20 Mar 2019
There’s a theory that one reason the ancient Angkor Empire in south-east Asia collapsed was because its waterways were severely impacted by a change in climate.
It’s not the only reason the empire fell into decline in the 1400s after six centuries of rule, but some historians believe it could have been a contributing factor.
Some 600 years later, the centrepiece of this ancient region - now known as Cambodia - has experienced a tumultuous amount of change, including a brutal dictatorship under the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s, where a civil war and genocide wiped out almost a quarter of the population.
Despite the changes the region has undergone, after all these centuries, changes in climate remain one of the greatest threats to food security in the country.
In fact, the country is rated one of the most vulnerable in south-east Asia to future climate change, meaning the population has minimal capacity to adapt to environmental challenges.
Learning like a local
To learn more about how to help mitigate these dangers, I travelled with four other USC Sustainability students to the north-western Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces last year to speak with locals about their experiences.
Over 10 days, my fellow students and I collected information about food security and migration from people living in remote villages.
Accompanied by USC staff, we were immersed in the colourful culture of Cambodia, learning how to navigate squat toilets and fending off swarms of mosquitoes that prosper in the dense humidity of the tropical nation.
Spending so much time with locals in their homes, hearing their stories, we were lucky to be given a unique window into the culture that many tourists would never get to experience.
The impacts of food insecurity
Many of the locals we spoke with talked about facing food insecurity. Some had, at times, gone a whole day without eating or had skipped meals because there was not enough food available.
Most of the villagers depend on agriculture and farming of rice, cassava, and cashew nuts for their livelihoods. But, while unfamiliar with the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘climate hazards’, many people said they felt the effects of weather events such as droughts and floods, which impacted their food supply.
During the hard times, many people migrate from regional areas – where one or more family member moves to an urban area or another country to find work, often sending money back home to their families.
But it’s a complex issue because – despite the additional income – the loss of labour and division of families can often result in greater food insecurity.
Projects by international development organisations in these areas have attempted to improve watershed management, with the aim of increasing food security. We had hoped to see improvements in this area compared to previous years. Our findings, however, indicated the opposite, showing rates of severe and moderate food insecurity had increased.
We also found that households that had received extension services, such as advice and motivation on how to incorporate climate-smart farming practices, often did not apply these in practice. This could be for a variety of reasons including habit, tradition, economic interests and cost.
Our results, which have not yet been peer reviewed, unfortunately paint a sad picture of the current state in these communities.
My students and I hope our findings can help the development organisations to better understand where previous efforts have failed to improve food insecurity, guiding future work to be more effective and suited to the needs of the local population.
Some of the USC students who went on this trip were supported by the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan scholarship.