Niigata, Japan — Thousands of people around the world celebrated World Environment Day last Sunday with various “green activities.” The global U.N. event to combat climate change was embraced by companies, locals and heads of state heeding U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call: “Your planet needs you.”
However, recent studies highlighting the impact of climate change on Cambodia point to worrisome risks that the country can no longer afford to ignore.
According to the U.N. Environmental Program, climate change is occurring due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases caused by human activities, especially industrial processes that produce intense emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. While there remain uncertainties as to the speed, timing and impact of the resultant global warming, the associated risks on humans and our planet have been identified.
According to the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Report 2007/2008, “Humanity is living beyond its environmental means and running up ecological debts that future generations will be unable to repay.” These facts can no longer be denied and require an immediate and urgent global and local response.
In Cambodia, the impact of climate change has become apparent, yet the general public does not feel alarmed due to limited knowledge and other, more pressing social problems like land grabbing, human rights violations and corruption, which are more visible in daily life.
Studies have examined the impact of climate change on the country by two approaches: direct and indirect. The direct impact is seen in the change in natural rainfall patterns in the country. Though incidences of flood and drought are common in Cambodia, a study conducted by the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment on climate change impact says that global warming may increase the country’s wet season rainfall and decrease its dry season rainfall. This indicates a relationship between the degree of global warming and natural disasters in Cambodia.
Cambodia, like other agrarian economies, is especially vulnerable to weather-related disasters as more than 80 percent of its population is subsistence farmers. Based on data from the past five years, Cambodia’s paddy production was destroyed as much as 70 percent by floods, and 20 percent and 10 percent respectively by droughts and diseases.
Besides, natural disasters have increased the risk of contagious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and other physical and psychological disorders. There were about 40,000 reported cases of dengue fever in Cambodia in 2007 alone, and 407 deaths.
Also, according to health workers, Cambodia could be facing another severe dengue fever outbreak with an increasing mosquito population. Although there had been a general decline in malaria cases over the last decade, the severity and fatality rate has increased since 2003.
The Ministry of the Environment estimates that under changing climatic conditions Cambodia may experience increasing incidences of malaria, up 16 percent from its current rate. Natural disasters have upset fragile ecosystems, which in turn have triggered other changes that have affected issues such as rising poverty and malnutrition in children. These have disturbed the growth and development in children.
Meanwhile, damage to infrastructure and land has compelled people to relocate, which has caused psychological disorders in many. This illustrates how vulnerable Cambodia is in facing the impact of climate change due to a lack of infrastructure and mechanisms to lessen the effects.
Strict environmental policies adopted by developed and developing countries have in some ways affected Cambodia, where the rule of law and economic development is still weak. For example, there are reports that tons of toxic waste are deposited in Cambodia by other nations.
In November 1998, a large quantity of mercury-laden waste from Taiwan was dumped in Sihanouk Ville, a famous tourist and port area in Cambodia. Due to health concerns, thousands of residents fled from the area, resulting in several accidents along a bumpy, narrow road with at least four dead and 13 injured, as reported by the New York Times.
Surprisingly, a month later another case was found involving more than 650 tons of film scraps from Taiwan again. In addition, several months prior to this, the Sihanouk Ville police found waste materials including x-rays, used cassette and videotapes from South Korea.
This is evidence of the environmental pollution and hazards caused by “dumping” waste in Cambodia. With corruption common and the rule of law lacking, it is an easy target for other countries looking for a place to shift their waste.
Moreover, the “race to the bottom” – the competitive lowering of standards – is another catalyst for some domestic and foreign investors to operate businesses, such as logging and mining minerals or coal, at the cost of environmental and natural resources depletion. In some cases, land or forest concessions were granted without transparent procedures and contracts were approved without environmental impact assessments.
With these direct and indirect impacts from climate change, different level of impact can be analyzed on the country, community and individual level.
On the country level, with agricultural inactivity and losses due to natural disasters, Cambodia, which largely depends on its agricultural sector, will experience slow economic growth made worse by the global recession and economic crisis. Also, poor and underdeveloped health infrastructure will aggravate health problems and further burden the government.
Though the results of environmental and natural depletion may not be visible now, it will be a heavy burden for Cambodia’s next generations, who will have difficulty in bridging its ecological deficit.
On the community level, the livelihoods of many will be affected by natural disasters. Not only homes and properties, agricultural produce and health, but even community collaboration and trust will be broken when every individual family faces the economic downturn, which in turn will lead to more social crimes.
On the individual level, people will no longer get fresh air and clean water. Depletion of natural resources and bad economic policies will discourage foreign direct investment, which otherwise provides employment to locals.
Ultimately, the current trend illustrates that Cambodia is now facing the risk of unsustainable development for its next generation. Immediate action is required to tackle the potential risks that climate change brings.
Cambodia’s weak social infrastructure will largely affect the poor. The government and all other stakeholders must come up with strong policies and fast action to combat climate change.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)
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