There are currently five million undernourished Cambodian citizens. A study released in December 2013 by the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD), WFP and UNICEF reveals that malnutrition costs between US$250 million and US$400 million annually or 1.5% to 2.5% of Cambodia’s total annual Gross Domestic Product.
WFP Cambodia Deputy Country Director on malnutrition
What is malnutrition and why is it so important to prevent it?
When a person is not getting enough food or not getting the right sort of food, adequate health care and a healthy environment, malnutrition is just around the corner. Malnutrition takes many forms depending on what nutrients are missing in the diet, for how long and at what age. It can even be getting too much food that takes the form of obesity which many people struggle with around the world. Major drivers of poor nutrition are inadequate complementary feeding practices, poor hygiene and high prevalence of diseases, including diarrhea.
However, in Cambodia, the biggest challenge is stunting or chronic malnutrition, which is a growth failure in a child caused by an insufficient intake of essential nutrients in early childhood. During the first 1,000 days of life, between conception and the age of two, children are growing the essential building blocks of their adult life. The best example is the brain. Eighty percent of brain development happens during these critical first two years.
Without the right nutrition during early childhood, a child’s physical and mental development is compromised irreversibly. The body cannot fully develop, cognitive ability is diminished and there is a higher risk for disease and mortality. Not only are these effects irreversible after the age of 2, they are passed on from mother to child, impacting the next generation.
But malnutrition in Cambodia is not just about early childhood. Although they may not be visible to the naked eye, Cambodia has high rates of essential vitamins and mineral deficiencies. WHO ranks micronutrient deficiencies among the top 10 leading causes of death globally.
Malnutrition in Cambodia is a top public health concern and is a cause in approximately one third of child deaths. Cambodia has a staggering 40% of stunted children according to the latest Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey (CDHS 2010). This is the only health indicator that hasn’t improved over recent years and is worse than most countries in the same income group.
We have a lot of exciting aquaponics projects at work here in Cambodia. We have experimental grow beds at the Tuk Vil farm, where we are testing KEM (Khmer Effective Microorganisms) in sustainable aquaponics systems to see how their presence alters the rate of growth of plants. The grow beds are all identical in their set up: they each have a cement pot of about 40 fish underneath, which feeds water in a circuit that flows from the container up to the bed itself where the seeds are planted in gravel.
Gravel is the first growing medium we used as an alternate for soil. Since gravel does not absorb water, it improves the flow of the system while allowing plants to take in more water for themselves. However, it is expensive to buy and transport gravel, making this option less accessible for villagers who typically live on less than one dollar per day. Since our aquaponics systems are meant to act as interventions for this population, other, more accessible and sustainable mediums became necessary to find. Luckily, we have recently had a breakthrough here at Community First in the discovery of a new growing medium that is locally available in abundant quantities and for almost no cost. It also already exists in all the villages that we are working in. This new growing medium is rice husk.
The objective of Community First aquaponics project is to provide individual families without resources the means of farming fish sustainably for their own consumption and for sale on the market. Although we intend to develop solutions applicable in any country, it is important to understand the local environment. Here is what we found during our initial investigation in Cambodia.
Cambodian inland fisheries are among the world’s largest and most diverse, accounting for about 12% of the country GDP. The Tonle Sap provides 400,000 tons of fish per year, valued at about $300M . Today, fish and fisheries are central to the life of the country, just as it was in the ancient Khmer empire.
The lower mekong basin provides the ideal environment for fish to grow at an accelerated rate during the rainy season. Cambodians celebrate the water festival (Bon Om Teuk) during the full moon of October or November, when the flow of Tonle Sap reverses its course to flow north into the great lake. This marks the beginning of the fishing season. The next three months are crucial as people must catch, preserve and store fish for the dry season. Fish is a major part of the Cambodian diet with an average consumption of about 2kg per person per month representing about 6,300 riels per person per month. However the catch fluctuates with the seasons. The catch of the Tonle Sap dai fishery in 2003/2004 was about half of that in 2002/2003, so the price of the most common fish, trey riel, rose more than threefold.
At the beginning of the rain season, when the fish swim upstream into the flooded plain of central Cambodia, they naturally settle in the rice fields. In addition to fish, these fields are home to a large number of other animal species such as crabs, shrimps, clams, snails and insects. Traditional rice farming incorporates fish in their production.