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Cambodia

On his way home from work in Siem Reap  province several years ago, Riem Monisilong started choking and wheezing from a neighbor’s garbage fire. That was the last straw for the 35-year-old artist, who goes by Silong.

Garbage left on the land “will pollute the land, and if it is burned it will pollute it even more,” he said. “So I decided to make something out of that waste.”

Riem Monisilong stands in front of the colorful tables and sculptures he crafts from tires and other waste. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Read more: Trash Is the Attraction in Bar, Hotel Featuring Street Art

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Massive deforestation is playing a crucial role in the droughts that have devastated Cambodia. But despite an official ban on timber exports, forests continue to be cut down at a record rate

This article was published in the June edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here

One of only two countries in the world to feature a building on its national flag, Cambodia’s cultural narrative is inseparable from the legacy of the Angkorian empire. The architectural wonder of Angkor Wat and the feats of hydraulic engineering overseen by the god-kings of Angkor afforded them great economic and political power, and remain a source of great national pride.

“Don’t scorn us; we built Angkor Wat when some countries didn’t have independence and others didn’t even exist,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in response to foreign observers who criticised Cambodia’s 2002 local election process for failing to meet international standards.

But while the authoritarian leader has been quick to point to the wondrous achievements of the Angkorian empire as proof of his country’s technical prowess, he has been less willing to learn from its demise. The world’s largest pre-industrial city was built upon its ability to manipulate water, but water was also what brought it to its knees.

Today, the largely agrarian Southeast Asian nation is faced with the same dual threat of flooding and drought – and rampant deforestation means the situation is fast deteriorating, with a mounting body of scientific research showing that deforestation affects our climate more profoundly than we previously realised.

Not only does cutting down trees release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps heat and causes global temperatures to rise, it also directly causes drought and flash flooding.

“We don’t know exactly how much forest is needed [in Cambodia],” said Simon Mahood, senior technical advisor at the Wildlife Conservation Society, “but we do know that for water and biodiversity, large intact forest ecosystems are important, and they are the most important factor in ensuring resilience to climate change.”

Cambodia’s forests have been ravaged by large-scale logging since the early 1990s when both Khmer Rouge forces and the Phnom Penh government began selling timber concessions to private companies to fund their respective war chests.

The Cambodian government awarded between 30 and 40 logging concessions to private companies during the mid-1990s, temporarily handing over 39% of Cambodia’s total land, according to a report by environmental watchdog Global Witness that exposed the government-linked syndicates driving forest crime. What’s more, the report stated, these companies often operated beyond their legal boundaries and “committed serious human rights abuses against people living inside or adjacent to forest concessions.”

Read more: How Cambodia’s record deforestation is driving crippling drought

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In the wake of severe drought this year and with heavy rain predicted in the next weeks, work has begun on a European Union funded EUR 1 million project to boost disaster resilience in Cambodia.

The programme, which commenced in July 2016, aims to help at least 150,000 Cambodians prepare for droughts, floods and storms. However, for the first time, work is focused on cities like Phnom Penh and Kampot, as much as rural areas in Kampong Speu, Siem Reap, Battambang and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

"Climate change means natural disasters are getting more frequent and more severe across the country,” said Hun Boramey, Acting Country Director at ActionAid Cambodia. “The 2013 floods cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the human cost of this year’s drought is impossible to calculate.”

Read more: Disaster-Proofing Cambodia: New Phase of Disaster Resilience Work Gets Underway

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