Until recently, few in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province would dream of growing rice more than one time a year. While several small rivers run through this area -- located about halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap cities -- there was no reliable way to access water year round. Water could be collected only via wells, an expensive and time consuming process.
In recent years, climate change has made living here even more difficult. Some years, the droughts are so bad that there is simply no water to collect. To make ends meet, most families here would migrate during the dry season--taking on risky physical labor on Phnom Penh’s construction sites.
But with the advent of a rehabilitated irrigation system, life here is beginning to improve measurably.
In 2000, the French Development Agency (AFD) and Asian Development Bank inked an agreement with the Cambodian government to fund and support the rehabilitation of the Khmer Rouge-era Stung Chinit irrigation scheme. Nearly a decade after its completion, the 26 million euro project has brought a network of canals to thousands of farmers. The irrigation has allowed farmers to diversify their cropping, planting vegetables in the dry months. In some parts it has even allowed for the water-intensive practice of multiple rice plantations in a year.
Huot Chanthou was making her way to the market when she stopped to extol the virtues of the canal. On the back of her battered motorbike sat an overflowing bag of lettuce, one of several crops she grows in rotation.
“It’s much better now,” she said. “I can grow many things, and I spend far less money on pumping. There’s a better access road--you can just go to the next village to see how bad the road used to be.”
When the canals are rehabilitated, the roads are too, giving farmers better access to both middlemen and the markets directly. The AFD project ensures that community facilitators then come in to help farmers negotiate better prices, improve their techniques--such as by switching to organic farming, which brings more money--and market their crops. The upkeep and management of the rehabilitated canals, meanwhile, comes from the community itself.
But change can come slowly. In some areas, those elected to run the canals manage them poorly, or even embezzle the fees. Even when the irrigation schemes are well-run, it can take years before farmers are comfortable to change the agricultural practices they have carried out their whole lives.
In Kampong Thom, a canal runs the length of Sa’ang village -- separating the homes from small plots of farmland behind them. Water from this drainage canal is controlled by a gate maintained by the Farmer Water Users Community (FWUC) and supported through dues paid by each farmer. Already, some of the rice fields have been harvested and replanted with neat rows of lettuce and morning glory.
In this area, people pay fees only when they are planting rice. The FWUC is eager to encourage people to grow crops during the dry season and they don’t charge for water use once the rains stop. Slowly, they have managed to change the behavior.
And as residents are becoming comfortable planting dry season crops, village life here is changing. Before, every dry season would see a mass exodus of men and women seeking seasonal work in factories, construction and as field hands in other provinces. Grandparents would take care of grandchildren and parents would resign themselves to long months away carrying out dangerous labor for scant wages.
“Before irrigation, people migrated to other places for labor. Now, we’re starting to organize our life around the canal. We’re figuring out ways to grow in the dry season and to find other opportunities closer to home,” said Oun Narin, a 28-year-old farmer. Two years ago, she and her husband stopped going to Phnom Penh to work in construction. He found construction work closer to home--poorer paying, but a cut they could afford thanks to the vegetables Narin can now plant and sell during the dry season.
“Before this canal was fixed you would only see grass back here to feed cows. Now, with the canal, if you come back in a few months you will see vegetables everywhere.”