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Back to school: As the climate shifts, Cambodian farmers take up new training

For families engaged in subsistence agriculture – some 73 percent of Cambodian farms – climate information is crucial. Photo: Kandal Province © Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia

Phnom Penh, 16 July 2019 – Farmers in Cambodia are going back to school, ‘FARM School’, this year, in a new UNDP-supported training programme aimed at increasing their use of forecasts in crop planning and decision-making.  The programme, under development with Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES) and dubbed ‘FARM’ School (short for Forecast Application for Risk Management in Agriculture), is to be used by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a standard training programme for the use of climate information in agricultural practices.

“Climate information has always been important in the hands of farmers. Yet with climate change driving more unpredictable and extreme weather, it’s ever more so.  This initiative – to be tested and rolled out in Battambang and Kampong Speu provinces – is part of our efforts to raise awareness of the changes, and the importance of local adaptation,” said UNDP Early Warning Systems Project Manager Muhibuddin Usamah.

“Scaling up local and national capacity in generating and using forecasts is crucial for Cambodia’s preparedness and feeds into the government’s comprehensive Climate Change Strategic Plan (2014-2023). Adaptation is key to reducing vulnerability.”

Climate change impacts on Cambodia

Cambodia is already seeing the fingerprints of climate change in rising temperatures, shifting patterns of rainfall and extreme weather events – storms, floods and droughts – over the past decade. Projections show those events are set to increase in frequency and severity.

Statistics reflect the Southeast Asian nation’s vulnerability. In 2011’s Climate Risk Index, Cambodia was ranked second globally (to Thailand), due to devastating floods which took the lives of more than 247 people, destroying houses and ruining rice crops.  In 2013’s Index, Cambodia again ranked second (after the Philippines) due to a particularly severe monsoon season in which widespread flooding in 20 provinces killed 188 people and affected more than 1.7 million.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index for 1998–2017, Cambodia ranked 19 of 181 countries in fatalities and financial impacts caused by extreme weather events.

The country’s vulnerability is magnified by its reliance on agriculture. Around 30 percent of Cambodians are employed in agriculture, with it contributing to almost a quarter of GDP. Subsistence agriculture – that is, small-scale farming providing for the farmer and their family, with little leftover – is the main income source for most of the country’s rural population.

In this context, accurate climate information is crucial to farming households to guide choice of crops and cultivation.

A hands-on programme designed with and for farmers

The new FARM School programme is part of a series of RIMES-led initiatives under the UNDP-supported project Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems helping the Cambodian Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology to assimilate climate information through historical data and data from the automatic weather and hydrological stations installed by the project.

“There are a number of steps in developing and implementing FARM School,” said Project Manager Muhibuddin Usamah. “First, the authorities, with the guidance of RIMES, assess farmers’ needs (for this, we are engaging officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and other institutions who have been working with farmers). The information is then used to customise RIMES’ curriculum, including objectives, content and methodologies suitable for the local context.

“Following that, the curriculum is tested during training of sub-national trainers and farmer leaders, and in dialogue with relevant communities, before it is rolled out. It’s truly a hands-on programme designed with and for farmers.”

As well as teaching aspects of climate monitoring, prediction and forecasting application, the curriculum facilitates regular discussions between farmers, extension workers and meteorological authorities.

The programme also includes an orientation on RIMES’ ‘SESAME’ (Specialized Expert System for Agro Meteorology Early-Warning) tool, an online decision-support system with easy access to forecasts and advisories via SMS, Facebook, and a mobile application.

Closing the gaps

Currently in Cambodia, climate information from the Department of Meteorology is not fully integrated into farmers’ planning and decision-making, due to a lack of mechanisms to identify their needs; farmers’ limited access to climate information; a lack of guidance to them on interpreting the forecast; and weak or non-existent feedback loops between farmers and the Department.

Yet to plan and protect their crops, farmers need both short-term and long-term climate information.  

If farmers know ten days in advance that heavy rainfall is coming, they can act to reduce or prevent damage – for example, they may construct a makeshift shelter; they may decide to harvest and hire machine to do milling; they may delay harvesting if crops can withstand the conditions.

With longer-term climate forecasts, farmers can take action such as adjusting their land preparation time, or changing their selection of crop type and cropping method; meanwhile, the authorities might use the information to research and recommend drought or flood-resistant crop varieties for a particular province.

With monthly information, farmers can adjust their crop activities. If, for example, above average rainfall is projected, farmers can consider and take mitigating action against related problems such as pests and diseases.

FARM Schools will help close the gaps.

Coming up

With continued support from UNDP and RIMES, the General Directorate of Agriculture will train resource persons from various entities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries later this month on programme development, implementation and assessment.

Next month, agricultural officers in the pilot locations of Battambang and Kampong Speu will be trained as expert users in the agro-advisory system ‘SESAME’, equipping them with the skills to feed data into the system for the automated generation of advisories.

Meanwhile, local extension workers – employed by the government to interface with farmers and help increase their productivity – and farmer leaders will also undergo a ‘Train the Trainers’ course, to equip them to offer FARM School to farmers in their communes.

Schools are expected to roll out in Battambang and Kampong Speu from the middle of August.

For further information, please contact:

Mr. Muhibuddin Usamah, Early Warning Systems Project Manager, UNDP Cambodia

Ms. Carlyne Yu, Team Leader, Risk Knowledge Applications, RIMES,

Mr. Am Phirum, Deputy Director, Department of Agricultural Land Resources Management, General Directorate of Agriculture, MAFF 

Earlier this month, a 2-day ‘writeshop’ in Phnom Penh brought together representatives from the General Directorate of Agriculture; Department of Meteorology; Department of Hydrology and River Works; Agriculture Research Institutes, Extension Office and local agriculture-related NGOs, to customise the curriculum and training materials. © RIMES

Deputy Director of the Department of Agricultural Land Resource Management, Mr. Am Phirum, facilitating discussion on climate-related challenges in Kampong Speu District, at the FARM School ‘Writeshop’, Phnom Penh, July 2, 2019 © Pone Nyet Khaing

Deliberating on the contents of the currciulum for FARM School © RIMES

As part of the FARM School programme, participants visit a weather observation station. Photo: Automatic weather station installed under the project Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems © Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia

Application of short and long-term climate information in decision-making © RIMES

Climate uncertainty is increasing in Cambodia, though trends towards higher temperatures, wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons are emerging. Photo: Kompong Thom Province © Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia

Online forecasting via the Department of Meteorology

FARM School curriculum by RIMES