Svay Rieng – For the first time in nearly a decade, Neang Tey and her fellow villagers are able to grow rice two times per season in Tuol Sdey commune, Svay Rieng province.
Water shortage used to force them to journey far from home to seek job. But a recently built water spillway – a concrete wall to regulate the flow of rain water beneath a bridge – is now answering their plight by stocking up enough water in a lake for the villagers to increase crop cycles – and yields too.
“I might have gone begging again had the spillway not been built yet,” Neang Tey, 55, said.
The sprawling lowland area known locally as the Bathou lake holds the key to economic survival of the 2,500 people in the commune, which is situated near the southeastern border of Cambodia. In the past, post-harvest season of each year was the time of desperation. Because of water scarcity, the villagers could grow only one crop – between May and October. Many of them then had to hunt for work elsewhere, including in neighboring Vietnam where they said they often ended up begging on the street to survive.
“We used to see people leaving in huge number every year that the villages became so quiet. Children had to abandon school because they had to go with their parents,” said Sok Sek, the commune chief.
He said there used to be a metal water gate below the bridge at the lake’s dam to manage water. But corrosion had completely destroyed it, leaving a wide gap through which rain water gushed freely downstream. By the time the rice harvest was over in December, the lake slowly dried up.
“Farmers were not the only one who faced the difficulty in dry season. Even their buffalos and cows did not have enough water to drink,” he said.
The water dam at Bathou lake in Tuol Sdey commune, Svay Rieng province, helps retain rain water for farmers to grow rice during dry season. (UNDP/Chansok Lay)
The situation began to reverse in May 2011 when the construction of the spillway was completed. The 2-meter high and 32-meter wide concrete wall works to hold water from pouring out to waste so that it can be tapped for rice farming.
At the height of the rainy season, the spillway is able to retain water to feed up to some 830 ha of rice field compared to just 250 ha to in the past – more than three-fold increase, according to Ms. Heng Chanthon, director of Wathnakpheap, the non-governmental group that carried out the construction.
The construction of the spillway is among the activities under 46 projects that the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility-Small Grant Programme are implementing to help villagers in many parts of Cambodia improve livelihood to withstand impacts of climate change. The projects have received funding from the Swedish government and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid). The spillway cost some US$20,800 to build – a US$19,600 grant from the Swedish government and an additional US$1,200 that the Tuol Sdey commune’s residents – most of whom live in mud houses – managed to raise for the project.
Sok Sek, the commune chief, said the number of people migrating out for job has decreased dramatically since last year. He recalled that up to 400 people used to leave home each year to look for job or become beggars since they had nothing to do after one harvest. Now increase of farming cycles – thanks to the new spillway – has created employment opportunities for the villagers. Even those who do not own any land can now rent their labors to other rice farmers for a living.
Neang Tey, who used to beg in Vietnam, lives all by herself in a hut on the edge of paddy field. For the first time, she managed plant two crops on a small plot, fetching a total of one ton of rice. It won’t make her rich but she said is enough for her to live on through the next harvest time. “I don’t need to go begging anymore,” she said.
Yok Own, 46, used to bring along her 7-year-old son whenever she had to go begging in Vietnam. Last year she called it quit to earn a living from her land instead.
“I am so glad since we have the spillway to store water. From now on I can stay home to work on my land so that my son can go to school too,” she said.