position to “absorb financial assistance” in order to deal with the effects of climate change.
Mr Chhon encouraged donor governments to “actively participate” in financially supporting Cambodia in the fight to defend its environment.
Mr Chhon added that Cambodia’s ability to accept money from donor countries to deal with the threat of climate change showed “good risk management” on the part of the government.
Minister of Environment Mok Mareth said the presence of Mr Chhon at the launch was “a testimonial reflecting a new trend of efforts [by the government] to respond to the threat of climate change.”
Following the launch, Mr Mareth declined to answer questions on the current land dispute in Prey Long forest.
Prey Long is the largest surviving lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia, but about a dozen economic land concessions have been granted in the forest for the establishment of agro-industry plantations.