O NE thousand years ago Cambodia was laced with ditches and reservoirs and had
green rice growing all year round, according to some historians. The water
storage system perfected over several hundred years at Angkor was one of the
great accomplishments of the Khmer civilization.
Today, Cambodia has
irrigation canals running backwards, dams that leak, reservoirs being used as
rice paddies and a shortage of engineers and money to fix the mess. The
situation is the legacy of the Pol Pot era, which produced at great human cost a
grid of canals and dikes all over the country.
The amount of irrigation
work conducted during the Khmer Rouge period was enormous, but up to 80 percent
of the projects don't work. Dams have collapsed, canals were built too shallow
in some areas and too deep in others so that the water doesn't flow properly.
Sometimes the hydraulic pumps were too small to lift the water or the water
capacity was too large for the canal transport systems. Irrigation problems
occur all over Cambodia, according to irrigation engineers.
donors and NGOs have been attempting to fix the systems for nearly 15 years but
so far their successes have been small.
But now the first big steps are
being taken with the completion of an irrigation rehabilitation study last year
by the United Nations Development Programme. UNDP inventoried 841 irrigation
structures and systems in Cambodia and came up with a priority list of ten
projects to be rehabilitated, costing about $10 million.
Union (EU) has agreed to take on one of the projects, in Svay Rieng and is
studying two others. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is taking two projects, in
Kampong Cham and Prey Veng, in addition to another irrigation project the ADB is
funding in Takeo. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken on one project himself
in Kandal and the UNDP is looking at whether security in the north will allow it
to proceed with a large rehabilitation project in Banteay Meanchey. The
Department of Agriculture, Hydraulics and Hydro-Meteorology is looking for aid
groups to take on the other projects in Kampot, Prey Veng and Kandal.
even with these projects, no one is suggesting that Cambodia is soon going to be
lush like parts of Vietnam with three crops of rice a year. These projects and
prior work all raise the question that if Cambodia in the 1960s was
self-sufficient in rice production, and was a net exporter of rice for many
years, why can't that success be reproduced today?
success with irrigation dates to the 1100s when the Angkor kings built barays
which were used to feed a network of irrigation canals. Historians differ in
their interpretation of the use of these man-made lakes. Some call the storage
systems one of the finest examples of irrigation. Others believe that the
systems may not have been used for irrigation at all, but that the reputed year
round rice referred to by a Chinese emissary was grown in the receding
floodwaters of the Tonle Sap. Whatever the case, some say that Pol Pot was
motivated to emulate the ancient kingdom's success with his own irrigation
schemes, but failed.
Today the experts say that irrigation is only one of
several factors involved in rice production that needs improvement. Just as
important, they say, is agronomy, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and
agricultural marketing. One of the dilemmas is that irrigation tends to be very
expensive on a per hectare basis, and so the tendency of international aid
agencies is to look at other cheaper ways of improving the
"While it looks so simple on the one hand, it is complicated,"
says Visha Padmanabhan, country representative of Oxfam UK, which has been
involved in irrigation projects in Cambodia since the early
Jeffrey Himel, a Canadian irrigation consultant who has been
working in Cambodia for two and a half years, says the loss of hydrologic data
during the 70s is going to make it impossible to undertake any large scale
project for years. "Data collection stopped in 1972," he says. "It is very risky
to become involved in large scale irrigation design when you lack basic
According to a report by the irrigation engineers last
year, a large scale system is beyond the Cambodian government's capability to
design, construct, operate and maintain. No big schemes are contemplated but
even if one was started immediately by a foreign agency it would take seven to
ten years to complete.
The foreign engineers working here also cite the
shortage of civil and hydrologic engineers within the hydrology department as
well as the low pay given to civil servants and the lack of a water policy as
other problems holding back progress. Add to that Cambodia's unique hydrology
situation, and the extraordinary obstacles posed by the Khmer Rouge
Explains Himel, "there was a desire in the '80s to get
something out of a system that so many people died to build". At the beginning,
the engineers were perplexed by the Pol Pot irrigation system and they didn't
realize that so many of the projects would never have worked and were not worth
rehabilitating. A report by Bert Pijpers in 1989 found that sometimes canals
"stopped at one side of a hill or a village and continued on the other side." It
was not uncommon to find canals with a sudden change in depth of two to three
meters because the digging was being supervised in separate villages and there
was no coordination between them.
In the 1960s Cambodia produced enough
rice to export a half million tons a year, but since civil war Cambodia has been
a net importer of rice, according to the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia-Project, which
has been working in agriculture here for nearly 10 years.
shortage is severe this year, due to the flooding last August that delayed the
start of the growing season, followed by drought at the end of the growing
season in October and November. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates it will
have to distribute 90,000 tons of rice this year to 2.5 million Cambodians, said
Peter Guest, WFP project officer. The government at the end of June put out yet
another appeal to the world for rice donations.
One of the reasons that
less rice is being produced is that less land is under cultivation, according to
IRRI. Currently a maximum 1.9 million hectares is under rice cultivation,
compared to about 2.5 million in the 1960s. Only about eight percent of the rice
now cultivated comes from a second crop of dry season irrigated
IRRI says thousands of hectares of receding floodplain
located in the Mekong Delta and the Tonle Sap areas where only one crop a year
is grown, could produce two crops a year with proper water control. But even if
those areas are eventually irrigated "Cambodia is still going to rely on
rainfall for most of its rice. Most of Cambodia is not suitable for irrigation,"
says Peter White at IRRI.
One reason is that Cambodia's hydrology is
complex and has changed over the last few decades with the cutting of trees. The
topology lacks natural hills that would provide engineers with suitable places
to build large dams. Any major irrigation project has to take into consideration
normal flooding. Many of the Pol Pot projects failed in 1991 when there was
major flooding due to heavy rains and high Mekong levels. In addition the
extraordinary rising and falling levels of the Mekong make irrigation pumping
systems expensive, if not impossible in the dry season because it would be too
expensive to pump water up embankments.
Besides, a major project on the
Mekong cannot be contemplated at this point because of the cost, the security
problems, and the possible effects of upstream development on the river, the
The Mekong Secretariat Irrigation Rehabilitation Study
funded by UNDP last year recommended rehabilitating ten top priority projects at
a total cost of $10.5 million. One of the largest of the projects is the $1.43
million Tuk Char reservoir project built during Sihanouk's time in Kompong Cham.
Bun Hean, design engineer with the department of hydrology, said the ADB is
funding the project, which involves rebuilding a dike and spillway to irrigate
the fields downstream both for dry season rice and wet season supplementary
One of the big European Union (EU) projects being started is
to fix the Kompong Rotes irrigation system on the border of Vietnam in Svey
Rieng province. A spokesman says the system will eventually provide irrigation
for perhaps 800 hectares of dry season rice. Twelve villages are involved in the
$700,000 project which involves repairing old dikes and canals. The EU is
planning to start two comlex projects in Kampong Cham after the rainy season and
has two projects in Kampong Chhnang and has just finished fixing a channel in
Takeo. All are part of its "Prasac" projects.
Even with these mid-size
projects being launched, the UNDP study concluded that irrigation rehabilitation
can potentially increase rice paddy production by 11 percent mainly through
improved yields rather than by increasing the growing areas.
concluded that most of Cambodia's rice will continue to be grown through rainfed
agriculture, and that attention needs to be focused on other measures to help
the farmers, such as improved market conditions to reduce banditry, setting up
laws for water allocation, and research into improving methods of agriculture
especially in the rainfed areas.
While the bigger aid organizations are
picking up some of the irrigation projects, some small NGOs are scaling back
efforts in irrigation, according to several people involved in the
They are putting their money into other areas because too many
irrigation projects built in the last several years haven't worked
In addition, the NGO officials say they don't want to be involved
in large scale centralized infrastructure building. There have been coordination
problems with the government ministries and provincial authorities and money has
One of the early pitfalls of the irrigation work was that
the projects failed to bring in the farmers who would actually benefit from the
systems in the earliest stages of design, says Mike Roberts, project leader for
the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) which has been one of the NGO leaders in
irrigation for several years.
Roberts concludes that while there is a lot
of potential for irrigation, the only suitable projects for Cambodia today are
the small projects that can be repaired and maintained by the farmers
Roberts says the MCC has had mixed success with its
irrigation work. Some of the structures built in the 80s "either weren't used,
didn't work well or weren't being used in the ways we thought they should be
He blames some of the problems on provincial governments'
disinclination to involve the farmers who would use, maintain and repair the
"These things were being imposed on them, rather than being a
project of the community," he says.
Others involved in the irrigation
projects have reached similar conclusions. They say that once having achieved
their independence, the farmers don't particularly want to work in collectives
and that without a personal stake in the dikes and canals they aren't likely to
want to do the extensive maintenance work.
Some of the early projects ran
into coordination difficulties. MCC was involved in one project with three other
entities - central hydrology, the provincial government and the district level.
"It all broke down. The heavy equipment never arrived." He says central
hydrology was supposed to bring in earth-moving equipment; MCC was to buy the
cement; district authorities were to mobilize the labor; and provincial
authorities had another duty. "The project was abandoned".
one of its programs that worked best was a ADB-funded $5,000 canal repair
project in November 1992 in Prey Veng. Roberts say he believes the ADB will have
a higher chance of success because of MCC's early work getting the farmers
organized to set up their own structures maintenance committee.
other projects are credited with success as well. Oxfam's irrigation work in
Takeo province where it widened a major Pol Pot era canal called Canal 15 is by
the NGO's own account providing irrigation to over 20,000 hectares of dry season
paddies. The benefits go beyond irrigation. The canal is also being used as a
source of revenue to the provincial government which sells fishing rights, and
it also provides a navigable transportation route to Vietnam. The province earns
money from the boat traffic. But Oxfam is lowering its profile in irrigation in
favor of other projects.
The WFP is running several small irrigation
projects through its Food for Work programs. A typical project now in Kampong
Speu where villagers are rebuilding a Pol Pot era dike. They want to double its
height and width before the floods come.
The small Pomo Real commune dike
is typical for several reasons: the request for assistance came to the WFP from
the farmers themselves, the dike will take just two months to repair and WFP is
paying for the villagers' labor in 170 tons of food. WFP required the villagers
to organize their own maintenance committee before the project
Critics contend that such small scale rebuilding of spillways,
canals, water gates, shallow reservoirs and pumps aren't going to solve
Cambodia's chronic food shortage. But for the villagers a working dike should
improve life considerably.
The importance to them is evident by the
enthusiasm with which they have taken up the task. For the last several weeks,
as many as 1,000 people a day have been carrying baskets of dirt up the dike and
tamping it down with small tools.
"The dike is important for three
reasons," says Meas Duk, the leader of the Pomo Real commune in the Baset
District. He says it will create a reservoir of year-round water for
supplementary wet season irrigation for 1,500 hectares as well as a small amount
of dry season rice irrigation around the dike. They will also be able to farm
fish in the reservoir and have water to grow vegetables.
officials are optimistic about the irrigation work being done at least in terms
of alleviating local food shortages. "We would hope (Cambodia) will become self
sufficient in the near future," says Guest. "With all the work being done it
should be sooner rather than later."