In the month of March, every year shortly before the end of the dry season that gives way to the expected rains, the day comes when Keo Siem dresses in white and waits for the call of the drums and the ancestral songs of his neighbors to invoke the spirit of Yeay Keo. It is he, says the 68-year-old shaman, who during this trance will tell her how the rains will be in the coming months, essential for planning the rice harvests on which her village and much of the rest of Cambodia, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change, depend.
But the protective spirit of the village has not brought good news for some time. “This year she told me that the floods would not reach the village or many of the plantations, which would only cover the forest,” says the skinny, shaven woman from her home in Ou Ta Prok, a village of about 200 people in Cambodia’s Pursat province in the west of the country. As announced by the shaman, a very common figure in rural Cambodia, where Buddhist practices coexist with superstition and esotericism. The rainy season, traditionally between May and November, has been terrible. A few years ago storms caused the Tonlé Sap River, an affluent of the Mekong, to overflow and flood the municipality at least once a year, while nurturing the ubiquitous rice fields. Now, they either never happen or they come unexpectedly and with excessive virulence.
“The climate crisis is causing changes in weather patterns that profoundly affect Cambodia. What we see is the wrong amount of water, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” says Nick Beresford of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Cambodia.
This country is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia and has suffered from everything in recent years: from severe flooding in 2013 to a severe drought in 2015 due to the effects of El Niño, repeated this year with less intensity. It is a volatility that especially affects this nation “because of its geography and low capacity to adapt, since people lack the means or capital to mitigate the effects of climate change,” adds Beresford. About 80 per cent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas and about half work in the agricultural sector, whose production still depends on 80% rain irrigation, according to UNDP. Rice alone, the main crop in the country, accounts for about 26 per cent of GDP and employs more than three million people out of a total of 16 million, according to its Ministry of Agriculture.
Along with Ou Ta Prok, hundreds of cities around the world are suffering from this situation. That is why is is crucial to take action right now, starting with the first world in changing the way we consume, the way we eat, the way we travel and ultimately the way we live.
Adapted from an article from “El País”, 10/12/2019 by Paloma Almoguera.