Built by ‘April 17 people' - former city dwellers - the Battambang dam in Chork Thom village is set for an ADB-funded rehabilitation, but residents want compensation before relocating.
Nan Vey outside his small store near a KR-era dam that is set for an ADB-funded renovation.
NAN Vey's house is solidly built of zinc sheets with a thatched roof and stocked with groceries. It sits on the site of a former Khmer Rouge-era dam, which collapsed in the late 1970s and has been used as rice fields for 30 years.
But now there is no water in the fields near his house, and his annual rice crop, while reliable, is modest - the only water for irrigation is in a
nearby canal, whose depth varies between 1 and 3 metres.
To make ends meet, Nan Vey, 28, opened his small grocery store a few months ago in his house on the dam in Chork Thom village, Battambang province. He sells cakes, candy, sugar, oranges and spicy foods to families who farm the land that was once the dam's basin.
The 500-hectare Chork dam is one of three in Battambang province that are set to be rehabilitated with funding provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as part of a much-needed plan to improve the country's irrigation systems.
But local authorities have rejected the idea of compensating the 180 families farming on the former dam, saying they were living on state land and were not entitled to it. The ADB then said a compromise must be reached to allow it to approve the funds. Negotiations between local authorities and residents are ongoing.
It should be repaired because it was created by ... the people in 1977.
Nan Vey has a 2-hectare rice paddy on the dam. While carrying water from the dam home so his son could help to wash the groceries, Nan
Vey told the Post that he is aware of the rehabilitation program.
"When they start the rehabilitation, I will have to move my house and grocery store, and I will build a new house somewhere else," he said.
"The government must give us a new rice field or compensation once the dam is repaired. They said we can continue to farm on it, but how can we? It will flood the fields."
Another local villager, Noy Nath, 43, was part of the forced labour gang that built a canal for fish farming next to the dam in 1977. He said that, when he looks at the dam, he feels sad because it reminds him of how they had just rice gruel to eat while building it.
Despite the bad memories, Noy Nath supports the rehabilitation of the historic dam. But he remains worried that its repair will leave people like him - who farm inside the collapsed dam's basin - hungry again.
"It is a good idea to repair the dam for the farmers, but people whose land is affected will end up with no rice to eat if they have no land to cultivate," he said.
"If one gets benefit and another gets no benefit, then we will see more disputes. Already with this dam the farmers argue about water - on one side they need water, but the other side won't release water because that will dry out their fields."
And when the rains come, he said, one side wants to release water, but the other side doesn't want it because their fields will flood.
Another villager, Chum La, 38, insists that the families be given alternative land in return.
"The government wants to develop this so people can have irrigation and grow two rice crops a year, but hundreds of us will have nothing to eat if we lose our rice fields," Chum La said.
"So if this development is going to lead to some people going hungry or starving, they must provide compensation and new land somewhere else."
Ex-KR also in support
A former Khmer Rouge cadre who was part of the team overseeing the construction of the Chork dam is in favour of the government rehabilitation plan. The man, who requested anonymity, said prisoners and "April 17 people" - former city-dwellers - were used to construct it.
"I am happy that the government and the ADB are interested in rehabilitating this dam," he said. "Even though life was hard and people died digging it, it will be useful for the next generation to use. It should be repaired because it was created by the force of the people in 1977."