Residents of two communes in Kampong Cham province have grown tired of spending their money to pump water from a faraway lake, which requires them to travel long distances and pay fees at each pumping station.
For the last two years, droughts have starved their crops of water, and they are running out of money in an attempt to keep their crops hydrated.
The thousands of families living in Cheung Prey and Taing Krasaing communes in Batheay district, mostly farmers, need a canal.
Although it hasn’t been built yet, it’s already been dubbed the ‘Gold Canal’ or the ‘Silver Canal,’ because of the perceived treasures it will bring to scorched farms.
Sorn Fim, a 55-year-old farmer from Cheung Prey’s Trabek village, owns about 2ha of farmland. “These two years, local crops are almost decimated because there is no water at all,” he says.
Trabek village chief Hour Heng says many farmers in the village, which has about 140ha, have faced a severe drought and low river levels for two consecutive years.
Heng, who owns nearly 2ha of farmland, tells The Post that “about 80 per cent of rice crops have dried out. Very little crops can be saved by pumping underground water. But the quality is not very good since vegetable crops can hardly survive it”.
Watching seedlings dry out before they could grow in his home commune of Cheung Prey, Thoeun Sarorn decided to start raising funds to build an irrigation system that could supply the commune’s farms year-round.
The 40-year-old founder of NGO Increase Food Security and Development (Ifsad) says: “Previously, we experienced dry spells often and our crops did not yield because of the shortage of precipitation.
“Crops died just before bearing grain. Farmers don’t guarantee food security. It affects their [the farmers] livelihoods and also children’s studies because their parents have to work outside and leave their children alone with their grandparents.”
Sarorn suffered from malnutrition as a poor child growing up in the commune, and he has not forgotten this. He raised funds from friends to create Ifsad to develop his home commune through volunteer work.
“To earn confidence from donors, we registered as an NGO in 2008 to develop communities via agriculture, education and health,” he says.
The organisation has already built an irrigation system about 4km-long to store rainwater for crops. If it doesn’t rain, there’s no water to disburse. But having a canal could secure water for farmers throughout the year.
“Most of the communities’ crops are dying out. In some places, people have a pumping well and can get underground water.
“Our goal is to help communities have a water supply all year round. Previously we helped build a 3-4km canal to store water, but it only has seasonal water,” Sarorn says.
He says climate change has caused the two-year-long drought in the communities, which were so affected that members asked Ifsad for assistance to build a canal.
“We plan to build a 5m deep canal about 2km to the reservoir and then install a pumping station [connecting] to a smaller canal about 6-7km long.”
The canal and pumping station, Sarorn says, would cost about $150,000.
“If we can make it happen, we will help communities a lot. Normally, when planting rice seedlings, they [the farmers] have to pump water in four to five phases to reach their rice fields, he says.
“When we have a new irrigation [system], they will need to pump only once because we will have a station and a machine [installed] for them,” he says.
Sarorn, who also volunteers in the communities, says local farmers are eagerly anticipating the arrival of a canal to change their fortunes.
“They think that if it can be built, this canal will be as good as gold and can bring them treasures because it can provide them water for generations. The water reservoir that flows into the canal would be connected to the giant Tonle Sap Lake,” he says.
Cheung Prey commune chief Ven Sam Ol says the canal would benefit both Cheung Prey and Taing Krasaing communes. In Cheung Prey, Sam Ol says 80 per cent of its 2,101 families rely on agriculture.
Sam Ol tells The Post: “It’s really good because this year our crops are fruitless. I can say that it is a gold canal or silver canal.”
He says authorities have spoken with farmers who own land where the canal would pass through and have preserved the space.
“One canal will have two roads on either side for people to use. The southern road will be 7m wide and the northern one will be 3m wide while the canal will be 7m wide, Sam Ol says.
“The canal can provide us with water for rice seedlings, vegetables and daily usage year-round. Now, 50 per cent of people in Cheung Prey commune use tap water while the other half use groundwater, ponds and rainwater.”
In line with the government’s fight against poverty, Ifsad wants people to work in their communities rather than seeking opportunities elsewhere.
Sarorn says that “they can take care of their children and live together with their old parents too. We are part of the government’s mission to promote people’s livelihoods.”
Aside from agriculture assistance, raising funds to build waterways and providing seeds and water buckets, Ifsad operates several other charities. In the past, Ifsad invited volunteer physicians to treat people in the two communities in Batheay district.
“Australian doctors have a mission here every year. They come to cure people for free. This is part of our mission. We don’t have many resources but we seek people who want to help poor families,” Sarorn says.
Teachers have also volunteered in the communities.
“Previously, we hired English teachers to teach children in communities without charging a fee. Recently we built a computer centre and offered English classes with low school fees, or free of charge. We have a small pond in the community which was dug to raise fish for food.”
Sarorn says that even a $1 or $2 donation can make a difference as he plans to build the canal step-by-step.
When farmers have proper irrigation for their crops, communities can take comfort knowing their food source is secure, he says.
For more information or to make a donation to help in the building of the ‘gold canal,’ email [email protected] or call 012 907 794.