The delayed 2023 salt harvest could begin early next month barring further rain-induced interruptions, in a late arrival that has sparked fresh fears of a repeat of last year’s dismal production that required 20 kilotonnes of the essential mineral to be imported to meet domestic demand, industry insiders have said.

Heavy rainfall last year drove down salt production to the range of 30-40 kilotonnes nationwide, according to insider reports, despite estimates putting annual domestic demand at 70-100 kilotonnes.

To make up for the deficit as salt stocks dwindled, the government had authorised the private sector to import up to 60 kilotonnes, but purchases stopped in November at 20 kilotonnes – all sourced from India – as farmers geared up for the 2023 harvest.

The vast majority of the Kingdom’s salt farms are in Kampot province and neighbouring Kep, and the harvest season typically falls between early January and May each year, although it may begin earlier and extend longer with hotter temperatures and less precipitation.

Kampot provincial Department of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation director Sok Kim Choeun told The Post on January 30 that, with limited precipitation levels, the salt harvest could begin this weekend.

He claimed that sufficiently high temperatures, minimal rainfall and otherwise favourable weather conditions over three consecutive months during the Cambodian salt season could bring output up to more than 100 kilotonnes, in excess of annual domestic demand with plenty left for storage.

“At the beginning of 2023, we had expected to be able to harvest the salt by the end of January, but heavy rains in Kampot on January 10 pushed those plans back to the first weekend of February.

“[However,] with heavy rains for four or five days, farmers would need at least 10 or more additional days,” he said, noting that the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation on January 27 held a meeting to brainstorm ways to increase salt production and incomes for growers as well as to reduce the need for imports.

According to Hourn Sorangsey, director of the ministry’s Department of Handicraft Affairs, the meeting also focused on the protection of salt marsh lands from being repurposed, to ensure sustainable domestic supplies.

Bun Narin, a farmer and owner of Thaung Enterprise based in Kampot town, said that the harvest delay has pushed up salt prices around “five-to-10 per cent” year-on-year, with 50kg sacks sold at the marshes ranging from 25,000-28,000 riel ($6.25-7.00).

He echoed Kim Choeun’s comment that the harvest would likely begin in early February, affirming that farmers are “actively” preparing their marshes along with the brine to be evaporated into salt.

“However, since salt yields depend on the weather, it is impossible to say what the harvest will be like this year,” he stressed.

The ministry reported that the total area under salt production in Kampot and Kep provinces was 4,748ha in 2021 and had not significantly changed in 2022, with each hectare yielding an average of 20 tonnes each year under good weather conditions.

To recap, official figures show that salt production in the Kingdom soared from 80 kilotonnes in 2013 to 147 in 2014 and then to 175 in 2015, before falling back to 143 kilotonnes in 2016.

It then plummeted to a dismal 33 kilotonnes in 2017. Production further dipped in 2018, and then again in 2019. The ministry reported that Cambodia imported about 10 kilotonnes of salt in 2019.

But according to Kampot’s Kim Choeun, the Kingdom imported just around 10,000 tonnes of the allotted amount, with additional purchase plans scrapped amid optimism in early 2020 surrounding the year’s salt output.

The Post understands that Cambodia has only ever imported salt from India and mainland China, with the latest shipment from the latter arriving back in 2018.

And according to Kim Choeun, output rocketed to 105 kilotonnes in 2020 – 85 from Kampot and 20 from Kep.

By comparison, the handicraft affairs department reported that Cambodia produced more than 75 kilotonnes of salt in 2021, down by over 20 kilotonnes from a year earlier.