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June 21, 2020
New Delhi: In Cambodia, where a large part of the economy is dependent on fisheries and agricultural food processing, COVID-19 has deeply impacted the industry resulting in reversing the developments related to SDG 8 of decent work and economic growth with respect to its farmer community, especially along the Mekong basin.
Cambodia’s agriculture sector is responsible for generation of more than 20% of its GDP and employs around 30% of the population.[i] Its position on the Global Food Security Index is below average at 90 out of 113 countries.
Furthermore, UNDP estimates that around 70% of Cambodia’s farms engage in subsistence agriculture by primarily taking loans and repaying them after the harvest season. There's a wide-spread poverty in the country, with the nation coming under the low per-capita income category. After the Mekong River crisis, around 45,000 hectares of rice farms were damaged creating a debt crisis for poor farmers.[ii] Consumers on the other side of the spectrum have been hit hard by lack of food supplies, rise in prices of staple foods and a halt in income caused due to COVID-19.
The failure of last monsoons and the presence of Chinese dams in the Northern part of the basin have unleashed drought-like conditions leading to poverty and food insecurity. It has affected farmers growing rice on their fields as well as the fishermen, who reported a fall in fish volume by 60-70% due to the drought-like conditions in the Mekong Basin. [iii]
Despite the government working towards ensuring a continuous operation of supply chains, food security is affected by lack of safety income-net for these Mekong delta inhabitants who are at the mercy of natural events and weather.
In the long-term, this region will face a two-pronged attack on its food security. Firstly, the lockdown measures under the COVID pandemic having caused an unprecedented shortage of labour for agriculture coupled with the drought the region will be facing, there will be a slowdown in its supply-side activities. This would affect income equalities and food supply-chains for the larger public in Cambodia, Lao, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. Secondly, due to the pandemic, unemployment and price rises will result in income shortages. Prices of staple foods in areas like Siem Reap have been estimated to have shot up by 33.33% in Cambodia. [iv] This will impact the demand due to inability of the buyers to pay for the food items like rice and fish.
As countries strive to be more self-sufficient and reduce import-dependency by promoting local supply chains, the Mekong River Basin could be heading towards post-COVID-19 food insecurity. Furthermore, water shortage is also a reason behind slow progress in sanitation in rural areas, which could cause a major health-crisis.
In this scenario, adopting sustainable agricultural practices and latest irrigation techniques that reduce reliability on weather, especially when the globe is facing an acute climate change crisis, will be beneficial. If not tackled timely, the Mekong River Crisis coupled with the COVID-19 could see rollback of any progress made not only on SDG goals 1, 2 and 6 regarding no poverty, zero hunger and water sanitation, but also on SDG 13 and 14 regarding climate action and sustainable usage of water resources.
(Tamanna Dahiya is an intern with OneWorld Foundation India)
[i] “Back to School: As the Climate Shifts, Cambodian Farmers Take up New Training.” UNDP Climate Change Adaptation, www.adaptation-undp.org/back-school-climate-shifts-cambodian-farmers-take-new-training.
[ii] Narin, Sun, and VOA Khmer. “Pursat Farmers Struggle To Keep Rice Fields Irrigated, Worries Increase Over Migration and Debt.” VOA, VOA Cambodia, 24 Dec. 2019, www.voacambodia.com/a/pursat-farmers-struggle-to-keep-rice-fields-irrigated-worries-increase-over-migration-and-debt/5217932.html.
[iii] Weatherby, Courtney, and John Lichtefeld. “In the Mekong, a Confluence of Calamities.” Foreign Policy, 28 Apr. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/28/in-the-mekong-a-confluence-of-calamities/.
[iv] “Pandemic Causes Rise in Consumer Price Index.” Khmer Times, 7 Apr. 2020, www.khmertimeskh.com/710643/pandemic-causes-rise-in-consumer-price-index/.