odong district, Kompong Speu province – About 20 km from National Route 4, the quiet village of Paing Lavea stands isolated from the buzz of the country’s busiest highway.
Here, the fields lay dry with crops wilting or singed brown by the sun. Small canals snake through rice paddies, empty of water.
Surveying his two parched and empty fields, farmer Nhuong Thy shook his head as he spoke of the lack of rain and its effects on this year’s rice crops.
“I think we are starving and dying this terrible year because my rice crops have dried out,” the 39-year-old said, blinking under the harsh sunlight.
Having given up on the shriveled crops, he recently cleared his fields to allow his cows to graze on them.
“Because it didn’t rain here and because the irrigation system is zero, I have no way out but to watch my rice plants die,” he said, his voice faltering.
Nhoung Thy and his neighbors say they have experienced only one big rainfall this year and the unusually dry weather has brought desperation to this farming village.
This year’s drought has ruined an estimated 200,000 hectares, or about one-tenth of the country’s rice paddies, causing widespread food shortages across the countryside, government officials said this week. Officials say Kompong Speu is possibly the hardest hit.
Though many believe this year’s drought is the worst in recent years, tens of thousands of people consistently go hungry each year for lack of adequate irrigation systems in the country.
During each dry season, water shortages cause mass annual migrations to the capital or provincial towns where villagers work or beg for food; during the wet seasons, thousands go homeless because of floods.
While politicians and aid workers agree that the country has a lack of infrastructure to manage water resources, their assessments differ when it comes to the pace of government efforts to improve irrigation systems.
Lu Laysreng, the minister of rural development, said “quite a few” irrigation channels have already been built across the country and the area has been helped by “quite a lot of millions of dollars”—and he expects more to come.
“We want to make irrigation a priority,” he said. “Prime Minister Hun Sen has built irrigation lines that work very well.”
He did not specify where those irrigation lines were.
Mu Sochua, an opposition party Cabinet member who recently helped distribute food and rice donations from retired King Norodom Sihanouk to hungry villagers, blamed the persistent droughts on the government’s failure to implement its promises to improve natural resources.
“The government’s plan, in terms of a plan, is a good plan,” she said. “But the performance should be questioned.
“Our farmers, our villagers are totally on their own,” she said, pointing to rising poverty and persistent deforestation and land disputes as indicators of government mismanagement. “How do you explain this kind of development?”
According to Dr Uy Sam Ath, director of the disaster management unit at the Cambodian Red Cross, the problem of repeated famine was a matter of erratic weather. This year’s drought was exacerbated by unusually scant rainfalls and low water levels in the Mekong River, he said.
He said the government’s work to build irrigation systems, while needing improvement, is otherwise a sign of progress in the countryside.
“The Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Rural Development, they try hard to send out pump water machines…to assist farmers,” Uy Sam Ath said.
But progress still appears to be lagging in Kompong Speu, where 30,000 to 40,000 families are already going hungry, according to Bin Sareth, director of the province’s agriculture office.
To alleviate the problem, the government is pushing a controversial project that would make Prek Thnowt dam into the country’s biggest, but concerns raised by environmentalists and financial donors have largely put those plans on hold.
In 1999, courting funding from Japan, the government said the project would irrigate 70,000 hectares of land in Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kandal provinces, and generate about
18 megawatts of power.
Large-scale dams are the only way to irrigate the country, Veng Sokhon secretary of state for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology said this week.
But he said he was resigned that such ambitions “will never materialize” due to resistance from environmentalists.
According to a January 2004 report from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the reconstruction of Prek Thnowt dam would have a huge impact on the environment and on the pocketbooks of the government and donors. The project would cost about $275 million and displace about 23,000 people living in the proposed reservation area, JICA estimated.
“Judging objectively from these figures and requirements, possibility of realization of the project is considered quite low under the present situation,” JICA reported.
But Takeichi Jiro, project formulation adviser at JICA, said the organization has not yet made a final decision on irrigation rehabilitation efforts in Kompong Speu.
The construction of smaller reservoirs may be an alternate option, he said.
“It is at the stage of consideration,” he said Thursday. “Soon we can decide how we should proceed.”
The improvement of the country’s irrigation systems will take time before results become visible, he said. Even as main canals are constructed throughout the country, farmers need to build smaller branch canals to feed water to their own fields, requiring responsibility and know-how from both the government and villagers.
“The government has to manage the big canals year after year and the farmers have to manage small canals,” Takeichi said.
Villagers in Kompong Speu, however, say they don’t have time to wait.
“The less rice we get, the harder it is to live longer,” said Snguon Sean, 42, a farmer from Paing Lavea village.
Her brother Nhoung Thy, 39, implored the government: “Please bring us food and irrigation dams.”