In the Mekong, a Confluence of Calamities

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Drought coupled with the coronavirus pandemic spells danger for food security.

Foreign Policy

Over the past year, severe drought exacerbated by upstream hydropower dams has throttled agricultural productivity, devastated fisheries, and threatened the livelihoods of millions of people in the Mekong River Basin. The coronavirus pandemic is compounding this situation, disrupting supply chains and increasing price volatility for rice and other staples. While Mekong governments have assured their populations of secure food supplies, concerns are growing around the affordability and accessibility of food for the region’s most vulnerable populations. Nowhere are these risks of growing food insecurity more evident than in Cambodia.

For farmers and fishers throughout the Mekong River Basin, the coronavirus couldn’t have hit at a worse time. In April 2019, the region began suffering a prolonged and severe drought. An El Niño weather pattern led to widespread water shortages, as the monsoon rains—which typically fall from May to October and usher in planting of the primary rice crop—failed to appear. Reservoirs across the region began to run dry, and the waters of the lower Mekong dropped to historic lows. Chinese dams on the upper Mekong worsened the drought’s impact, restricting water from flowing downstream where it could have alleviated record dry conditions.

Agricultural communities have suffered greatly. By July, Thailand declared an emergency in 12 provinces and asked farmers to delay planting rice crops to avoid using what little water was left for vulnerable households. Reservoir levels remained low throughout the rainy season, and in early 2020, Bangkok deployed the military to implement drought disaster mitigation in 43 provinces. Preliminary estimates point to a sharp drop of between 40 percent and 54 percent for the country’s off-season rice production. Meanwhile in Laos, water levels on the Mekong River were recorded nearly 7 meters below normal in Vientiane. Because of the arid conditions, farmers were able to plant rice only on around 40 percent of the country’s arable land, and the government estimated that production for the year would be 17,500 tons lower than in 2018. Vietnam has faced similar challenges but fared better. With freshwater flows in the Mekong diminished, saline seawater pushed farther into the country’s delta heartland, eventually damaging over 30,000 hectares of rice fields. The government moved quickly to work with farmers to shift rice-planting seasons and avoid risking the main crop, and as a result, the country’s production is anticipated to drop by only around 3 percent in 2020.

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Cambodia has been hit particularly hard by the drought. By December, some 45,000 hectares of rice paddy had been damaged, and 16 of the country’s 25 provinces were facing freshwater shortages. The government recommended that farmers forgo a second rice crop to conserve water, and aid organizations began to share reports of farmers struggling under the debt burden of failed crops.

As a still developing nation, Cambodia remains heavily reliant on agriculture to sustain livelihoods and provide food. Subsistence farming is common—the United Nations Development Program estimates that over 70 percent of Cambodian farms engage in some version of the practice—and the agriculture sector employs more than 30 percent of the population, contributing more than one-fifth of the national GDP. The majority of farmed land is used for rice, and farmers regularly take out loans to cover the cost of supplies necessary for their harvest. For many, a poor or destroyed crop yield can mean financial ruin.

At the same time that the region’s agriculture has been starved of water, the country’s fish catch has collapsed. The Mekong River system is the world’s largest freshwater fishery, typically producing more than 2.6 million tons of fish each year. A quarter of this comes from Cambodia and most of that from the Tonle Sap Lake. While heavy monsoons in 2018 led to a larger than usual catch, changes in flow from hydropower dams and climate change, as well as overfishing, have led to steeply declining catches in recent years.

The Mekong River’s natural productivity is fueled by the rains: The influx of water from the monsoon causes the tributary linking the Tonle Sap and the Mekong to reverse course. This reversal floods the Tonle Sap and carries juvenile fish into the surrounding forests and plains. When the monsoon ends, the river changes course once again, and water and grown fish flood back into the Mekong mainstream. The greater the flood, the more bountiful the fish catch. This flood pulse largely failed in 2019 because of drought and upstream dam interference with water flow. As early as October, fishermen living along the Tonle Sap Lake were reporting observed fish catches 60 to 70 percent below average.

As with rice, fish is a key source of sustenance for the country. More than 2 million Cambodians work in fisheries, which account for between 10 percent and 18 percent of Cambodia’s GDP. Fish also provide approximately 70 percent of the animal protein consumed in Cambodia, so a significant reduction could lead to acute spikes in food insecurity. In communities along the Tonle Sap, the drop in catch has contributed to an outmigration of labor and pushed families to take on loans to cover daily expenses.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index lists Cambodia near the bottom of its rankings, at 90 out of 113 countries evaluated. Cambodia’s relative food insecurity reflects its modest level of economic development, as well as its lack of dietary diversity due to an overreliance on rice and fish. Even in a normal year, one-fifth of the population is food deprived, and undernutrition is widespread.

While the global market could normally provide substitutions for a drought year’s lost fish catch and diminished rice production, the coronavirus pandemic is leading to food shortages and price spikes where domestic supply chains have been disrupted. Demand for staples like rice and flour has surged due to panic-buying. In Cambodia, rice prices in Siem Reap rose 33 percent from March to April. Even in Thailand, which has a significant national stockpile of rice, prices have risen more than 25 percent since the start of the year, hitting their highest levels in seven years. After fish, pork is by far the most widely consumed protein source in Cambodia. But successive outbreaks of African swine fever in China and neighboring Vietnam have limited regional supplies over the last year, driving prices up in impacted markets and in countries like Cambodia that rely on imports.

Rice stockpiles in Thailand and Vietnam appear more than sufficient to meet national needs, but uncertainty around the extent to which the coronavirus will impact regional economies has translated into export bans to ensure domestic food security. In March, Vietnam briefly banned the export of rice, only to replace the ban with an export cap in mid-April. Analysts predict the country’s export volume will drop approximately 40 percent as a result. While Thailand hopes to benefit from increasing rice exports, its government has asked the private sector for support in ensuring that domestic supplies remain robust and banned the export of eggs following reports of localized hoarding. Cambodia has instituted its own measures, announcing an export ban on some types of rice on March 30 and on April 4 extending the ban to include fish exports. Negotiators from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in early April to discuss rules for maintaining the open trade of agricultural goods but failed to reach a substantive agreement.

From its own assessment, Cambodia should have adequate food stocks to meet national demand; however, the outlook for vulnerable indebted fishing and farming communities is less sanguine. Access and affordability will become increasingly critical issues as the crisis wears on and the economic impacts build. The country’s export bans may provide localized short-term benefits but could also exacerbate supply chain disruptions and result in income loss for farmers and fishermen if not carefully managed. While cities that house the country’s elites and burgeoning middle class should be able to take steps to ensure food availability at reasonable prices, rural communities scattered in villages throughout the countryside may find their local food systems less adaptable.

In normal times, market mechanisms and supply chains enable substitutions for shortages or price spikes impacting staple goods—but these are not normal times. Poor Cambodians could be facing an unprecedented confluence of income loss, supply shortages, high food prices, and supply chain disruptions. The government will need to carefully monitor this situation in the near term and should be taking steps to prepare interventions in the event that the country’s farming and fishing communities are unable to provide for themselves.

Once the acute crisis sparked by the coronavirus threat has passed, Cambodia and its neighbors will still be faced with the long-term challenge of ensuring a sustainable and vibrant Mekong River system. While anthropogenic climate change and naturally occurring weather patterns like El Niños are largely beyond policymakers’ control, Mekong governments can act now to implement policies and protocols to mitigate the worst of their impacts in the future. This should include engaging with Beijing to negotiate year-round data-sharing on the river’s level and the operations of China’s upstream dam cascade. It should also include an exploration of alternatives to existing proposals for new dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in Laos, which if built would only worsen the already dwindling fish catch.

The coronavirus pandemic presents a difficult but hopefully short-term food security challenge for Cambodia’s most vulnerable. However, droughts will be a recurring problem for the region that will require a focused response to ensure agricultural crises do not become the norm. For Cambodia, which is so heavily reliant on the natural flood pulse for its food supply, preservation of the river’s natural flow to the Tonle Sap should be a top priority.

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