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Cambodian Farmers Battle Rising Sea Levels

By Tom Price

Don Tok is a sleepy village in southern Cambodia's Kampot region. It sits beside a river estuary that flows gently into the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. For hundreds of years, villagers have tended rice paddies, raised cattle and harvested the fruits of the sea from their fishing boats. But a couple of years ago, things began to change. Seawater flooded their fields, destroying crops and salting the soil.

Fisherman Nak Sen demonstrates where flooding takes place

Fisherman Nak Sen demonstrates where flooding takes place, usually between 6 and 9 every morning from September to November. The water is damaging houses and putting people's health at risk. Photo by Sean Sprague for CRS

Coastal flooding is not unknown in Indochina, but it is usually caused by the storm surge from the typhoons that occasionally trouble Southeast Asia. This flooding, though, was not the result of a storm, and it became more regular. As sea levels have risen, the people of Don Tok have experienced more frequent flooding.

Sustainable Solutions

With our local partner, Save Cambodia's Wildlife, Catholic Relief Services studied the problem and brought in experts to teach community members relatively simple solutions to help prevent flooding. Levees constructed of earth and stones are one solution. The key is that the flood prevention measures need to be sustainable: Communities such as Don Tok must understand how to maintain their flood barriers.

The Don Tok villagers' experience is far from unique in Cambodia. In the villages of Prek Pi and Srak Kes, also in the Kampot region, once predictable tropical rainfall patterns have changed in recent years.

In 2010, Prek Pi was suffering from drought at the time when farmers were cultivating rice seedlings. They lost many seedlings and could not transplant them. For those farmers who were able to grow seedlings, further problems came at harvest time, when unusually heavy rain flooded the paddy fields, leading to a poor yield and a mold that destroyed more of the grain.

CRS has worked with rural communities in Cambodia for more than a decade to combat hunger and malnutrition by increasing food production and incomes. CRS and our local partners are teaching farmers new techniques, such as how to increase production of livestock and important crops, such as rice, vegetables and fruit trees when water levels rise.

Equipped with these new methods, farmers will be better able to produce food for their families and community during regular flooding.

Tom Price is CRS' senior communications manager. He is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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