Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Climate Consequences

January 8, 2011

Story by Hailey Graf

Photos by Kevin Radley

With breath held and arms stretched out, I stepped out onto a thin boardwalk. Tentatively, I wobbled my way across a series of planks suspended over the river. Then, stepping firmly onto the houseboat, I released my pent up breath. Admiration filled me as I realized that below my feet swam tons of fish.

My classmates and I were in An Gaing, a northern province in the Mekong Delta to learn about Basa catfish farming. The boats functioned as both lodging for a family of farmers as well as a cage for the catfish.  Below each boat, large nets contained up to eight tons of live, growing fish.

With the help of a translator, we were visiting the fish farmers to learn about the process and how it is affected by climate change.  After several minutes of discussion between our class, the translator, and the fisherman, we discovered that the fish farm was a family business and that this particular family had been raising fish for almost forty years.  So, with climate change in my mind, I asked what changes the fishermen have noticed in those years.  My question, however, was never really answered.  The translator cut me short, explaining, “The people here know nothing of climate change. They do not understand the idea.”

At first, I found this concept hard to grasp. However, we eventually discovered the local farmers do understand the concept, just not the words.

Today we visited a rice farmer in Soc Trang.  When I asked him about climate change he had no answer.  But, he did express that the rainy season, so important to growing rice, has become shorter and provides less freshwater.  This farmer also knew that because of this change he needed to adapt.  Now, rather than three rotations of rice during the rainy season, he grows two crops of rice and one crop of mushrooms, which requires less water.

Due to climate change, the farmer has also been required to relocate his farm ten kilometers inland to avoid saltwater incursion.  During our discussion, he reasoned that saltwater reduces rice production and in recent years, saltwater has come further inland.

Since then, my class has had opportunities to visit more shrimp, rice, and fish farmers.  These visits are reminiscent of the first two.  Every farmer we talk to has little knowledge of global climate change.  But they speak of weather changes–the rainy season shifting later each year and more extreme drought during the dry season. They, as well, fully understand the consequences.  Whether the planet is warming or not is of little concern to them.  Changes in rainfall and sea level which directly affect their livelihoods, however, are thoroughly realized.

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