Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pol Pot's failure gets a new beginning

Pol Pot's failure gets a new beginning

Pol Pot's failure gets a new beginning

TAKEO - With much help, and by incredible luck, at least one of Pol Pot's

bizarre irrigation schemes has actually been made to work.

Rice farmers

in Takeo's Kirivong district are now growing crops all year round - a major

breakthrough for Khmer farmers - thanks to work by British NGO Oxfam.


less than half the money that some other NGOs spend, Oxfam has installed

culverts that now control water from the Tan Loap reservoir, built by the Khmer

Rouge in the mid-70s.

About 6,000 hectares of land - from Tan Loap near

Takeo town to the Vietnamese border 10 kilometers away - is now fully irrigated

and in constant production.

The Kirivong farmers are emerging as the

province's "nouveau rich." They are even beginning to save money.

As a

result the local market is comparatively booming - our interpreter laughed when

asked what the Kirivong market was like when Oxfam began work three years


"Nothing, nothing," he said. "The huts nearby are still the same,

but now there are television antennae sticking out of them."

However, the

success has created a bit of a problem for Takeo governor Sou


Peasants from neighboring Kompong Speu, Kampot, Prey Veng and

other districts are pushing in for a "slice of the pie."

"There have been

100 families [move in] from Kompong Cham," Phirin said.

He telephoned

neighboring governors "to control the movement of people and to have those

people [without proper authority] moved," he said.

Finally, he has

decided to ask for a formal governors' meeting with Co-Prime Ministers Prince

Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, and Interior Ministry officials in Phnom


Hun Sen visited Kirivong last week, and Phirin asked for help

building an ambitious six-stage irrigation scheme and more of the heavy roading

work now rolling into the province.

Meanwhile, the farmers - still the

butt of "countryfolk/cityfolk" jokes in the capital - are reaping the rewards,

according to Oxfam's American-born irrigation engineer John Busman.


is one of the only places in Cambodia that can grow an all-year [rice] crop," he

said of the land that is now permanently green.

It feeds and enriches up

to six local communes, while neighborhoods in this, traditionally one of the

country's poorest provinces, seem to be profiting downstream.


district officials say the rice crop was 270 kilograms per person - now, it is

350 kilograms per person.

The Kirivong experiment has prompted

neighboring districts to ask Oxfam for materials, such as culvert molds. "They

say give us what we need, we'll do it, don't bother us," Busman


"People have a confidence in the future, and its not purely

selfish, they can see things being done."

Even the fishing has improved.

Unofficially, Busman reckons, the fish pulled out of the water might be worth

more than the rice it irrigates.

There are a few special "heroes" thrown

up, like Ta Ky My who built the culverts that have made such a difference -

under a "pretty good" Oxfam contract, Busman laughs. Ky My is now a well known,

probably famous face around town.

Oxfam has proved that for just $150,000

a year ["a limited budget," Busman says], a "low-tech scheme that is replicable"

can be produced.

"We have shown people things can change."

In Sou

Phirin, Takeo has an ambitious, tough and pragmatic governor who has stamped out

military and police "shakedowns" in his province and during whose tenure the

only Khmer Rouge group in the province appears to have been cleared. He also

enthusiastically supports the province's NGO teams.

And it started

because Pol Pot decided to build a reservoir that should never, ever have


The reservoir was little more than a natural depression in the

ground that didn't collect much water. The old French colonial floodgate

guarding it, at 100m long, was too big - but for some reason Busman can't figure

out, Pol Pot filled it in.

Farmers had to leave their land on the

southern side of the road from Takeo town to Tan Loap as the reservoir flooded,

but the water couldn't get to the farmers on the northern side.


says the KR built no downstream structures to control the water flow.


late 1991, Oxfam decided to fix the problem with a program that was too small

for the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank.

Kirivong's rice-growing

communities were "extremely isolated" because of the bad road.


road building schemes had only improved bits of the road. Phnom Penh didn't want

to provide a smooth and direct path for any possible Vietnamese


However, with "committed farmers and good local leadership,"

Oxfam added culverts, improved canals and controlled enough water for a host of

local communities to benefit from year-round rice crops.


road-building machines are now rolling into the district. Takeo - or certainly

Kirivong - is establishing a reputation and people are leaving poorer areas to


Kirivong is beginning to look like the countryside just over

the border in Vietnam, locals say.

Sweeping east into Vietnam from

Cambodia is prime rice growing land, almost regimentally irrigated with ditches

from a huge canal that runs parallel to - and just one kilometer from - the


The water in the canal originally comes from the Bassac river in


There are stories of Kampuchea-Krom farmers on the Vietnamese

side selling water to their Khmer cousins, who are as yet just a bit far from

the Tan Loap reservoir.

The going price for water? - 800 kilograms of

rice, to irrigate one hectare of paddy for one year.

Vietnamese laborers

cross the porous border to work in Kirivong during harvest times, though

governor Sou Phirin says he has cracked down on such temporary migrations.

However, the Vietnamese dong is readily accepted tender at Kirivong


The Kirivong farmers are getting up to five, sometimes six tonnes

of rice per hectare of paddy - way above Pol Pot's "three tonne per hectare"

catch cry.

"The farmers are only paying between 15 and 18 percent of

their crop [for Vietnamese water]," says Busman, a doctorate graduate who has

worked overseas for years, the past six in Pakistan.

"It is not an

extravagant charge and the guy pumping the water is not going to get


Though permanent, free access to the Vietnamese water would be

beneficial, those close to the Tan Loap reservoir now have plenty.


is conscious that its work could produce a "have" versus a "have not" society,

where those farmers close to the reservoir get more rich, more quickly than

those who have to wait.

"We are aware of the contrast," Busman said. A

smaller reservoir on the other side of the neighboring mountain is being

developed now.

But the main reservoir "somehow just works," he


"As an engineer I hesitate to calculate the water volume here

[compared to the usage]... it's scary."

When the Mekong floods and sends

water rushing back upstream, the Khmer Rouge system, with vital Western

improvements and knowledge, does the job.

"It is against all laws of

irrigation," says Busman, admitting that Pol Pot "lucked in" with his


"For every one thousand I suppose you get one right," he says,

adding that many more former Khmer Rouge schemes were unworkable.


Pot just got lucky. Normally we would have had to put in a lot more time,

materials and money to get this to work."

Busman compared the $150,000

Oxfam operation - without rancor - with other NGO budgets, such as


"USAID figures on keeping one person in the country, housed, paid

and so forth, for $250,000 before they begin to spend more on their projects. We

have done this scheme on $150,000 [a year], and have involved the entire


Fishermen now pull out a living from the revamped canals and

reservoir, though Busman says: "Oh, don't get into that" when asked how much the

fishermen pay, and to whom, for the privilege.

Busman says Oxfam's

methods had been criticized, but irrigation systems had to allow for drainage as

well as supply.

And for the farmers, "things are not just a struggle for

rice now, they can look at other things, other improvements," Busman


The reservoir also came in handy after police recently stopped a

truckload of smuggled turtles heading for the Vietnamese border.


knew quite what to do with the turtles," Busman said. "In the end a nun blessed

them and they tipped the lot into the reservoir."


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