First Floods, Now Drought in Stricken Province

sala rieng village, Svay Chrum district, Svay Rieng province – Mao Phally sits on a bamboo platform outside her wooden house, watching the sky for signs that rain will fall on her parched rice paddies. For weeks, however, she has been disappointed.

“It’s hard to be hopeful,”  Mao Phally last week. “The dark clouds look like [they will] rain but then the wind blows the clouds away. The people don’t understand why the wind takes away the clouds from our village.”

It is the same story in hundreds of other villages in this southeastern province. Two years of floods have been followed by the re­verse—almost no rain at all.

Now, with their third rice crop in a row in jeopardy, thousands of subsistence farmers facing the prospect of empty rice bowls are joining the annual migration to Svay Rieng town, Phnom Penh or Vietnam to find work, beg or forage for food.

Politics may be intertwined with the economy in Phnom Penh, but here, where up to 95 percent of the province’s 490,000 residents are farmers, economic survival depends little on the formation of a new government. It relies on the rain.

Sala Rieng village, Bassac commune, lies a few kilometers from Svay Rieng town, across a rickety wood and steel bridge that spans the Vayko river, and down a narrow dirt road. It looks much like other villages—houses are made of mud and thatch; children herd cows. But within the sea of green that is Cambodia during the height of its rice production season, Sala Rieng has remained largely a patch of yellow and brown.

Cambodia’s prolonged dry spell this year stretched even longer in Svay Rieng. The rainy season here didn’t begin until after the Pchum Ben festival in September, and heavy rainfall, by Mao Phally’s count last week, had since come only three times.

There are no ponds or canals in Sala Rieng, so the villagers were forced to push back the planting of rice seedlings from the end of July to the end of September. Mao Phally finished planting a few days ago, she said. Other Sala Rieng villagers were still putting in their seedlings last week.

Along with Sala Rieng, 25 other villages in the province were suffering drought conditions as of Sept 30, according to provincial agriculture department statistics. Of Svay Rieng’s 690 villages, only 259, or less than half, had received what officials deem sufficient rainfall.

While the villages are scattered around the province, most are in the districts of Svay Chrum and Chantrea, which is in the province’s “bird beak” that sticks into Vietnam.

Provincial officials say the late arrival of the rains make prospects dim for the rice crop.

About 80 percent of Svay Rieng’s 180,000 hectares of rice paddies are expected to be planted this year, said  provincial Dep­uty Agriculture Department Dir­ector Soeur Saran. Two thousand hectares already have been des­troyed by insects, rats and drought. Another 17,000 hec­tares, he said, will simply remain fallow because of the lack of water. But the yield of the 80 percent depends entirely on rain fal­ling in the next few weeks.

If the rainy season ends on schedule in mid-October, said Svay Rieng Governor Loy So­phat, the province will need as much as 10,000 tons of rice assistance for 22,000 families. “We are very worried. We expect next year there will be a lack of food,” he said.

The dry spell is just one more hardship for Sala Rieng’s farmers, for whom fish, not to mention chicken or pork, is a luxury most cannot afford. “We don’t have much rice to eat now,” said Mean Seang, blaming the previous years’ floods and the rats that followed for depleted rice stocks.

Many farmers in Svay Rieng leave their farms at this time of the year. Typically planting is complete, harvest is months away and rice from the harvest the year before has nearly run out. Some go to nearby Vietnam, others as far away as the Thai border, seeking jobs in construction or as drivers of cyclos or mototaxis. But this year, said villagers and provincial officials, more far­mers than ever have joined the mi­gration.

“There are one or two from every family,” said Mao Phally, whose brother left Sala Rieng two years ago to work as a mototaxi driver in Phnom Penh.

This year, women are leaving in larger numbers. Many want jobs in Phnom Penh’s garment factories, said Mao Phally, but others wind up working in the capital’s brothels.

Among the first time migrants from Sala Rieng is 40-year-old Lych Sei. With planting of the family’s 0.3 hectare rice paddy completed last week, Lych Sei and his three daughters were preparing to make the journey to Phnom Penh. He was hoping to find a job hauling dirt at a construction site, the daughters in garment factories. Ek Na, his wife, was to stay behind, watching after her eight grandchildren and the family’s livestock.

Like many poor migrants, Lych Sei had borrowed 16,000 riel to travel to Phnom Penh. When he returns in a month, he will have to repay it and as much as 2,000 riel of interest.

“I’m very worried, I don’t know what will happen to them, or whe­ther they will have enough mo­ney to come home,” said Ek Na, as a gaggle of young children ho­svered around her.

It will certainly not be as easy for them as it has been for those in previous years. With Phnom Penh experiencing a prolonged economic downturn fueled in part by the regional crisis, there are fewer jobs for the migrants. Migrants interviewed in Phnom Penh late last month said with so much competition for jobs, many fear they will return with little money.

Not everyone leaves their farms for Phnom Penh. Touch Rotha from Bati commune, Chantrea district, said he could not afford the taxi fare to Phnom Penh. So he spent last week working on a road for a pagoda. Touch Rotha and about 30 of his neighbors were earning 3 kg of rice for their week’s worth of labor, he said.

Still others will go into debt to wealthier neighbors in order to survive, explained Sala Rieng far­mer Pich Sara. Loans in the form of rice are made to poorer villa­gers and the loans are repaid, with as much as 20 percent interest, when the villagers harvest their rice crop.

“You are always in debt, by the time you pay back the rice you have almost none left so you have to borrow again,” he said.

Last April during Khmer New Year, rather than put himself in debt, Pich Sara and his wife joined a dozen other Sala Rieng farmers and walked the 6 km to the Vietnamese border, where they snuck across and collected spare grains of rice that had fallen during Vietnam’s harvest.

In one day, he said, he could pick as much as 1 kg of rice. But the risks are high. Vietnamese farmers sometimes would chase them away, Pich Sara said, and occasionally Cambod­ians get arrested by Vietna­mese authorities.

Chantrea District Agri­culture Department Direc­tor Phom Sodon said it is a common practice for farmers to cross the border. Some steal, he acknowledged, but others find work work clearing fields for an equivalent of 2,300 riel a day.

Along with damaged crops, farmers in Chantrea district are losing their livestock to disease. Baby chicks are dying from the heat and at least 500 cattle have fallen ill with a mysterious disease, agriculture officials reported.

The drought has had an impact on other aspects of Svay Rieng’s economy as well. Taxi drivers in Svay Rieng town said business has dropped off be­cause no one has money to travel. Pork, rice and vegetable vendors all said prices had risen as much as 20 percent and sales have declined.

“I’ve been in business since 1982 and have never had a year this bad,” said Un Phan, who sells pork at Svay Rieng town’s main market. “Some days I make no money at all.”

When asked what the vendors thought might be needed to im­prove their business, their an­swer was the same—rain.

“This province is difficult,” said governor Loy Sophat, noting that there is no other industry or natural resources.

The provincial government and international aid organizations are working to expand the incomes of the farmers through rural credit schemes, training programs and irrigation projects, of which Svay Rieng is sorely lacking.

But for the immediate future, officials and farmers can do little but hope for rain.

Back in Sala Rieng, dark clouds have gathered over the heads of the farmers and a few large drops of rain begin to fall.

“Sometimes we hope,” said Mean Seang as she bundled her rice seedlings together. “We get very happy when we see black clouds but then the clouds be­come white and it is hopeless.”

 

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