A USAID-funded Cambodia fisheries project outperformed productivity goals after incorporating climate-sensitive design, including planning for increased risk of drought and extreme heat events.
The Feed the Future Cambodia Rice Field Fisheries I (RFF II) project boosts fishery productivity in the Tonle Sap floodplain. Project implementers employed systemic climate risk management (CRM) actions to improve biophysical conditions across 481 hectares, exceeding their target by six hectares.
These improvements build the area’s climate resilience by helping to protect fish habitats and diversity, maintain fish biomass, and secure water for drinking and irrigation. As climate change poses real threats to agricultural systems, CRM plays a crucial role in creating the sustainable and resilient practises necessary to achieve food and nutrition security goal. The project has helped build the capacity of communities to raise nearly $270,000 for rice field fisheries management and conservation, according to USAID Cambodia.
Nearly 150,000 Cambodians produced and consumed more fish at home in 2020 than in the previous year due to climate-resilient measures undertaken by the project, which succeeded in increasing fish production in spite of prolonged droughts in 2018, 2019 and 2020. From 2018 to 2020, farming households directly involved in RFF II (22,800 households) produced nearly 10 percent more fish per household in the 140 community fish refuges compared to 2017. And even in the broader zone of impact (123,000 households), fish production increased by a similar amount per household. Overall, this resulted in an additional $1.2 million in incomes in the 140 community fish refuges and almost $5 million in increased incomes in the zone of impact over the baseline incomes.
“This result is even more remarkable considering the drought conditions that were repeatedly experienced during that same period,” said Sothira Seng, USAID/Cambodia project management specialist.” For example, fish catches in September showed a 39 percent decrease from 2019 to 2020 in surveyed rice fields within the zone of impact due to climate stressors.”
CRM supports drought response to protect critical fish habitat
Communities involved in the RFF II project applied CRM strategies to safeguard fish habitats when the droughts in 2018, 2019 and 2020 reduced rice field flooding and households’ fish catch. Seasonal rice field flooding is a beneficial occurrence that helps sustain water levels for fish survival. Local residents adapted action plans in response to climate stressors, applying practises learned throughout the project to manage drought impacts on community fish refuges – locally-protected bodies of water that prohibit fishing. These included implementing drought abatement plans, organising earthen dams to increase community fish refuge water storage capacity and improve connectivity of rice field fishery ecosystems, and digging 47 rice field ponds around 13 community fish refuges to increase seasonal fish habitats.
Climate risk analysis informs strategies to secure nutritious fish for households
Fish is an important dietary source for poor rural people in Cambodia, accounting for 61 percent of all households’ animal protein intake. Furthermore, 98 percent of floodplain residents participate in fishing activities. To improve inland fish production in four provinces, the RFF II project depends on effective management of community fish refuges in collaboration with local non-governmental organisations, community leaders, and implementing partner WorldFish. Fish migrate from rice field fisheries to community fish refuges during the dry season when water levels recede. At the start of the rainy season, fish migrate back to rice field fisheries and other connected bodies of water, such as canals and streams, where fishing is permitted. Wild fish from these rice field systems are free to catch, making them a particularly valuable protein source for impoverished, landless households. Well-managed fish refuges led to a 71 percent increase in fish catch by the poorest households during the project’s first phase, strengthening food and nutrition security for community members, according to Seng.
RFF II project implementers analysed climate stressors, including shortened rainy seasons and prolonged drought, that contribute to harmfully-low water levels in community fish refuges and hinder fish productivity and migration to rice field fisheries. Furthermore, extreme heat during the dry season, when community fish refuge water levels are naturally lower, can lead to water temperature increases and additional water loss through evaporation, all of which threaten fish survival and some species’ fertility. RFF II developed strategies to address these climate stressors, reducing their negative impact on community fish refuge habitats and fish populations in the connected rice field fisheries.
Building climate-resilient community fish refuges
From the start, the RFF II project team took steps to proactively manage climate risks, including negative impacts of prolonged drought and heat on rice field fishery systems. In conjunction with the project’s second year WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) activities, they began using climate risk screening tools to better understand how climate stressors threaten community fish refuges. Accordingly, the team developed strategies, such as expanding and deepening community fish refuges, to protect these critical water resources. Other examples include:
- Assessment of historical drought data and local water use practises before selecting construction projects’ locations and clearing or widening canals that connect community fish refuges to natural water bodies and rice field fisheries.
- Use of climate forecasts to schedule community fish refuge construction and maintenance activities around extreme and seasonal weather events. For example, during rainy season floods, project implementers pause construction to help reduce runoff and water quality impacts.
- Completion of revegetation activities, including tree planting along banks, to protect community fish refuges from flood damage and provide shade to reduce evaporation and keep water temperatures cooler for fish production.
- Development of specific rules for community fish refuge communities related to water sharing and using and installing water level gauges.
- Promotion of sustainable, climate-smart agriculture practices and water and soil conservation measures to avoid over-intensification of these natural resources.
CRM actions like these help manage community fish refuge water levels, flow and temperature, ultimately increasing the productivity of connected rice field fisheries. The project contributed to nearly 150,000 Cambodians consuming more fish at home in 2020 than in the previous year.
Empowered communities carry climate risk management forward
Project implementers educate communities about the risks climate stressors create for environmental and fish health while increasing local capacity for CRM through trainings and coaching. RFF II delivered community fish refuge management and governance training to 3,841 community fish refuge committee members, local authorities and other community members from October 2019 through September 2020. As a result, 2,067 people applied improved technologies and practises.
“I think the local communities are continuing to design and rehabilitate ponds to better withstand climate impacts because they are seeing the impact of these interventions,” Seng said.
Project stakeholders – including community fish refuge committee members, village chiefs and commune councils – have witnessed how CRM fortifies rice field fisheries ecosystems to ensure accessibility of critical food and water resources. These community members help guide community fish refuge management and monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). They also participate in assessing and adjusting community fish refuge management strategies in response to changes in climate risk.
Increased CRM capacity and community coordination strengthen community fish refuge resilience in severe dry periods. Community fish refuge committees participate in CRM strategies to address and adaptively manage risks, including:
- Implementing water use policies and practises.
- Facilitating usage reduction negotiations with high-volume water users at community fish refuges.
- Organising earthworks to deepen 29 community fish refuges and expand five community fish refuges in 2020.
- Raising $267,533 for ongoing community fish refuge management, including conservation efforts.
Project implementers express confidence in the community’s ability to lead community fish refuge management strategies after RFF II concludes in 2021.
“When we meet with commune councils, they are interested in the project and commit to continuing the activities. This is a priority for the fisheries administration,” said Sam Oeurn Ke, USAID Cambodia project management specialist.