Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Resilient communities in a changing environment

By Jorge Alvarez-Sala

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala
Yuen Roun washes her baby with water from a nearby pond, Veal village, Siem Reap province.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, 4 August 2015 – Yuen Roun is 37 years old, has two children and a big debt that obliged her husband to migrate from Cambodia to Thailand a few weeks ago. 

Roun’s family lives in Veal village, Siem Reap province. They are landless farmers so they work as daily labourers for other (poor and nearly poor) neighbours.  

Late in 2013 Roun’s husband got malaria, just before the rice harvesting season. This is the time with the most job opportunities for daily labourers, but her husband had to stay home for months and the family had no income. As a result, they had to resort to requesting a loan of $100 from a local microfinance organisation. 

Early in 2014, Roun’s husband recovered and migrated to Thailand to work and repay the loan. However, his employer did not pay what he promised and, after 14 months of work, Roun’s husband could only send home enough money to feed his family. In the meantime the debt, with an interest rate of 36% per year, increased to USD 300. Considering that one third of Cambodians earn less than $1.25 a day, the debt represents a big burden for the family. If Roun’s family doesn’t pay the loan by the end of the year, the bank will seize their limited possessions. They do not even own the shelter they live in. 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala
Yuen Roun’s house in Veal village, Siem Reap province.

Roun’s family exemplifies the extreme vulnerability of many Cambodian households. A household’s breadwinner getting sick, or any other external event like extreme weather conditions resulting in a poor harvest, can push an already poor family down into extreme poverty. 

In this context, the concept of resiliency – the capacity of people and communities to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard – is very relevant. 

This year, Cambodia suffered what seems to be the worst drought in several years. The rainy season has been delayed for almost two months, and even if the first rains started a few weeks ago, rainfall is below average for this period of the year and rivers continue to be at historic low levels. 

The drought hit hard in Veal village too: one of the 16 wells in the 900-inhabitant village has gone dry, and the remaining ones are insufficient to provide water to the entire community. Ponds have been the main source of drinking water for many households during the dry season.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala
Yuen Roun forced to fetch water from a nearby pond in Veal village, Siem Reap province, as a result of the 2015 drought.

Veal village is located relatively close to Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia’s largest fresh water reservoir, and is extremely vulnerable to both droughts and floods. The only well that hasn’t gone dry in the village is the one UNICEF rehabilitated last year, after the well was affected by floods during the previous rainy season. In this case, the rehabilitation was carried out following the “building back better” principle, making the infrastructure more resilient to disasters by elevating the platform by 70 cm, so that future floods would not affect the well by polluting its water. 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala
This well in Veal village, Siem Reap province, has been raised to prevent flood damage. 

According to UNDP, Cambodia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in Asia. The socio-economic vulnerability of poor rural Cambodian households, together with an expected increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events caused by climate change, is a deep concern.

For this reason, UNICEF is addressing this issue and mainstreaming the concept of resiliency in its programmes. Drilling deeper wells and elevating well platforms are just two simple examples of how communities can become more resilient to the impact of climate change. 

Find out more about what UNICEF and its partners are doing about resiliency here

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