Climate Change in Cambodia: Reflections from Siem Reap

Kitty van der Heijden, UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director of Partnerships, shares her reflections on the impacts of climate change in Cambodia and the inspiring youth-led initiatives

Kitty van der Heijden
03 May 2024
Deputy Executive Director, Partnerships visit in Cambodia
UNICEF Cambodia/2024/Simon Mark Toffanello

This week I visited Cambodia, and it could not have come at a ‘hotter’ time, in the most literal sense of the word, because the temperatures in Siem Reap was almost 7°C above average. As I was leaving, the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology recorded the highest temperatures since 1854 and the Ministry of Education issued a directive to reduce two hours from their regular school days due to soaring temperatures across the country1.

Historically, the country has been known for severe flooding in terms of climate impact. Heavy rainfall in September 2022 caused severe flooding in 14 provinces. But now the country is in the grips of a major and prolonged drought. Everywhere you look, the land is parched and bone dry. There has been almost no rain in the country.

The night before, it rained in a few areas, and I could see the excitement almost palpable around me with many calling their families to say, “It rained in my ancestral village!” But this sadly seemed to be an exception. In most areas of the country, farmers have been unable to plant the second rice crop, leading to economic hardship.

The Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI) ranked Cambodia 46th out of 163 countries, placing the country in the top third of nations facing significant risks due to climate change. This means that two million children, representing over one-third of the country's child population, live in communes with a high or very high CCRI, jeopardizing their health, education, and overall well-being2. In fact, a recent World Bank study estimated that climate change could knock off 9% of Cambodia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050 and lead to an increase in poverty levels estimated to be up to 6 percentage points by 20403.  

As I made my way, in the sweltering heat, to visit a secondary school in the rural area in Siem Reap, I was acutely aware of how hot the classrooms were as if the air had become still inside their walls. As I walked from classroom to classroom, I wondered how learning outcomes must be impacted by the heat waves, and what would happen to the ability of children to learn, to play and to progress in school. 

At the school in Siem Reap, Cambodia, speaking to the young girls, who are part of the digital skills development program supported by UNICEF
UNICEF Cambodia/2024/Simon Mark Toffanello
At the school in Siem Reap, Cambodia, speaking to the young girls, who are part of the digital skills development program supported by UNICEF