Standing over his parched rice fields in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district, 35-year-old farmer Meng Nach said the area hasn’t seen a substantial, continuous rainfall since last November.
Last year, too, rainfall was light in Trapeang Phlong village in Samroang Krom commune, and Meng Nach supplemented his unusually small rice crop with an additional ton of rice bought from local markets.
In a normal year, he could grow enough rice to feed his family of eight. This year, the money his wife earns selling vegetables and other produce will be used to buy the family’s rice.
“The rainy season has come already, but we haven’t seen any rain,” Meng Nach said Sunday.
“This year all of the rice I’ve tried to grow has died,” he lamented.
Meng Nach said he can still survive, but if the dry spell continues “one more year, it will be a big problem.”
Meng Nach is not a scientist, but he believes the problem stems from heavy deforestation.
But officials at the National Committee for Disaster Management and at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology said they don’t know the exact cause of the country’s pitiful rainfall.
Although this might be a short-term weather pattern, Cambodia’s water infrastructure and irrigation system is not equipped to handle prolonged drought, said Veng Sokhon, secretary of state in charge of planning and international coordination at the Ministry of Water Resources.
Cambodia’s current drought is hitting hardest the 70 percent of the population who get their water from collecting rain, he said.
Currently, only 2,000 small reservoirs exist in Cambodia—these alone only provide enough water to last through a typical dry season—not a prolonged drought, Veng Sokhon said.
What is needed is nothing short of a massive water storage facility, Veng Sokhon said, adding that he hopes to rally enough donor support in the next two to three years to build a $100 million reservoir.
Although slightly more rice has been planted this year in Battambang and Kandal provinces, it is still unclear how the crops will fare, officials said.
In Battambang, 40,000 hectares of sesame, bean and corn in Samlot, Kamrieng, Sampov Loun and Ratanak Mondol districts have already died because of the long dry spell, said Seng Chhoeurth, deputy director of the provincial agriculture department.
Poor precipitation can also lead to more than hunger and thirst.
Following a drought, farmers are often forced to borrow money to pay for rice that they would normally grow themselves, said Sam Vuthy, senior program officer at Oxfam Hong Kong’s Womyn’s Agenda for Change. If taken from local moneylenders, interest rates can be as high as 20 percent, he said.
Meng Nach’s neighbors in nearby Ak Romduol village are also experiencing the worst of the drought.
Pech Ton, 57, was forced to borrow money this year after she planted rice seedlings too early. With little rain, the plants died and her family cannot afford a second planting.
Pech Ton’s daughter, Phal Vicheka, 25, says that she has farmed her whole life, but the past two years has been the hardest.
“Every month I owe my neighbors money. If there is rain we can grow rice and we can get food from catching frogs,” Phal Vicheka said.
“Without rain, there is nothing to eat,” she said.
Phal Vicheka said she wishes that her own children were not bound to the increasingly erratic vagaries of Cambodia’s climate.
“I don’t want my [daughter] to work on a farm,” she said, “but I don’t have money to send her to school, so she must work on a farm.”