Biodiversity Conservation and Humanitarian Engineering: Closer Than You Think

U5012556 | Joel Davy

Systems, systems, systems.

This is what I’ve heard the entire time studying engineering/arts. After 3 years of laying the groundwork for understanding things from a “systems” perspective, earlier this year I was able to dig deep into this knowledge and engage both sides of my degree in a new field (in the field).

I could talk about systems literally forever, and I’ll talk more about them later. First, some background: in July 2016 I attended a 14-day humanitarian design summit in Cambodia, with a group of university students from all around Australia. Engineers Without Borders Australia organises these trips several times a year. The program is an intense few days of workshops in Phnom Penh, followed by 8 days in Kratie province, staying with a remote community who depend on battery power, Mekong river water, ox-drawn carts, and corn fueled stoves for their basic needs. Then, groups of students return to the grid connected world and produce designs that might help the communities address development opportunities that were identified during the homestay.

Issues covered included access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), caring for livestock and poultry, and most importantly, working every day to guarantee the stability of corn crops. Villagers’ livelihoods on the islands of Kaoh Chraeng and Kaoh Trong depend solely on corn.

Kaoh Chraeng Island: corn crops cover over half the land surface.

The relationship between the islands’ inhabitants, their animals, and crops, is a complex system. Biodiversity plays a large role in the continued persistence of the resources on which the local population depends heavily.


Walking through the corn fields on Kaoh Chraeng.

We asked about the corn plantation and it was one of their most outspoken difficulties. The village chief said that the seed they have now (with some effort in translating, determined to be a modified variety from Korea) is more resilient than previous batches, though they struggle with flooding, which removes a vast amount of topsoil, leaving a muddy, low nutrient plateau behind at the end of each flood season. The villages depend on humanitarian aid from Korea and China, so their choice of seed is limited.


The commune chief of the south village on Kaoh Chraeng, surveying corn crops.

The health of the Mekong river, which runs either side of the island, has deteriorated in the last couple of decades, with a low point during the Pol Pot regime, which destroyed knowledge, communities, and infrastructure, as well as causing a long resource shortage, driving overfishing of the local population of the vulnerable Mekong river dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris).

Upriver dams and hydropower plants are threats requiring urgent attention in the Mekong river basin. Biodiversity in the small communities of Kaoh Chraeng and Kaoh Trong is very low, on land and in the water, in mammals, aquatic species, and plants. Instead of healthy diversity, monocultures of corn and other crops, grasses, and rainforest vegetation dominate the landscape.

Forests in Kratie Province are threatened by illegal logging, and government programs to remove forests near towns that are a breeding ground for Anopheles malaria mosquitoes.

What is being done?

The projects proposed by students on design summits are not usually put in to practise – they are provided to local groups such as the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), who use local knowledge and resources as well as external educators to aim to reduce poverty and environmental degradation in Kratie.

Biodiversity is an important issue in Cambodia, but as with many developing countries, other issues are more urgent for the wellbeing of its people. The pattern of development in the third world often follows a period of fast growth and resource use, without enough consideration for biodiversity and the environment. Groups like CRDT and the WWF exist to assist communities in considering ecological issues, but the need for embedded, local knowledge is still high.



EWB volunteers and CRDT workers talking to pupils at the Kaoh Chraeng primary school.

Children are being educated in ecological issues, though access to up-to-date books is rare in many villages, and computers, let alone a calculator, are not found in Kaoh Chraeng or adjacent islands. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to afford a mobile phone have the most basic model without internet access. Communicating a single message about biodiversity or ecological matters is very difficult. People living in poorer communities are also unlikely to believe what they are being told, or will ignore advice in order to do what they think will improve their quality of life. Traditional use of resources, such as burning corn husks for cooking, and throwing refuse in to the river, seems easier to them in the short term, but is detrimental to the long term outlook for ecological communities.


Mekong river dolphin tours significantly raise tourism revenue to Kratie province, but sightings are becoming rarer.

The broader context

Cambodia has a history of political disaster, genocide, and persecution of its people, leaving them decades behind other nations surrounding them. The condition of the forests, river, and other habitats in Kratie province ranges from acceptable to very poor. Work to improve health and sanitation has been a priority for many years, while awareness of the relationship between human behaviour and ecological health is still rare. The economic, social, and environmental systems in Cambodia are fragile and ever evolving, and building an understanding of them in local populations is a challenge. However, providing households and individuals with education of good practices for ensuring the sustainability and improvement of their environment is an appropriate starting point, which aid organisations and teachers are currently working on. Summits like the one I attended are a small part in a much larger movement to sustain biodiversity and environmental health everywhere in the world, especially in areas that need extra support to do so.


Sunset in Kratie Town.

All photos are my own work.

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
This entry was posted in biodiversity conservation, Climate change, Volunteer work. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Biodiversity Conservation and Humanitarian Engineering: Closer Than You Think

  1. Excellent to hear about the challenges facing communities in Cambodia Joel. Phil

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