As drought conditions have gripped northern Cambodia, the irrigation system there cannot meet the demands of farmers, many of whom are growing water-extensive paddy.
PURSAT -- Dozens of two-wheel tractors line a drying irrigation canal in Pursat province’s Bakan district. Meters of blue metal piping run up and down the embankment, sucking up any remaining water into flexible pipes that snake along the length of drying paddy fields.
Some two-wheel tractors are on makeshift rafts, floating in the water, straining to get to as much water out as possible. At one spot, the embankment has been dug into to place a large generator to provide the improvised irrigation operation additional power.
The sound of the dozens of engines roaring at the same time makes it hard to hear anything else. But Nop Kimlong, dressed in wet and muddy clothes, is very vocal about what’s on his mind.
The 44-year-old farmer said that the water levels had receded to levels where they had to try and extract the last remaining water in nearby ponds and canals.
“There is not enough water. I have not been able to save 6.5 hectares of my rice field since there is no water at all,” said Nop Kimlong.
Drought conditions have gripped northern Cambodia, with the Mekong River Commission in November saying that drought will continue to hit countries along the river till at least January.
The same report said that Cambodia and Thailand were expected to be hit the worst, with peak drought conditions forecast for mid-December. To compound the matter, Cambodia’s irrigation system cannot meet the demands of farmers, many of whom are growing water-extensive paddy.
The government has also acknowledged the low water levels asking farmers to only plant a single dry season crop. But, for Pursat’s farmers, they still have to pay the bills and financial debts, regardless of the government’s diktat.
Nop Kimlong said he rented half of the 16 hectares he uses to grow rice. He has had to invest an additional $500 over the last 20 days to pump water from the irrigation canal to his farm. These expenses, around $6,000 including loans, are surely eating into Nop Kimlong’s profits.
“I will absolutely lose the profits,” he said in an interview with VOA Khmer. “If there is [rain] water soon, perhaps some of the crop can be rescued.”
The rice sector has faced some challenges this year after, first, the European Union slapped tariffs on Cambodian rice exports, following Italy’s triggering of safeguard measures.
Farmers have also complained of low rice prices, partly on account of dampened exports to the EU, a claim that was dismissed by the Agriculture Ministry on December 17.
Cambodia is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to multiple reports. However, exports point to hydropower dams along the Mekong and little effort to mitigate the effects of drought conditions.
Chan Yutha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, said that around 45,000 hectares of land had been affected by drought and that government was able to provide assistance to around 20,000 hectares of land, less than half the total affected area.
He claimed that the government had ensured that 68 percent of rice-growing areas had access to water or irrigation facilities, adding that more time was needed to reach all areas.
“We don’t have magic. This work needs time and budget,” Chan Yutha said. “We have been doing this work step by step.”
But, for Yang Saing Koma, an agriculture expert, Cambodia was an ideal candidate for water harvesting projects and that the government had not invested enough funds to expand water storage.
“It is an excuse just to blame nature,” he said.
He said the government had not managed Cambodia’s water resources efficiently, and that a decentralized approach, where local officials were given state funds to build appropriate irrigation facilities, would be preferable.
But for farmers there is little time to wait for big structural changes, resulting in makeshift operations, like the one in Pursat, to get through this dry season.
Pich Srey Sophal said she has seen first-hand the struggles farmers are going through to make it through the dry season. More than half the rice fields in the commune have been affected by water shortages, said the deputy commune chief of Trapaing Chorng commune in Bakan district.
She has asked her constituents to try and grow less rice, to better utilize existing water resources. But that villagers were reluctant to listen to the government’s directive because they blame the administration for the current situation.
“They are angry with the government,” she said. “Some say if there is no water for them, they will not vote for [government].”
“They will become poor…if they lose the rice crop this year,” Pich Srey Sophal added.
And that rings true for rice farmer Vit Chanthou, who is busy pumping water for her 3-hectare farm. With her husband working alongside her, the 40-year-old farmer is reluctantly entertaining the possibility of her entire crop failing.
Apart from the financial implications, around $2,000 of debt, the impact will be worse on her family.
“It will be a complete loss. I need to money to buy food and for my children’s education,” said the mother of four.
As Vit Chanthou and her husband work hard to get water to their fields, others in the district have all but given up hope.
Duong Savy, Okhna Moan’s village chief in Bakan district, said that while farmers close to the irrigation canal were pumping water to their fields, his farmland was too far to transport the water.
This meant that farmer like him were helpless in trying to grow a dry season crop, and he expected the fall in farm output to change the demographics of the village.
“The paddy rice had died out,” he said, referring his 4-hectare farm.
“I think this year more villagers will migrate to find work,” Duong Savy said. “They will work as labor in construction or growing cassava and corn.”