samraong district, Takeo province – The clouds here yesterday were gunmetal gray and bloated with rain, but the soil in the rice paddies remained dusty and dry.
“There are only black clouds, but no rain,” said Prum Mon, a 45-year-old farmer in Chunlat Dai village, Rovieng commune. “I am really concerned because it will destroy and damage the crops if there is no rainfall.”
She used a sharp stick to bore holes for replanting bundles of rice. After days without a significant downpour, the ground has been baked rock hard in the sunshine, and Ms Mon’s hands were sore from digging holes and being speared with dry twigs in the almost barren earth.
“There is no water and my fingers are almost destroyed from making holes,” she said. “The rain falls, but not enough… It didn’t even wet the soil.”
A woman working nearby shrieked and jumped away from her work. Ants were biting her feet. “When there’s no water, there are ants,” Ms Mon said, pointing to the crowds of busy insects on the ground. “A lot of red ants are chasing us in the dry farm soil.”
She and other farmers in this commune are suffering from a drought covering eight Cambodian provinces, which prompted the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture yesterday to call for urgent action to protect the livelihood of Cambodian farmers. Rice paddies, such as Ms Mon’s, should be centimeters deep with rain water at this time of year
In a statement, CEDAC called for farmers and the government to undertake a series of measures to protect rice crops and increase the organic content of soil, including increased plowing, use of natural fertilizers and compost and the planting of more trees.
“If this drought continues in the next two weeks, it will cause critical impacts to the agriculture sector this year,” the organization warned.
Luy Phalla, 51, has been farming in Rovieng commune for 16 years. Normally, he said, rice is ready to be replanted about a month after being sown in May or June. This year, he waited for three months, and planned to replant this week, even though his plants weren’t as tall or green as they have been in wetter years.
“My farm has taken three months to grow, and it still grows badly,” he said.
Mr Phalla’s field sits beside an irrigation canal, a relic of the collective farms of Khmer Rouge regime. It was nearly dry yesterday, save for a few still pools of opaque yellow water.
“Rice farming depends on water from the sky,” Mr Phalla said. “It is hard to get water from the canal because there is no water stored, because there is no rain.”
Ach El, a commune councilor responsible for agriculture in Rovieng, estimated that the drought has rendered useless almost 60 percent of the rice paddies in his jurisdiction. That’s a big blow to a community where about 80 percent of the 3,400 families are farmers.
“Of course it’s raining, but not enough,” said Mr El, who is also a farmer. “There was enough rainfall during May and June to plow the fields and plant the rice. When we reached August, there was rain, but we could not call it a rainfall.”
The commune has three irrigation trucks, and the ruling CPP recently donated 300 liters of gasoline to power them, he said. “But even though we have the machines, we don’t have the water for irrigation.”
Three canals supply water to the paddies in the commune, but they have mostly dried out. Meanwhile, commune officials have focused most of their time and resources this year on road construction projects—not irrigation.
“The three canals we use have always had enough water, until last year,” Mr El explained. He said that the authorities will soon turn their attention to restoring a canal connected to a large water basin in a neighboring commune, but that work will have to wait until the end of the rainy season.
In Kompong Thom, another province hit by the drought, rice farmers have had a frustratingly ironic growing season.
“My province is facing two separate issues: flooding and drought,” according to Provincial Governor Chhun Chorn.
“Five communes in three districts…were flooded a month ago, and the rice paddies have been completely damaged. At the same time, numerous communes in Stong and Kompong Svay districts are facing drought,” he said.
If heavy rains don’t come within the next two weeks, it could mean disaster for rice crops in drought-stricken areas, according to Mr Chorn, an assessment that was echoed by CEDAC and farmers in Rovieng commune.
“We are not in a critical drought yet, but we are at an alert stage,” Mr Chorn said.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun said that farmers shouldn’t be worried—the relevant government ministries are intervening in the 55,000 hectares of land that he said are affected by the drought.
“To me, I think maybe it’s no problem. About the food security, also no problem and about the rice production, also no problem,” an optimistic Mr Sarun said yesterday.
He said that the government is contributing gasoline, labor and water to help rice farmers, although he added that he could not elaborate on how the crucial water was being collected and distributed.
“I’m not clear about where the water comes from,” Mr Sarun said.
About 23,000 hectares of previously dry farm land has already been restored, he added.
“We use all the mechanisms for intervention…. I think the farmers are hopeful about the interventions and the rain.”