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Throughout most of its recent history, Cambodia has been beset by political strife. After gaining independence from France in 1953, the country was dragged by global politics into a period of profound violence. In 1975, the Communist Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and evacuated all cities and towns, causing the deaths of around 1.5 million Cambodians through execution, starvation, and hardship. Cambodia fared somewhat better during the 10-year Vietnamese occupation that followed. In 1991, the Paris Peace Accords led to a ceasefire and eventually to free elections. How ever, the long years of political strife left Cambodia struggling economically and environmentally.
Bordering on the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia has a coastline of 443 kilometers. The climate is tropical with seasonal variations. The rainy season generally lasts from May to November and is followed by a five-month dry season. Monsoons are common between June and November, and flooding and occasional droughts threaten the stability of life. Though the government created flood protection sleeves, many migrants have made their homes in these structures, limiting ability to control water flow. Most of the terrain is flat with interspersing paddies and forests. In the southwest and north, the land is mountainous. Cambodia’s most distinct geographic features and the ones perhaps most important to its history, are the Mekong River and Tonle Sap, a lake in the western part of the country. During the dry season, the Tonle Sap drains to the Mekong. But this flow is reversed on an enormous scale during the rainy season, which increases the size of the lake by more than three times, ensuring a flow of fresh water into the Mekong delta to support agriculture, and producing a unique and enormous fishery that supplies most of the country’s protein. Other natural resources include oil and gas, timber, gemstones, small deposits of iron ore, manganese, phosphates, and the potential for developing hydropower.
In 1999, an agreement with the United States and a guaranteed quota of textile imports paved the way for economic growth, but competition has since slowed economic recovery. Three-fourths of the workforce is involved in subsistence farming. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and one-third of Cambodians are chronically undernourished. Rice, the staple food for most Cambodians, is often destroyed by flooding and drought. The per capita income of $2,100 places Cambodia 173rd in world incomes.
Pressing Environmental Issues
Cambodia’s population of 13,600,000 people is threatened by a number of health factors, including a high HIVIAIDS rate (2.6 percent) that produces lower life expectancy (59.29 years), growth rates (1.81 percent), high infant mortality (68.78 deaths per 1,000 live births), and death rates (8.97 deathsI1,000 population). It is difficult to disseminate health and environmental information because of educational deficiencies. Eighty percent of the population lives in rural areas where there is a serious lack of potable water; around 66 percent of Cambodians do not have access to safe drinking water. Only 16 percent of the total population has access to improved sanitation. Consequently, food and waterborne diseases are common, including cholera, bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Some locations are also vulnerable to vectorborne diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and Japanese encephalitis. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports rank Cambodia 130th of 232 nations in overall quality of life.
One of Cambodia’s most pressing environmental problems is waste management. Domestic and industrial effluents and solid wastes have cause extensive pollution of surface and groundwater. Hazardous wastes released by industries are frequently burned in open dumpsites. Extensive deforestation has occurred from illegal logging, and gem strip mining along the Thai border has created vast wastelands. The loss of large areas of mangrove swamps and overfishing are threatening the fisheries that are essential to Cambodian survival.
Widespread soil erosion is a by-product of natural disasters and human mismanagement. River and coastal sedimentation from logging has degraded coastal, marine, and freshwater resources. Water samples reveal residue from toxic pesticides. In 2006, a study by Yale University ranked Cambodia 110 of 132 countries in environmental performance, well below the relevant income and geographic groups. The lowest ranking was in the field of environmental health. Although estimates vary, it is generally believed that a little over half of Cambodia has some forest cover remaining. The government has protected 18.5 percent of the land. Of 123 endemic mammal species, 24 are threatened with extinction, and 19 of 183 endemic bird species are similarly endangered.
After peace was restored in 1991, the Cambodian government launched a recovery effort by passing a body of environmental legislation. The Ministry of Environment was charged with environmental protection and conservation of natural resources and instructed to work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to promote sustainable development. This task is made more difficult by over-lapping responsibilities, the shortage of skilled staff, and chronic funding shortages. Cambodia has signed the following international agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands. The Law of the Sea agreement has been signed but not ratified.
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin H. Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Asia: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Michael C. Howard, Asia‘s Environmental Crisis (Westview, 1993).