Assessing Livelihood Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Northwest Cambodia: A Project Summary

Speaking recently at a Press Q&A session at the UN Headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General António Guterres called climate change "the most systemic threat to humankind". 

I am beginning to wonder how many alarm bells must go off before the world rises to the challenge. We know it can be hard to address problems perceived to be years or decades away. But climate impacts are already upon us - Antonio Guterres (Press Conference, New York, March 2018)

Climatic altercations have led to extreme cycles of drought and flooding and erratic rainfall. This affects agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods in Cambodia. Due to their strong reliance on rain-fed agriculture, rural communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change effects. It has led to lowered agricultural productivity for consumption and income, which poses a significant problem as agriculture represents a primary or significant secondary livelihood activity for 65% of the population. 

With funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its implementing partner, Plan International, the Learning Institute developed a project with a landscape approach to drought and water insecurity to assess livelihood vulnerability and adaptive capacity in one such affected region. The Learning Institute represented the only research organization among the 19 Cambodian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) participating in the Mainstreaming Climate Resilience into Development Planning (MCRDP-2) project. 

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The Voat Ta Meum Commune was chosen upon findings from The Learning Institute’s 2011-2013 Hydrological Survey of the Sangkae River Watershed in Battambang. This study provided substantial understanding of the spatial and temporal aspects of water flow impacting on downstream catchment areas. The study also identified the communes most vulnerable to the impact and Voat Ta Meum experienced the highest negative impact in this regard. 

The Voat Ta Meum Commune is located in the Sangkae district, 11km southeast from Battambang city. The Sangkae stream marks the western boundary of the commune area. It consists of six villages: Kampong Pil, Slor Kram, Ou Khcheay, Kampong Chlang, Ou Sra Lao and Anlong Lyea. Anlong Lyea was excluded from the project research given that it is relatively unaffected by drought conditions. 

Landscape approaches seek to provide tools and concepts for allocating and managing land to achieve multiple social, economic and environmental objectives in areas where agriculture, hydropower, mining and other productive land uses compete with environmental and biodiversity goals. 

This approach to risk analysis and management of natural resources takes into account the natural and human activity in the catchment area. It identifies the range of factors, both scientific and social, which, which may exacerbate climate change impact and vulnerability. Adopting this broader perspective, including investigation of a “qualitative” nature, contributes to the formulation of solutions with more sustainable outcomes. 

To include a landscape perspective, this study provided a better level of understanding of the spatial and temporal aspects of water flows impacting on downstream catchment areas while its associated diagnostic Mapping Exercise identified those communes most vulnerable to these impacts with Voat Te Meum emerging at the highest level. This background has and will continue to frame impacting on water availability and access in recent years. 

- "A Landscape Approach to Drought and Water Insecurity: Assessing Livelihoods Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Northwest Cambodia", The Learning Institute Research Report

A Vulnerability Reduction Assessment (VRA) was conducted at the beginning and the end of the project. The initial findings revealed that over the last 40 years, the commune had experienced not only droughts and floods but also increasing heat and heavy rainfall. The commune council members and villagers, however, identified drought as the most impacting factor on the commune. While some saw the drought as a naturally occurring phenomenon, others cited mismanagement of water resources by the local authorities (village headman, commune council members etc.) as the cause. The VRA also found that droughts and other climatic threats have a bigger impact on the women of the community. The women are not only involved in agricultural and/or income generating activities but are also primarily responsible for water procurement for household use and consumption, making them more focused on the security of water resources, access and use. 

Three priority interventions – both infrastructure restoration and adaptation activities; ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ interventions – were identified to reduce the impact of drought in the region: 

1. Improve the water system (canal irrigation system)
2. Strengthen the function of the water management system
3. Establish new sources of water (ponds and household wells)

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Despite a lack of human and financial resources, underperformance of the water management committee, limited collaborations among relevant management stakeholders and lack of participation from user-stakeholders, the VRA tool helped The Learning Institute to gather general qualitative information regarding the perceptions of climate-related impacts in the commune and identify the shortcomings of existing adaptations. 

In an effort to improve the water system, The Learning Institute took on a canal restoration activity. By undertaking a systematic assessment of the canal, The Learning Institute, villagers and commune members identified alternative canals or canal sections from those proposed during the VRA. Restoration of these would benefit all villages/sectors, including Kampong Pil, the most remote and vulnerable of the villages. 

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The water management system in Voat Ta Muem centers on the Thmat Pong Water Pumping Station located in Kampong Chlang Village, which is directly managed by the Commune Council. Although there is a Commune-level Community Water Management Committee (CWMC), there is no genuine village-level representation on it. In comparison, the Ou Kcheay Water Pumping Station is a revenue-generating enterprise and performs better than the former. 

Water users pay 20,000 Riel for a lifetime membership at the Ou Kcheay Station after which water is sold by the hour. There is scheduled water access from their respective canal-sections. Every Monday, groups of villagers pay a service fee of 4,000 to 6,000 riel per hour, depending on the pipe’s diameter. The users bear the cost of the actual pumping operation in the form of equipment, such as pumps, petrol and pipes. This station belongs to the Commune Council, headed by the Commune Chief and is governed by a Commune Council-appointed four-member Management Committee or “Association” (samakum), comprising of two representatives from the two Ou Kcheay villages are tasked with its operation. 

The Thmat Pong Water Pumping Station does not have a membership scheme or a service fee. However, because water users pump water from the canal without a managed schedule, conflicts among downstream and upstream users do occur.

This station was established in 1976 during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Regime and was reconstructed in 1981. It was abandoned two years later due to lack of financial support, but in 2012, the Commune Chief made a request to the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Water Resources And Meteorology (MoWRAM) to rehabilitate the station. Improving the water management system plays an important role in the optimization of water distribution for agricultural production. The process of the canal restoration revealed that restoring a particular section of the main canal would distribute the flow of water to stations in villages in two separate areas. 

The overall decline in rainfall over the last 10 years has resulted in the most extreme form of drought. In 2016, the drought impacted agricultural production, vegetable and fruit production, as well as livestock raising. This has led the villagers to adopt a variety of other coping responses such as changing cropping calendar dates, adopting low-water consuming crops, as well as drilling wells to reduce drought impact on agricultural production. It should be stressed again that while many households practice two or more activities to earn their income, agriculture is still the primary livelihood occupation and without water, they incur a major setback. 

The Learning Institute conducted a Household (HH) Survey after the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), The households most dependent on agricultural activities were targeted for the survey. The household survey provided an understanding of the participants’ (the community) perception as well as their plans for a climate-related drought. In addition, the Learning Institute heard concerns regarding the irrigation canal system and its management, as well as the regulation of water flow in and across the target sites.

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Water availability was the priority. This problem could be solved with the restoration of the canal. Since 2017, the canal has been operational and now a total of 750 households have more reliable access to the water needed for their agricultural livelihoods. To sustain the availability, the Water Management System needed to be strengthened. Working Groups (WG) were established in each of the five villages. The objective of the Working Groups was to establish a sense of unity, instill an understanding of sustainable water usage, prevent conflict, and promote equal use of water.

Three of the five villages now have by-laws for the committee and water users. The by-laws are recognized by the commune and district council. A Training Needs Assessment (TNA) was also conducted with the committee of the Water User Groups and Working Groups to work on the development of human resources through the implementation of prioritized training activities. The training modules were on specific courses about the concept of water management and climate change, facilitation skills, conflict resolution and theory and practical learning in water management work. The Learning Institute organized meetings to provide them with the knowledge and skills in the implementation of water management and community development activities. 

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In order to help the commune adapt to the impacts of drought, The Learning Institute worked together with the Sangkae District Office of Agriculture to establish two Farmer Field Schools (FFS) during the course of this project. Prior to this study, only half of the households had a coping plan to adapt to climatic change. In addition, Participants estimated that up 50% of normal total agricultural production was lost due to the drought impacts that year. With greater scarcity of water resources, techniques that allow farmers to adapt are highly valuable in preserving livelihoods. Forty farmers across three villages came together for ten weeks and learned about climate-resilient farming techniques such as the concept of Climate Change Adaptation (CCA), seed selection, seedlings, soil management, drip irrigation systems, farm water management, harvesting, fertilization, as well as pest and disease management. The farmers were introduced to climate-smart practices and many soon adopted these methods in place of their traditional practices as it not only helped them in reducing water for irrigation but also increased their yield. 

To ensure that the commune will continue implementing the adaptation practices in the future, The Learning Institute, along with the commune council and representatives of Water User Groups and groups of the Farmer Field Schools, identified the best practices being implemented by the project so it can be integrated into the Community Investment Plan (CIP). This plan was finalized and submitted to the District Council for prioritization.

The success of this project doesn’t lie with The Learning Institute alone. Rather, it lies with the positive response and actions that were taken by the commune.

This project depicts the realities of the effects of climate change. It is imminent and it has several drastic impacts as seen during the course of this eighteen-month project implementation. Ultimately, we hope that other villages and communities can use the example of Voat Ta Meum to adapt.

Report editing assistance provided by Edel Galgon