After hours spent tunnelling through the wall of an irrigation channel, water finally flows out of Nhem Tum’s makeshift drain onto his dry quarter-hectare rice field. The success in tapping one of the few water sources in Takeo province is a small victory in the farmer’s ongoing struggle to cope with climate change.
“I have sown rice seed twice from May to July, but it does not grow,” Tum said earlier this week. He has lost $130 spent on rice seeds for his tiny patch.
“There has been no rain this year, which is so different from previous years, when I would sow the rice seed and the rain would come, making enough water for rice to grow,” he added.
While reports of flooding and its mounting death toll have become fixtures in local media, Tum is among thousands of farmers in Takeo affected by a very different problem: drought.
A yearly dry spell that typically only lasts for a few weeks of July has this year stretched well into August. According to provincial authorities, more than 25,000 hectares have been damaged by drought across Takeo over the past four weeks – five times the figure recorded last year.
Authorities estimate that up to 60,000 hectares of rice fields across 10 provinces have been damaged this year, with Takeo hardest hit.
“I can say that this year is the worst for Takeo province,” said Nheb Sron, director of the agriculture department there.
Sron’s provincial government is pumping water from receding Mekong-fed reservoirs into dry irrigation channels, but he says that their resources are stretched. They do not have the means to pump directly into each rice field, leaving farmers to weigh up the cost of paying the fuel costs for pumping water against the hope that it might rain.
“It is quite difficult for us to make sure there is enough water for farmers. The weather is unpredictable,” he said.
Irrigation channels, one of the few options available to farmers in times of drought, are estimated to benefit just 20 per cent of cultivated land in Cambodia.
“In many areas, they have irrigation systems, but the problem is, they don’t have the distribution channels for that and they don’t have the pump,” said independent economist and agriculture expert Srey Chanty.
Chanty added that a lack of funds for seeds to replant a lost crop and fuel to pump water from the irrigation channels compound a farmer’s inability to respond to natural disasters.
In a country prone to natural disasters, drought has damaged more than 775,000 hectares of land since 1996, a figure second only to floods, which account for 1.7 million hectares of damage, according to data from the National Committee of Disaster Management (NCDM).
Flooding, which often follows the July dry spell, presents a different set of problems to drought. As well as damaging agricultural crops, rising waters can wreak havoc on schools and hospitals.
Last year alone, the NCDM estimates that flooding caused more than $355 million in damage across agriculture, infrastructure and people’s homes.
The NCDM estimates that the future disaster recovery needs for the agriculture sector to battle flooding is about $76 million.
This covers funding in the first six months to immediately rehabilitate irrigation systems following flood damage and funding allocated to the longer term – some 18 months and beyond – for construction of new irrigation canals.
Keo Vy, chief of cabinet at NCDM, said yesterday that they are still counting the costs of this year’s drought, though the rain is beginning to fall in some of the affected provinces, bringing the dry spell under control, he said.
“Farmers are still depending on rainfall for most of their crops,” he said.
“The government has also been paying attention to improving and building more irrigation systems, so farmers can access to water to increase rice production, so that they are less dependent on rainfalls.”
But not everyone can wait.
Takeo rice farmer Hem Lim recently spent $30 on fuel to pump water from the canal to his rice field.
Looking at the darkening skies on the horizon he said: “The rain and the dark clouds always seem to be heading towards Phnom Penh, where there are no rice fields.”