Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Bootprint of Climate Change on Cambodia

Written by on . Published in Democracy's green challenge on .

Thousands of people around the world celebrate World Environment Day each year with various “green activities.” The global U.N. event to combat climate change has been embraced by companies, locals and heads of state who all heed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call: “Your planet needs you.”

According to the U.N. Environmental Program, climate change is due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases caused by human activity and especially industry producing large emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide. While there remain uncertainties as to the speed, timing and impact of global warming, the associated risks for humans and our planet have been correctly identified.

The U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Report 2007/2008, emphasizes that “humanity is living beyond its environmental means and running up ecological debts that future generations will be unable to repay.” Such 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 is not terribly alarmed as it has little awareness of what climate change means and in any case has its attention occupied by other, more pressing and more readily visible social problems like land grabs, human rights violations and corruption.

Studies have examined the impact of climate change on the country using two approaches: direct and indirect. Direct impact is seen in the change in natural rainfall patterns in the country. Though floods and droughts are common in Cambodia, a study on “Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment To Climate Change in Cambodia” conducted by the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment says that global warming may increase the country’s wet season rainfall while decreasing rainfall in the dry season. This establishes a clear linkage between the level of global warming and the incidence of natural disasters in Cambodia.

Like other agrarian economies, Cambodia is especially vulnerable to weather-related disasters as more than 80 percent of its population are subsistence farmers. As data from the past five years show, as much as 70 percent Cambodia’s paddy field production was destroyed by floods, and 20 percent and 10 percent respectively by drought and diseases.

Natural disasters have also increased the risk of contagious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and other physical and psychological disorders. In 2007 alone, there were some 40,000 reported cases of dengue fever in Cambodia and 407 deaths.
What’s more, health workers say that with increasing mosquito populations  Cambodia could be facing another severe epidemic of dengue fever. Although there has been a general decline in cases of malaria over the last decade, the fatality rate has increased since 2003. It is reported that the number of cases has increased significantly to 83,217 malaria-infected persons in 2009 from 58,887 for the previous year.

The Ministry of the Environment estimates that under changing climatic conditions Cambodia may experience increasing incidences of malaria. Their estimate corresponds to a recent survey conducted by Cambodia’s Climate Change Office which found that the recent increase in the number of cases of  malaria and dengue fever is connected to the change in climate conditions.

Natural disasters have upset fragile ecosystems which in turn have triggered other changes that impact on issues such as rising poverty and malnutrition in children impeding their growth and development.
Meanwhile, damage to infrastructure and land has compelled people to relocate which has caused widespread psychological disorders.  All this illustrates how vulnerable Cambodia is to the impact of climate change given its lack of infrastructure and mechanisms that could lessen the effects.

Furthermore, the strict environmental policies adopted by developed and developing countries have also not failed to have significant side effects on Cambodia where the rule of law and economic development is still weak, and could risk turning the country into a dumping ground for tons of unwanted toxic waste.

In November 1998, for example, a large quantity of mercury-laden waste from Taiwan was dumped in Sihanouk Ville, a famous tourist and port area in Cambodia. Alarmed at the health risks, thousands of residents fled the area, resulting in numerous accidents on a bumpy narrow road which left at least four dead and 13 injured as reported by the New York Times.

Only one month later another case came to light involving more than 650 tons of film scrap waste again from Taiwan, while several months beforehand Sihanouk Ville police found a dump of waste including x-rays, and used cassette and videotapes from South Korea.

All this is evidence of the environmental pollution and hazards caused by the dumping of waste in Cambodia. Rife corruption and the lack of rule of law make Cambodia an easy target for other countries looking for a place to get rid of their toxic rubbish.
Moreover, the “race to the bottom” – the competitive lowering of standards – acts as another incentive for domestic and foreign investors to operate businesses like logging and mining minerals or coal that deplete environmental and natural resources. Often enough, land or forestry concessions are granted without transparent procedures and contracts are approved without any environmental impact assessment.

This phenomenon could well cast doubt on the assumption that democracies – among which Cambodia numbers itself – are better than non-democracies at environmentally sustainable development. It could show that the environmental sustainability and management lie with strong leadership, rule of law and greater civil participation which are what is needed to steer a state away from environmental degradation.

Even though the results of environmental and natural depletion may not be too visible right now, they will be a heavy burden on Cambodia’s next generations who will have difficulty in filling the ecological deficit. At the end of the day, the current trend illustrates that Cambodia is now facing the risk of unsustainable development for the next generation. Immediate action is required to tackle the potential risks that climate change brings.

Cambodia’s weak social infrastructure mainly affects its poor. The government and all other stakeholders must come up with strong policies and fast action to combat climate change.

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Chak Sopheap Twitter: jusminesophiaSopheap

Chak Sopheap rejoined Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) as Executive Assistant in June 2010 having previously worked with the CCHR as an advocacy officer, helping lead the “Black Box Campaign” to fight against corruption in Cambodia and the campaign for freedom of expression. She has also worked for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, holding conferences and producing publications on democracy, human rights and ASEAN governance. Sopheap holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Economics and a master’s degree in international peace studies, which she completed from the International University of Japan. Sopheap has been running the Cambodian Youth Network for Change, which mobilizes young activists around the country for greater civic engagement. She is also a contributing author for Global Voice Online, UPI Asia Online and Future Challenges.