VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/24 September) — The sky is still dark when 48-year old Ms Kham Phanyavong leaves her house at 3:30 AM on Saturday. She has to be at That Luang organic market before the customers arrive. She pays 40,000 kip to transport four baskets of vegetables from Nontae village in Xaythany district here. In her baskets are long beans, onions, morning glory, cucumber, papaya and carrots, all from her garden.
Earning four million kip a month, cash comes in regularly from selling vegetables and not from her two rai (0.32 hectare) of rice farm.
Her land that she tills along with her husband and six children produces 35 sacks or about 3,500 kilos of khao niaw (a variety of sticky rice) every year. But, everything is enough for her kith and kin. “Our farm doesn’t have irrigation,” she tells MindaNews. She says rain comes less frequent nowadays, causing the rice paddies to store less water. When it rains, flood destroys the plants and washes away essential nutrients from the soil.
Her farm yields enough to feed her own family. She doesn’t know if it can yield more with proper irrigation and fertilization. She does not blame “climate change” but rather talks about adjusting her farming period to the changing weather patterns. Learning from experiences in the past, she has to replant rice seedlings to the paddies two or three weeks before the yearly “big rain” so that the plants will not be uprooted by the flood that happens after two days of heavy downpour.
Vientiane is one of the six major flood-affected provinces in Laos, including Savannakhet, Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, Attapeu and Champasak.
“Climate change” is not a common term for most farmers in Laos. But, the Lao government recognizes the impacts of climate change by signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1995 and the Kyoto Protocol in 2003. The government developed its National Adaptation Programme of Action to Climate Change (NAPA) with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In the NAPA 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Chair of National Environment Committee Mr Asang Laoly says Laos has seen in recent years “more frequent and severe floods and droughts which are alternately occurring each year.” “Temperature is continuously increasing and the rainfall is erratic, resulting in a number of adverse impacts to the economic system, environment and the livelihoods of people of all ethnic groups.”
Over three decades, from 1966 to 2009, Laos has felt the impacts of climate change through the increase in temperature with an average of 0.1 degrees Celsius (C), between the northern and central part, and between the central and southern part. As observed in the rapid assessment, the average temperature in eight northern provinces increased from 23.0 to 23.2 C; 26.3 C to 26.6 C in five central provinces; and, 26.9 C to 27.3 C in four southern provinces.
Data from the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology (DMH) show that drought occurred in Laos from 1995 to 2005 “characterized by higher and irregular increases in temperature.” The country also experienced large floods, including flash floods in the northern and eastern regions as recorded in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2005. More recently, experiences with typhoons have been made in the south of the country.
In an earlier interview, UNDP technical advisor to the National Agricultural Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) of Lao PDR Mr. Manfred Staab said farmers can tell their stories of climate change events. As an example, he cited that previously a farmer grew enough number of seedlings in a single batch at the start of rainy season, but now the start of the rainy season is interrupted by dry periods. “When the second of third sequence of rain comes after the dry intervals, they don’t have any seedling anymore and have to try starting the whole process again.”
“Let the farmer fully understand what is actually happening to help them becoming aware that they need to change their livelihood, too. Either you may decide to move to another area if you can afford to do so, or you adapt to this changing environment,” said Mr. Staab.
Improving the Resilience of Agricultural Sector to Climate Change Impacts (IRAS), which is a project of NAFRI funded by the UNDP, has introduced alternatives to the farmers in two vulnerable districts each in Savannakhet and Xayaboury provinces. These areas are identified by the project as prone to flood and drought, and have a high percentage of poor farming households.
As a pilot project, IRAS has catered to nearly 500 households until 2015. In their latest results of agriculture and water management activities, significant improvements can be seen in some villages.
He says the strategies and adaptation practices that they taught to rice farmers are “not really new” and “not surprising ideas, but solid and demonstrated activities”. Aside from introducing new rice varieties that are adaptive to rainy and dry seasons, he cites proven alternative farming practices such as raising chickens, ducks, fish, pigs and frogs, and storing of water in reservoirs and large containers. He hopes that Lao people will learn from the project and replicate the activities in their own villages.
“It’s not anything magic here. The farmers know how to grow rice but they just have to deal with it differently with the farming system, opening up options for diversification of crops, fruits, vegetables, livestock. Just opening their viewpoint for existing choices with economic benefits.”
Back to the village in Vientiane, Ms Kham is unknowingly becoming resilient to climate change by doing crop diversification as she is also planting vegetables aside from rice. Thanks to her organization, the Vientiane Organic Farmers Group, that provides her seeds and trainings. The farmers sell their vegetables on Wednesday and Saturday morning in That Luang esplanade, and Monday afternoon at the Chao Fa Ngum Park here. (Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)