Water System Repairs Meet With Criticism

The government is putting together a nearly $43 million proposal to destroy or repair the canals and dams of the Khmer Rouge era—a proposal that is already meeting objections from some farmers.

During the Khmer Rouge years, the genocidal regime built dozens of primitive canals and dams on rivers in the west and northwest provinces. Few lasted more than five years before crumbling, and as a result the lowlands around them face severe flooding every year, said Veng Sakhon, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology.

“Their constructions were done the wrong way and they had no proper techniques. We are going to rebuild in order to avoid flood and drought,” Veng Sakhon said.

Most of the existing canals and dams will have to go altogether, and the government is seeking $42.5 million by 2003 in order to build new dams and canals, Veng Sakhon said, adding that he hopes to secure a loan from the Asian Development Bank.

“If we keep their dams and divert the water, the project will cost a lot of money because [the Khmer Rouge’s] construction was not suitable to the locations. We want to build new ones with effectiveness and spend a smaller amount of money,” he said.

Some farmers, however, believe the canals and dams are the one positive heritage of the era.

“They are very useful for us. Farmers currently are using the dams for irrigation in their rice lands. The dams are very useful for farmers when they are facing drought,” Battambang province farmer Thaing Ruy said.

Phan Ny, another farmer from Battambang, said he has no love for the Khmer Rouge canals and dams, but they are the only asset poor farmers have.

“In developed countries, they have dams and enough water for growing rice and vegetables. For our country, with these dams, the government looks ignorant,” he said.

The canals and dams, built by forced labor during the Khmer Rouge era, connect dozens of rivers in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, and Pursat provinces. The projects were part of Pol Pot’s plan to deny water to Vietnam, Veng Sakhon said.

Mey Makk, a government official during the Pol Pot regime and now cabinet chief in Pailin, acknowledged that many people who worked on the canals and dams died from overwork, illness and starvation. He also admitted that Khmer Rouge engineers did not have the technical expertise and machinery to build the canals and dams properly.

“They wanted to show they were exceptional. At the time people welcomed this work,” he said.

Today, Pursat’s canals and dams are in the worst shape, and cause the worst flooding, Veng Sakhon said.

The ADB sent a mission group in May to examine the proposal, Veng Sakhon said, adding that a full year of planning is still required.

ADB country representative Urooj Malik said the bank may give technical assistance to the project before determining whether it will grant the loan.


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