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Unravelling the irrigation network

Unravelling the irrigation network

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.

The European

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?

Cambodia's believed

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

hydrologic data."

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.

The rice

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

engineers say.

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.

The study

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

been wasted.

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".

Roberts says

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."


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