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,
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."
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."
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
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
Funded by MOWRAM
Total project cost: $3.9 million
3. Stung Staung Reservoir Rehabilitation Project
Kampong Thom province
Funded by MOWRAM
Total project cost: $1.9 million
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
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
6. Basac Reservoir Rehabilitation Project
Upstream of Moung Ressei River
Funded by Japan Non-Project Grant AID and MOWRAMTotal project cost: $1.2 million
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
8. Kamping Pouy Irrigation Rehabilitation and Rural Development
Funded by JICA, APS (Italian), WFP and MOWRAM
Total project cost: $4.5 million
9. Prey Nup Rehabilitation Project
Funded by AFD (France) and MOWRAM
Total project cost: $11 million
10. Kpob Trabek Reservoir Rehabilitation Project
Funded by MOWRAM
Total project cost: $954,000