Through determination and savvy fundraising, Cambodians and foreigners ressurrect an ancient water catchment and bring irrigation to thousands
Monks standing on top of the watergate of a recently reconstructed reservoir in Siem Reap.
AFTER five years of planning, fundraising and construction, the rebuilding of a reservoir once believed to serve the ancient Angkorian temple Chao Srei Vibol has entered its final stages, and will provide irrigation for more than 9,000 residents in three communes in Siem Reap.
"We're working with the government right now to finish the final phase of construction," said Tobias Rose-Stockwell, project director of the NGO Human Translation, which spearheaded the project.
"We need a good, solid, erosion-proof road on top, and we need to get more vegetation on the embankment itself and to finish portions of the canal system. But that's pretty easy compared to what we've done so far," he said.
Rose-Stockwell added that archaeologists believe this reservoir to be one of the largest remaining pieces of the ancient Angkorian irrigation system because the canal system fed by the reservoir shoots straight into a moat around the Chao Srei Vibol temple.
The reservoir has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, and was most recently in disrepair due to years flooding and neglect during Cambodia's civil war.
"The last time the reservoir was rebuilt was by force under the Khmer Rouge, but this time the community wanted to take ownership and rebuild it themselves," Rose-Stockwell said.
The odyssey of reconstruction began when Rose-Stockwell, travelling through Cambodia five years ago, was introduced to a monk who asked him to visit his village. The monk explained that the village had a huge problem because its reservoir was broken.
"When I first saw the reservoir, it was just a mound of earth covered with trees," Rose-Stockwell said. "I realised this was way bigger than anything I could do myself, but I thought, I'll at least try."
Rose-Stockwell began by raising money through drawing and photographing the reservoir. He soon realised, however, that "a ridiculous amount of money" was needed to fund his project.
Three years ago, Rose-Stockwell coordinated with the New York chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a voluntary organisation of professional and student engineers.
"The first thing they said to me was that this project is huge," Rose-Stockwell said.
Engineers Without Borders began to work on the assessment, design and construction, while Human Translation performed the fundraising.
According to D Bryse Gaboury, a project engineer, EWB first removed the overgrowth from the embankment, which would hold the water, then planted grass on the embankment to prevent erosion. It then built a watergate to stop the flow of water and create a mini-lake.
"On the first assessment, we couldn't feel if the embankment was going up or down," he said. "Just looking all around you, it was just endless rice fields."
William Cao, a structural engineer, explained that EWB built a special remote-controlled camera attached to a kite to take aerial photographs of the site.
"Prior to this, there were no aerial photos of the site, not even satellite images on the web," he said. "It was like losing a key in a patch of grass; we had to find the embankment."
Another challenge was demining the site. Luckily CMAC made this effort a high priority, according to Cao.
The actual building, overseen by EWB and conducted by Cambodian contractors, began one-and-a-half years ago after a successful fundraiser in Napa Valley, California, at which donors contributed $150,000.
"Honestly, we never had the money for this project until this fundraiser in August of 2007. The board of Human Translation put together an incredible opera in a winecave with an auction afterwards," said Rose-Stockwell. "It was amazing to see people to come together for Cambodia, a community they had no relationship to."
The communities served by the reservoir, from the Balangk, Run Ta Eak, and Knar Pu communes, also contributed funding and labour.
"Hundreds of villagers and monks come out to help grass the embankment for erosion control," Rose-Stockwell said.
"It's been a constant push-pull trying to get as much out of the local government, the district government, and the community overall. And they've really proven themselves in that regard."