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Irrigation project key to rice output

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A villager walks past the new Ponley Water Reservoir in Ponley and Phkorn communes in Banteay Meanchey province, an irrigation project that was completed in August.

Having suffered from a lack of water for years, the agricultural community near a new reservoir in Banteay Meanchey province says it is now planning to harvest up to three crops per year

BANTEAY MeANCHEY PROVINCE

There is an obvious potential to raise agricultural production."

ARECENTLY completed reservoir in Banteay Mancheay province is set to help almost 440 families in Ponley and Phkorn communes triple their rice harvests this year and boost their incomes.

The Ponley Water Reservoir, a group of 12 waterworks funded mostly by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and completed in August as part of the Northwest Irrigation Sector Project, is key to unlocking the area’s economic potential, said ADB Project Implementation Officer Piseth Long.

“Whilst overall availability of water in northwest Cambodia is limited, there is an obvious potential to raise agricultural production and rural incomes, and consequently reduce poverty where enhanced supply and management of water for irrigated agriculture and protection from flooding can be provided,” he said.

The ADB has contributed around US$20 million dollars to the project since it got involved in 2003 to help the northwest region catch up with development efforts elsewhere in Cambodia, Piseth Long said. The ADB has provided 80 percent of the funding, with the rest coming from the Cambodian government.

Four of the 12 water projects are in Pursat province, three in Battambang province, two in Banteay Manchey province, two in Siem Reap province and one in Kandal province. Together they have the potential to irrigate 10,000 hectares of rice when completed, which Piseth Long said was expected by the end of 2010.

Heng Sovan, 51, chief of an irrigation community in Ponley, said that for the last 20 years villagers in Ponley and Phkorn communes have only been able to produce just one crop of rice per year, and yields have been low.

“Over the last few years, our farmers have produced only one or two tonnes of rice per hectare. Now that we have irrigation, we can produce 3.5 tonnes per hectare,” he said. “We will be able to plant two or three crops this year, so I strongly hope that farmers in this district will be able to improve their living conditions.”

Efforts to boost rice yields and harvest are central to Cambodia’s efforts to improve agricultural output. The sector generates 32 percent of Cambodia’s GDP and employs 4.75 million of the country’s eight million labour force, according to the United Nations. However, while the sector has grown quickly since the early 1990s compared with other countries, at just under 4 percent a year, it has lagged behind the double-digit growth seen in other sectors.

It’s importance to the country’s economic fortunes cannot be overstated, however, with the sector the only one to grow last year according to the International Monetary Fund, as the global economic downturn dragged Cambodia into recession.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the National Assembly to rewrite laws limiting offshore borrowing to $200 million in order that the country could borrow $400 million to finance a massive expansion of its irrigation systems to boost rice output.

Cambodia currently has 2.5 million hectares in paddy, but a lack of irrigation means farmers can typically only grow one harvest a year at average yields of less than 3 tonnes of paddy per hectare.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries estimates that Cambodia produced 7.2 million tonnes of paddy in 2009, of which 3.3 million tonnes was surplus to national needs and available for export.

Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, said this week that Cambodia has the potential to match the 4 million to 5 million tonnes of rice Vietnam exports per year with the right infrastructure development. Training is also essential, he said.

In Banteay Mancheay province, staff from the provincial agriculture department under the guidance of the Northwest Irrigation Sector Project help local families form water user communities and train them in techniques to take advantage of their new irrigation system.

Farmer Chim Hou, 35, says he’s not only left his worries about drought behind, but he’s also learned better rice crop management. “I have high hopes that I can better provide for my family with my new knowledge,” the father of four said.

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