In Cambodia, climate change is already driving migration 

Increasingly unreliable weather patterns are pushing farmers into the city in search of better livelihoods. Now is the time to adapt, writes Thong Sariputta

Thong Sariputta
March 7, 2023
In Cambodia, climate change is already driving migration 
A man in Cambodia's Kandal province during a drought in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Pring Samrang

As global temperatures rise, Cambodia’s agricultural workers and their families are left at the whims of unpredictable disaster. 

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges for development especially in lower-income countries, which rely heavily on agriculture. In Cambodia, approximately 65% of the population is dependent on the agricultural sector, including fishing and non-timber forest products, both as sources of food but also economic growth.  

That reliance, along with high levels of poverty, is among the factors that have long led the World Bank and other organisations to identify Cambodia as particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In 2021, the national Ministry of Environment announced that about 79% of Cambodians had already been affected by a shifting climate, as seen through declining numbers of fish and agricultural production. 

“It was a cycle, and it kept happening,” Yorn Riya, a farmer from Prey Veng province and an internal migrant, told news outlet VOD that same year. 

Riya said farming required investments that couldn’t always be covered by the gains of a harvest, which also had to feed her family. As with thousands of other internal migrants, Riya traveled to the city for work to escape that cycle of struggling to make a living in the fields.

According to the World Bank, the vast majority of climate migrants are moving within their country’s borders as they seek better lives in a changing environment. By 2050, there could be approximately 216 million internal climate migrants globally and it is likely that urban areas will become hotspots for rural-to-urban migration. Cambodia seems to be no exception to this.

A 2018 study on migration as an adaptive response to climate change in Cambodia found that climate-related issues often led to debt and food insecurity. 

The study also found that up to 45% of the 218 households surveyed in three rural, northwestern areas had chosen to migrate. More than half of that migration was climate-related, but it is unclear to what extent it was internal or external.

A 2021 official report from the Environment Ministry and the National Council for Sustainable Development found that four of five interviewed respondents said that changes in resource availability and weather patterns have affected their ability to generate income and sustain their households.

“It is very difficult when I have no rice to sell. The most important thing for farmers is rice. If there is no water during a drought, how can I farm?” Chhorn Ngyim, a rice farmer in Kampong Thom province, told local outlet Khmer Times that year.

In 2022, Cambodian cashew nut farmers reported a sharp drop in prices and output for their crops in part due to climate change. According to Uon Silot, president of the Cashew nut Association of Cambodia, changes to growing conditions have produced “less and lower quality” of the nuts.

Coming to the city in search of a better paying job might at first glance seem like a way to escape “the cycle”. But is it really?

Challenges of future migration

The question we must ask concerns whether Cambodia is ready for this pattern of mass migration, and what we should do to better prepare the country to navigate this inevitable shift.

The first and leading concern is the high housing price generated by supply and demand mismatch. With more than 2.2 million people, Phnom Penh is currently a hotspot for commercial and business activities, serving as a gateway to the global economy. As the city continues to grow, the urbanised population is expected to increase 36% by 2050. The influx of people from rural areas coming into the city for work generates higher demand, especially for cheap rental housing. In Phnom Penh’s housing market, such projects are not nearly as attractive to real estate developers, who tend to prefer profitable and prestigious projects. 

The Cambodian office of international real estate and investment firm CBRE estimated last year that about 300 new gated housing communities, known as borey, would enter the market by the end of 2022. The firm expected another 400 borey to come online this year.

Such development leads to rising land values and pushes cheap rental housing further outside the city. Workers from provincial or rural areas will have to pay more for decent, convenient places to stay. Viewed in this light, the construction of additional, affordable urban housing should become an absolute imperative for the Cambodian government in both the short and long term.

More sustainable solutions

At the same time, urbanisation may also be a major contributor to climate change itself. 

As cities continue to grow, more buildings, vehicles and industries are required to accommodate people’s needs, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions. The UN Environment Programme estimates that cities are responsible for 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors. 

Adding to their vulnerability, low-skilled and unskilled internal migrants are just as vulnerable to employment loss as overseas migrants, with many reportedly employed in potentially unstable industries such as construction and garment manufacturing. 

Since the nature of work in Cambodia is already changing and being reshaped by the rapid introduction of new and advanced technologies, low-skilled and unskilled internal migrants are easily the first to be out of jobs. Losing these jobs makes them more likely to return home and fall back into a poverty cycle exacerbated by climate change – exactly the situation they initially tried to escape.

To mitigate this, rural development, as well as the development of smaller Cambodian towns and cities, will need to be a key component of the government’s strategy to navigate the impacts of climate change. 

Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan 2019-2023 lays some groundwork on key government priorities and actions for 2019-23. This broadly covers inclusive and sustainable development in rural areas, marked by economic diversification through promotion of entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises.

If rural people are able to be less reliant on agriculture, with a greater diversity of jobs in their hometowns, they will have less incentive to migrate far from home. This will further reduce the crowded population within Cambodia’s capital city and prevent rural brain drain.

This challenge of development will require increased government services, especially in education and vocational training, to better equip the population to navigate this shift. 

With the right help, people can take advantage of new technologies to adapt and become more resilient. Climate-smart agriculture, for instance, is an integrated approach introduced by the World Bank to achieve “triple wins” of increased productivity, reduced emissions and enhanced resilience. By utilising innovative technologies, expert knowledge, financial planning, and principles of sustainable agriculture, many countries have already won some ground in promoting smarter agriculture.

Remote working can also present a way to cut transportation costs, save time and energy and allow people to work regardless of their location. Investments in telecommunications infrastructure for rural areas are not often thought of as strategies for climate change adaptation but, given their potential as an alternative to migration, they should be reconsidered as such.

To cope with some of climate change’s more wide-ranging impacts, countries like Cambodia must harness their creativity. Rural development, including reliable education, training and telecommunications, as well as affordable urban housing, may not seem directly linked to climate fallout. But in the future, without strategic action on these issues and more, Cambodia’s path will be all the more arduous.    

Migration, regardless of whether it is to find new opportunities or escape disasters or insecurity, requires social cooperation. Only with a coordinated approach at local and national levels can Cambodia prepare to face this challenge.

Thong Sariputta is a Young Research Fellow at Cambodia-based think tank, Future Forum. Her research interests include labour migration, human security, and governance.

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