Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Stops and starts on the path to irrigation

Stops and starts on the path to irrigation

Stops and starts on the path to irrigation


An automatic tilting-gate spillway helps control floods in Svay Rieng province.


he history of irrigation in Cambodia is as long and tumultuous

as the history of the country itself, but million-dollar promises from the government

could change the flow.

Examining an aerial photograph of dry season Cambodia, the contrast at the eastern

border is striking. On the Vietnamese side, lush, green rice fields lie neatly parceled

and organized. The Cambodian section is a blotch of bone-dry reddish-brown earth.

The difference: irrigation.

While some researchers believe Angkorean civilization made prudent use of its water

resources, most say Vietnam has a more extensive history with irrigation projects.

"When you see all this green and all this red [on the photograph] you can understand

the situation," said Julien Calas of the Groupe Agence Francaise de Develop-pement.

"The irrigation system in Vietnam has been evolving for the last 2,000 years."

This lack of development leaves Cambodian farmers overly dependent on often misconceived

Khmer Rouge-era projects or forces them to tailor their crops according to the rainfall.

When seasons are marred by flood or drought, as happened during the 2004-5 harvest,

people starve.

But, since Prime Minister Hun Sen declared irrigation a top priority in 2004, officials

have made some progress. While most water resource management after the early 1990s

consisted of piecemeal projects funded sporadically by international donors, the

government is finally undertaking more ambitious reforms.

"There is $12-13 million promised for irrigation in the 2005 budget," said

Veng Sakhon, secretary of state at the Ministry of Water Resources and Metrology.

"The ministry is undertaking about 20 irrigation projects right now."

International donors are funding dozens of other irrigation schemes, from a World

Bank-supported flood-emergency program in 10 provinces, to dyke and canal restoration

in Sihanoukville with the support of the French.

But considering that around only 10 percent of agricultural land in Cambodia is effectively

irrigated, the country has a long way to go, Calas said.

And not everyone agrees on the final result.

The roots of canals

To understand modern irrigation in Cambodia, you have to look at the country's history.

Starting around the late 1930s, scholars theorized that Angkorean civilization drew

its strength from sophisticated irrigation practices, double- and triple-cropping

rice on the same plots of land.

Though the belief persisted for decades, modern experts have a more nuanced view

of the Kingdom's ancient agriculture.

"There are theories now that Angkor relied more on slaves than on irrigation,"

Calas said. "The agricultural capacity at that time with the landscape was enough

to feed all the people."

Like Calas, Jeffrey Himel, who is writing a thesis comparing land and water management

under the pre-Angkorian Khmers and Khmer Rouge, doesn't believe there was multiple

cropping in Angkor.

"They had extensive water networks, absolutely, but they weren't necessarily

for irrigation," he said. Members of the ancient civilization were able to produce

several crops a year, because four varieties of rice can be grown in the Angkor area

naturally by using different terrains, he said.

The ancient Khmers probably harnessed water through more subtle techniques, such

as field-shaping, Himel added.

"The way a field is set up can dramatically affect the yield," he said.

"You can contour the landscape to maximize the capture, storage and spread of


Whatever the status of irrigation under Angkor, in the centuries that followed, farmers

were seasonally dependent - as many are today.

"People think of Cambodia as this irrigated, agricultural country, but [most]

people here do rain-fed agriculture," Calas said. For those farmers, "rice

is completely dependent on the level of rain - farmers manage no factors of rice


Though French colonialists began some water management projects in the late 1800s,

it wasn't until the Khmer Rouge era that Cambodia encountered its first major irrigation


"That's what the Khmer Rouge did; they got people to dig," Himel said.

Indeed, nearly 80 percent of current irrigation systems in Cambodia are products

of Democratic Kampuchea. Unfortunately, most are flawed.

The Khmer Rouge made a fatal miscalculation in assuming that they needed only a solid

base of revolutionaries to irrigate the country. They eschewed technology, expertise,

and all other hallmarks of competent irrigation planning, according to Himel.

Instead of studying the topography of different areas, they divided up Cambodia into

identical plots using a grid system. The ultimate goal was to double- and triple-crop

as much of the country as possible.

"There were canals that went up instead of down, reservoirs that were too big,

or not big enough, for the flow of water," Calas said. "They constructed

by doing, saw if it held and if not, built it again the next year."

Thinking small

Still, systems built under the Khmer Rouge weren't a complete waste.

"With such a huge effort, even if it's not well-functioning, there remain some

benefits," Calas said.

Because some projects were salvageable, much irrigation aid since the early 1990s

has gone toward restoring those structures. Most have been small-scale undertakings.

Even so, trying to manage the systems is a constant challenge, Calas said. In the

late 1990s, responsibility for irrigation projects shifted from the state to local

Farmer Water User Communities (FWUCs). Those who actually benefit from the system

are supposed to elect a leader and develop methods of upkeep and fee collection.

But it's often difficult for communities to organize.

"The problem is, in the minds of the people, it's the state's responsibility

to provide irrigation," said Yang Saing Koma, director of the Centre d'Etude

et de Developpement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC). "We need to shift their minds."

There are currently around 130 FWUCs in Cambodia, all finding different levels of

success. Sometimes NGOs like CEDAC will step in and help a group organize.

Koma pointed to a community CEDAC had helped in Prey Veng, which collected 100 percent

of its membership dues for the first time this year.

"There is some progress," he said. "But still many of the irrigation

schemes in Cambodia are not well-managed and well-maintained."

Making organization even more difficult, the National Assembly has not yet passed

the Law on Water Resources Management, which was submitted in 2002. While FWUCs are

described in various subdecrees, until the law is approved, "if some farmers

don't want to pay the [usage] fee, they don't officially have to," Koma said.

Because Cambodia can't seem to maintain the structures it already has, Koma said

he thought the country probably wasn't suited for large-scale irrigation. A more

prudent approach, he said, would be to continue investing in small projects and building

up the resources to take care of them.

"It's easy to just build infrastructure," he said. "You can construct

a big canal and then invite the TV channels to come take a picture of it. What's

hard is educating and training people."

Bigger dreams

Sakhon has a different view of Cambodia's irrigation potential. Without large-scale

systems, farmers will remain trapped in a life of poverty and largely subsistence

agriculture, he said.

"People say tourism will help Cambodia, but hotels make only rich men wealthy;

Siem Reap in general is very poor," Sakhon said. "The farmers cannot even

show their products to the hotels."

A lot of produce comes from across the border, he said.

Sakhon admitted that Cambodia significantly lags behind neighbors such as Vietnam,

Thailand and Laos.

To illustrate the difference, he described various countries' pumping stations along

the Mekong. While Thailand has thousands, and Laos at least 1,000, Cambodia lays

claim to only 50.

"It's an unbalanced use of the Mekong," Sakhon said. "We can't compete."

Though progress will depend on funding and political will, Sakhon thinks that in

a couple of decades Cambodia will be able to construct and manage larger irrigation

projects - sophisticated canals, dykes and reservoirs.

"We need to start creating large-scale schemes soon," he said. "Without

them, Cambodia will not be able to develop agro-industry. You need water and power."

But others pointed out that there were many barriers to the country accomplishing

such an ambitious project. Due to poor soil quality and lack of education, more extensive

irrigation might not be appropriate in Cambodia, said Jean-Marie Brun, agriculture

and rural development specialist at the Groupe de Recherche et d'Echanges Technologiques.

Many projects aim to irrigate fields during the dry season, enabling farmers to grow

both rainy- and dry-season crops. But most farmers grow rice, and much of the soil

in Cambodia can't support two rice crops, Brun said.

Cambodia produced around 4.7 million metric tons of rice in 2004, according to statistics

from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Though this should be enough

to feed everyone in the country, some areas produce more than others, and growers

often sell the surplus abroad, Himel said.

While these numbers may seem heartening, Cambodia's productivity pales in comparison

to that of its neighbors. The 2004 rice yield for Cambodia was 2.05 tons per hectare,

double the country's production in 1961. Last year Thailand brought in 2.57 t/ha,

Laos yielded 3.29 t/ha and Vietnam led the region with 4.8 t/ha, according to IRRI


Because of low soil quality, poor irrigation and inadequate education, Cambodia's

rice-cropping lacks efficiency.

Even in irrigated areas, Cambodian farmers rarely have the technical know-how to

grow dry season crops. Sakhon estimated that less than 10 percent of Cambodia's farmers

participate in dry season agriculture.

"The way to conduct cultivation is much different than in the rainy season,"

Brun said. "There needs to be a major investment in education before we'll see

good returns."

Because of this, Brun recommended that Cambodia continue building supplemental irrigation

schemes. These artificially extend the rainy season in case of drought, enabling

farmers to produce their normal crops.

Calas said the scale of irrigation will have to depend on varying local conditions,

but that farmers will eventually need to move away from rice.

"Once we can establish food security, we need to get farmers growing more cash

crops," he said. "Rice has a low profitability."

Farmers could cultivate rice in the rainy season and then another crop that was less

taxing on soil in the dry season.

This would, he admitted, take years of investment and effort.

But some are optimistic about Cambodian irrigation, despite the difficulties.

"More extensive irrigation in Cambodia hasn't worked yet, but that doesn't mean

we should throw the baby out with the bathwater," Himel said. "Who knows,

20 years from now they may be ready for it."

In the works: Cambodia's top irrigation projects

1. Flood Emergency Rehabilitation Project-flood control and irrigation

Thirty-three subprojects across 10 provinces

Funded by the World Bank and Ministry of Water Resources and Metrology (MOWRAM)Total

project cost: $9.2 million


37,000 hectares irrigated

2. Damnak Ampil Irrigation Project

Pursat province

Funded by MOWRAM

Total project cost: $3.9 million


30,967 ha.

3. Stung Staung Reservoir Rehabilitation Project

Kampong Thom province

Funded by MOWRAM

Total project cost: $1.9 million


30,565 ha.

4. Northwest Irrigation Sector Project

Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces

Funded by ADB, AFD (France) and MOWRAM

Total project cost: $30.8 million


30,000 ha.

5. Rural Integrated Development-canal rehabilitation

Western side of Phnom Penh municipality

Funded by Republic of Korea (EDCF) and MOWRAM

Total project cost: $4 million


24,000 ha.

6. Basac Reservoir Rehabilitation Project

Upstream of Moung Ressei River

Battambang province

Funded by Japan Non-Project Grant AID and MOWRAMTotal project cost: $1.2 million


23,000 ha.

7. Multi-Purpose Water Resources Development ProjectKrang

Ponley River Basin

Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang, and Kandal provinces

Funded by KOIICA, Republic of Korea (EDCF) and MOWRAM

Total project cost: $30 million


17,000 ha.


8. Kamping Pouy Irrigation Rehabilitation and Rural Development

Battambang province

Funded by JICA, APS (Italian), WFP and MOWRAM

Total project cost: $4.5 million


13,500 ha.

9. Prey Nup Rehabilitation Project


Funded by AFD (France) and MOWRAM

Total project cost: $11 million


12,000 ha.

10. Kpob Trabek Reservoir Rehabilitation Project

Takeo province

Funded by MOWRAM

Total project cost: $954,000


9,700 ha.


  • Diplomatic passports issued to foreigners to be annulled

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will move to annul diplomatic passports issued to those not born in Cambodia. Analysts say the move may be in relation to reports that former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra used a Cambodian passport to register as

  • The hairy little heroes saving many lives in rural Cambodia

    IN RURAL Siem Reap province, rats dare to tread where no person will, as these hairy little heroes place their lives on the line each day for the good of the local community. The rodents are the most important members of a special team, leading

  • Hun Sen warns Irish MP of EBA ‘mistake’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday told former Irish premier Enda Kenny, still a member of the EU nation’s parliament, that the 28-nation bloc should not make a “third mistake” regarding Cambodia by using the preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement to “take 16 million

  • PM warns EU and opposition on 34th anniversary of his rule

    HUN Sen reached the milestone of 34 years as Cambodian prime minister on Monday and used the groundbreaking ceremony for a new ring road around Phnom Penh to tell the international community that putting sanctions on the Kingdom meant killing the opposition. “Please don’t forget