Restored canal gives Cambodian farmers much-needed boost

 Cambodian farmers collect rice harvest in Sambuor commune
Cambodian farmers collect rice harvest in Sambuor commune, Takeo province. Residents of the commune are now able to grow rice three times per season following restoration of a water canal with financial support from Sweden. Photo: Sanghak Kan/UNDP

Farmer Tous Sok Heang carefully jots down the number on the scale each time a sack of rice is weighed, and a rice buyer does the same. When the last sack is lifted from the scale, the buyer hands her a down payment of US $200, promising to pay the rest later.

“We are rich today,” Tous Sok Heang jokes, flipping the cash in her hands.

Highlights

  • Rice farming is the main livelihood for 80 percent of Cambodia’s 14.5 million people.
  • Some 47 kilometers of canal have been dredged and enlarged to feed water to more than 41,100 hectares of rice fields in 12 provinces.
  • Farmers have been able to triple their rice yield since they’re no longer dependent on rainwater alone.

It’s another pay day for the 30-year-old from Takeo province in southern Cambodia. And for the first time, she has enjoyed a high-yield season: in nine months, she and her neighbors were able to reap three harvests, boosting total rice yield by three times.

Previously, one rice cycle was all the villagers could expect. Because the canal that zigzags across their rice paddy was hopelessly shallow, they were dependent on rainwater.

“In one year, rain may start early in the season, but in the next it may arrive late,” said Chi Chim, the commune chief. “For example, two years before the restoration of the canal started, we had a bad drought. Rice wilted and died because of water shortage. You cannot pin much hope on the rain these days.”

In 2012, the canal was dredged and widened to 6.5 kilometers. It is now linked to a lake, providing farmers enough water to grow rice in three cycles of three months each.

Overall, some 47 kilometers of canal have been dredged to bring water to more than 41,100 hectares of rice fields in 12 provinces during dry and rainy seasons. This will provide about 11,240 families across those provinces with better irrigation for farming.

Rice farming is the main livelihood for the majority of the rural population, approximately 80 percent of Cambodia’s 14.5 million people. Despite a steady rise in production in recent years, farmers continue to face several constraints, including high vulnerability to drought and flood, and inadequate infrastructure such as roads and irrigation systems.

The canal restoration was funded by Sweden and Australia and carried out by a non-governmental organization in cooperation with local authorities. It was part of a broader intervention overseen jointly by UNDP and the Global Environment Facility to help reduce vulnerability of rural families to climate change.

Holding bricks of cash just received from selling her rice, Lim Savoeun, another farmer, says the profit helped make a big difference for her family.

“In the past, we struggled to scrape by and sometimes had to loan money from others to fill the gap [in the income],” the 37-year-old says. “But we can avoid that since we are now able to grow rice more often than before. This will allow us to make more savings to support our children’s education. As long as there is water, we will keep working tirelessly on our land. We can’t complain.”