Engaging citizens in climate adaptation

By Lien Pham


Cambodia occupied 13th place as the most vulnerable country to global climate risk between 1995 and 2018. In 2016, Cambodia ranked 8th in the World Risk Index (National Council for Sustainable Development, 2017). It is the fifth country of 162 countries with the highest flood risk which affects 1.8 million people every year. Flood kill people annually which accounts for 100 people and produce the loss of the agricultural sector from 100 to 170 million US dollars each year (UNISDR, 2006).


Climate change adaptation is critical for all Cambodians, and more so for poor people in lowland areas and vulnerable to natural disasters such as flood, hurricanes, typhoons, storms, and landslides.


Although rural people, as found in our study in the project “Climate Change and Adaptive Capacities of Vulnerable Communities in Rural Cambodia”, recognise the effect of unpredictable wet and dry season and occurrence of flood and intense rain, many lack knowledge and means to adapt to climate hazards. The stories we have uncovered show a stark picture of despair but also an incredible story of courage and resilience that need to be told. They speak of unmet needs, frustrations, and change-makings are from multiple perspectives, WASH, health and wellbeing, livelihood, economic, security.


Climate change policy and programming in Cambodia tends to take a top-down approach, often viewing adaptation and mitigation as a source of funding rather than as a meaningful responsibility of duty bearers. The ‘green growth’ model is the mantra of the national government wherein adaptation is assumed to be technological and a ‘positive externality’ of economic development. This leads to a focus on those with growth potential, which implicitly downplays disaster risks or the priorities or risks of the most vulnerable and those living in remote rural areas. Moreover, the voices and needs of citizens especially those who live in rural areas are often unheard.


In addition, ‘in the drive to develop large-scale monocultures, there is little consideration by government planners or agribusiness interests of the social and environmental costs of their activities’ (Ironside 2015, p. 218).  Smallholders like family rice farmers are being left out of the technical support that large plantations have benefited from, but also that their vulnerability may be exacerbated by dominant strategies.


Bottom-up solutions that are from the local perspectives and allow for ownership and participation are critical for effective climate adaptation.


Meaningful participation of rights holder groups, alongside grassroot associations including youths, and NGOs, community-based organizations (CBOs) and constituency groups are starting to emerge with genuine influence on both government and NGO programming.


CBOs in Cambodia are finding their voice, often bypassing more established NGOs. Many are now largely acknowledged by NGOs and donors as key to participation in advocacy efforts to demand accountability from those responsible for environmental destruction and loss of livelihoods. This may reflect subtle changes in Cambodia’s polity, but importantly, increasingly precarious state of rural livelihoods in a context of widespread dispossession and deteriorating farming and fishing conditions due to climate change.


“Farmers, fishers and forest-dependent villagers have become increasingly vocal and determined in Cambodia; now representing a major force for social change that the ruling party cannot ignore.”

(Milne and Mahanty, 2015, p. 9).


“Cambodians … realize that there is more to democracy than voter registration.”

(Baaz and Lilja 2014, p. 6)


Against this emergent civil movement of climate actions, we propose the Citizens’ Climate Network (CCN) – a community-based network that is locally owned with direct community engagement to raise the communities’ awareness about climate related issues and adaptive measure, and bring their perspectives about climate risks and actions to policy dialogues. Building on the transformative model of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and its regional affiliate, GEN-Africa, we want to emulate GEN’s model of creating sustainable and resilient ecovillages, many which are most sustainable communities on earth.


The CCN is a testing ground for knowledge mobilization between authorities and citizens on climate change and adaptation, while finding a space to raise awareness about the importance of working together to give power, legitimation, and voice to all.


Works cited

Baaz, M. and M. Lilja, (2014). Understanding hybrid democracy in Cambodia: The nexus between liberal democracy, the state, civil society, and a “politics of presence”’. Asian Politics and Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 5–24.

Ironside, J., (2015). What about the ‘unprotected’ areas? Building on traditional forms of ownership and land use for dealing with new contexts, in S. Milne and S. Mahanty, eds, Conservation and Development in Cambodia: Exploring Frontiers in Nature, State and Society. London: Routledge, pp. 203–224.

Milne, S. and S. Mahanty, (2015). The political ecology of Cambodia’s transformation, in S. Milne and S. Mahanty, eds, Conservation and Development in Cambodia: Exploring Frontiers in Nature, State and Society. London: Routledge, pp. 1–27.

National Council for Sustainable Development. (2017). National Adaptation Plan Process in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Ministry of Environment.

UNISDR. (2006). Cambodia disaster statistic. Bangkok, Thailand: UNISDR Asia-Pacific region.


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