As drought affects Cambodia’s rice farmers, can building more small-scale reservoirs help?

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Over the last few years, and especially in 2016, the Mekong region has been going though severe drought and water scarcity. Many diverse sources of water in rural areas such as wells, lakes and ponds around many villages are running dry. In Cambodia, given rural communities comprise almost 80% of the country’s population, rice farmers are bearing the brunt of the ongoing drought.

The government’s national committee for disaster management estimated that about 2.5 million people were affected by extreme weather events across the country in 2016. About 25 provinces were severely affected by the drought which has caused water shortage and decline in rice production.

Even though rice production in Cambodia has slightly increased in the last few years from 2011 to 2015, with rice yield an average of 9.3 million tons nationwide, production dropped drastically in 2016. The decline was a result of severe drought and an inadequate irrigation system that have deprived rice farmers of water.

Farmers transplanting the rice saplings. But without adequate water, the rice paddies may not survive. (Photo by Phirun Odom.)

In response, the government of Cambodia has provided an emergency solution to help the affected people by supplying drinking water during times of crisis. Authorities have trucked water to 18 provinces and requested affected communities to restrict water use. A million liters of clean water has been distributed to people in drought-affected areas. However, the government’s response has not been as effective since the water supply is used for drinking purposes. The measure has failed to help the hundreds of rice farmers facing water shortages in their fields.

Rural areas suffer the worst impacts of the drought

Battambang, a northwestern province of Cambodia and one of the country’s biggest rice production centers, was seriously affected by last year’s extended dry spell attributed to El Niño. El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean that causes fluctuations in seasonal temperatures and weather patterns leading to high temperatures and dry spells in some parts of the globe.

According to the report of the Council for Development of Cambodia, Battambang province produces around 780,000 tons of rice annually. Since 2016, an extended dry spell that lasted beyond the usual summer season and resulted in acute water scarcity affected more than 40 thousands of hectares (ha) of rice paddy in Battambang.

Path Sophy, the chief of Kampong Sambour village in Battambang, said that the drought has affected many rice farmers in Battambang province.

“Drought is endangering our livelihood as farmers. Everyone in the village is faced with water scarcity. The poorer farmers can’t grow crops when there is no water. Also, the dry soil leads to decreased soil fertility and less rice yield,” said Sophy.

Last year, temperatures hit an all-time high of 41 degrees Celsius in many parts of Cambodia. Chan Yuttha, the spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, stated that he had never witnessed such high temperatures in summer in the past several decades.

He considers the dry season of 2016 as the worst in the last four decades. He noted that the main climate risk for farmers is that the dry season comes too early and the rainy season ends early.

A river in Battambang nearly run out of water which affected many lives. (Photo by Khmer Times.)

Water shortages were caused by the extended dry spell that started in early May to mid-July while the first rainfall came in late June. However, in the normal dry season, there would still be water in ponds and reservoirs which could provide enough water for people for drinking and farming; all these ponds have run dry since last year.

The water shortage for the rice fields is caused by at least two problems. The first is the sources of irrigation water, the canals and reservoirs, are running dry due to lack of adequate rainfall and the extended dry spells. Secondly, even there is water in the reservoirs, it is not distributed effectively to the fields due to lack of connections between the reservoirs and the canals that lead to rice fields.

Mr. Sam Vitou, the head of Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), said that farmers are already the most vulnerable group affected by climate change since they depend so much on the weather and rainfall for their farming livelihood, especially rain-fed crops.

Not having enough water during drought not only spells trouble for rice fields but also for daily consumption. Even though some small reservoirs are being built or repaired near villages, farmers find it hard to bring water to their houses or farms.

Community ponds provide water for farmers for cultivation and livestock. (Photo by CEDAC.)

Canal distribution networks are limited so farmers need to construct channels themselves to ensure that they have enough water supplies. This means they also need mobile pumps or traditional lifting methods to bring water to the rice field; in fact in some areas many canals exist but have become defunct from not being used for a long time.

Financial resource is also key to coping with the drought. Most farmers have very low income and grow rice mainly for their own family consumption. Farming can only be done once a year using traditional methods. In some circumstance where the harvesting does not go well, the farmers have to endure hardship lacking both food and money. Without much money or government support, local farmers cannot afford to build their own irrigation facilities for growing rice and sustaining their livelihoods and families.

Solving water shortages: Is building more small-scale reservoirs the solution?

As the hottest period of the dry season arrives again, Sam Vitou, the head of CEDAC, fears that last year’s severe drought and water scarcity is set to return. He foresees that the present irrigation system is barely adequate to supply water to all farmers, especially those living in remote areas in the country.

He suggested three ways to deal with drought and water scarcity and to improve rice production. First of all, the government should push for digging more wells or ponds near farmlands for storing water in the rainy season to use in the dry season.

Moreover, each commune should have one big pond or reservoir to store water and share it among the villagers in the dry season. “In fact, this was a system used in the past but then the community ponds disappeared for many reasons. This water storage system should be reintroduced to help farmers deal with water shortages and for rice production,” said Vitou.

Secondly, Vitou proposed the building of more small-scale water storage units including expanding the irrigation system. The government must construct more canals, dikes and reservoirs to ensure water supply for farmers.

Lastly, the government must come up with more effective measures to prevent the severe impacts of climate change on rural communities.

Since the end of the dry season last year, the government has already spent time and money in constructing more reservoirs and dams for providing water to farmers, especially those living in rural areas. The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM) has also speeded up the construction of numerous dam projects. This could ensure more availability of water when the dry spell gets extended again this year.

The government has placed more effort to prevent impacts on farmers during last year’s drought. As part of its Climate Change Strategic Plan for Water Resource and Meteorology (2013-2017), MOWRAM has sped up efforts to construct more water reservoirs. The implementation of this plan would cost approximately US$1.2 million over the next four years.

“MOWRAM is constructing more reservoirs in areas affected by drought to store water from rainfall as well as digging wells and ponds in rural areas,” said Mr. Yuttha.

In Battambang province, many new dam projects are underway and some older dams are being renovated. For instance, the Bovel reservoir renovation project has recently been completed while Bassac-Prekchik irrigation system is being enlarged to store more water. The Reamkun irrigation system in Mongrussey district is also under construction.

The Battambang multipurpose dam under construction: Once completed, it will store water to irrigate thousands of hectares of rice fields and also generate electricity. (Photo by Cambodia’s Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology.)

MOWRAM is also now repairing the Kompingpuoy reservoir that was built in the 1960s during the Khmer Rouge era which played an important role in supplying water for farmers. Kampingpuoy is one of the biggest irrigation systems in Battambang: the reservoir supplies water to about 40,000 ha of surrounding farmlands and wetlands.

The Battambang Multipurpose Dam project, located in Ratanak Mondul district, is now under construction and will be completed in mid-2017. This multipurpose 130MW dam, apart from generating electricity, is intended to also provide water for farming and prevent flooding.

But the drought seems relentless. As this year’s dry season nears its peak, ponds are running out of water, and Cambodian farmers fear their water supplies might become as scarce as last year.


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