Irrigation infrastructure in Cambodia has developed at an increasing rate in recent years and irrigation schemes now serve about a third of all rice-growing areas, while foreign donors are providing hundreds of millions of dollars for more projects.
However, experts say major challenges remain for increasing irrigated farming. Many irrigation schemes are not in full use or have fallen into disrepair as local management is lacking, and most farm fields have not yet been connected to irrigation canals.
A study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency presented at a seminar on irrigation on Wednesday found that, due to expansion and rehabilitation of irrigation canals, 1,120,246 hectares of farmland were served by irrigation schemes in 2009, up from 1,046,263 hectares in 2004.
The government plans to increase this area by 25,000 hectares annually between 2009 and 2013, the study said, while a total of 14 foreign-supported irrigation development projects worth $470 million are now under way or due to start. Most are funded through loans from China and South Korea.
But as infrastructure expands, it will be increasingly crucial to expand local management and develop connections between irrigation schemes and farm fields, irrigation experts said this week.
Kim Sophanna, a senior adviser at the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said, “There are a lot of efforts from governments and donors to develop new irrigation schemes, but little attention and money for farmers and provincial officials that maintain and operate the schemes in the long term.”
According to Ministry of Water Resources’ prakas, farmers and government should initially share a new irrigation scheme’s maintenance cost, after five years the farmers become fully responsible. However, Mr Sophanna said, “There has been no case where the government has provided money to support irrigation facilities” maintenance.
He said that a 2008 CEDAC study found that in the 13 main rice-growing provinces, only 7 percent of the irrigation schemes were fully functional and connected to farm fields year-round, while 34 percent was partially functional, with the rest being out of function.
“We have more than 2,500 irrigation schemes, but most of them are out of order,” he said. “The problem with irrigation in Cambodia is the lack of infrastructure to bring water to the field.”
CEDAC recommends reserving more funding to develop management by communities and local officials and to connect farm fields to irrigation canals, while farmers should also be able to request construction of small-scale schemes.
The government’s new rice policy, which aims to increase milled rice export to 1 million tons by 2015, states that due to a lack of access to irrigation “paddy production is largely subject to weather conditions.” It says only 4.2 percent of all farmers are able to grow two harvests per year. The policy identifies improved local management and use of irrigation schemes as a priority for boosting rice production.
But Bun Hean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Water Resources, acknowledged that his ministry currently lacked sufficient funds to promote local management and connect farms to irrigation schemes. “We are concerned with only the main work. [Developing] the small channels is difficult.”
Mr Hean however, denied CEDAC’s observation that more than half of all irrigation schemes were out of function, adding, “I don’t accept this, what is their evaluation [method]?”
He said his ministry was trying to overcome the lack of connectivity to main irrigation canals by operating 60 water pumping stations, and he argued that even without connections to their paddies farmers could still benefit from expanding irrigation schemes. “They can still pump by themselves or use water by traditional water lifting,” he said.
JICA adviser Kaoru Nagai said he thought that farm communities needed to be engaged and trained on how to develop and maintain the small channels that connect irrigation schemes to their fields.
“Delivery channels…should be done by farmers, but there’s not yet farmers’ participation,” Mr Nagai said on the sidelines of the seminar.
“This is one of the most important issues for irrigation in Cambodia, organizing with the farmers’ groups and communities for maintaining, operating and paying a [user] fee for maintenance,” he said.
Leang Penh, a farmer in Banteay Meanchey province’s Phnom Srok district, said the government had rehabilitated a local irrigation canal last year, but only some local farmers close to the canal were using its water to grow a second rice crop in the dry season.
Mr Penh said most farmers could not afford to build channels to connect their fields to the canal.
“Other farmers also want to grow dry season rice, but they cannot because they’re far from the canal,” he said. “The local community doesn’t have money to build the small channels. Only the government can do this work.”
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy)