Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Water Management via Irrigation Approaches in Cambodia?

In this second of three articles, I consider some of the salient issues surrounding the notion of “sustainability” related to the irrigation sector in Cambodia, particularly with regards to how it has been applied to date in what is considered a “successful” or “model” project implemented by one of the more “progressive” Western development agencies that rhetorically promotes market-based principles in its approach, yet heavily subsidizes an ostensibly state-controlled sector. I then seek to contextualize my field observations within the current water resources development paradigm in Cambodia, questioning whether there may be a culture of routine exaggeration of purported benefits to rural stakeholders, in a sector that is rarely critically examined from the outside.

Irrigation development has seen a veritable boom in bilateral and multilateral development investment over the past decade, financed through both loans and grants, which has been stimulated in no small measure by the short-lived spike in agricultural commodity prices, soon after the 2007 economic crisis (see graph below). This speculative uptick in the global rice price prompted some Middle Eastern and East Asian nations to flock to less developed countries like Cambodia in the expectation that they could take advantage of vast economic disparities, plus supposedly abundant, but under-exploited land and water resources to grow rice on a large-scale for export.

Such a scenario would inevitably have required the development of modern irrigation schemes employing “Green Revolution” technology (i.e. mechanization, high yielding varieties, chemical fertilizer and pesticides) and utilizing long land leases for success, leading to a sudden rush of interest from a range of Asian countries, including Kuwait, South Korea, India and China.

At the same time, several other Western lenders and donors were tempted to follow suit and step into the fray with their own project proposals, but focused more on “technological modernization”, “food security”, “irrigation reform” and “poverty alleviation” narratives, perhaps concerned about losing political goodwill at the highest levels and thus, being excluded from getting continued access to valuable opportunities in other sectors of the expanding economy, such as mining, commerce and banking.

At one point in 2008, hubristic exuberance must have got the better of premier Hun Sen when he declared in a policy speech endorsing increased rice exports that rice was like “white gold”, which by extension would encourage more irrigation investment. In a 2010 official report by the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM) titled “Strategic Development Plan for Water Resources and Meteorology”, the four year plan to 2013 estimated the plan would require over $1.2 billion to expedite in full (Thuon, 2013), mostly based on accessing foreign loans and grants. By 2015, up to a billion US$ had been promised for irrigation development, with the bulk of it promised from China, which was pouring money into developing all infrastructure sectors, particularly roads, bridges, hydropower dams and irrigation schemes.

Prior to the 2007 economic crisis, the Cambodian government had been reportedly spending about 35 % of its total domestic budget on irrigation development (de Silva et al., 2013).

Graph showing trends in irrigation investment by the World Bank (green bars) and more general global growth in area (blue line), the Food Price Index (red line) and biodiversity trends, indicated by the Living Planet Index of freshwater species up the early years of the 21st century (purple line). Note the sudden spike in food prices in 2008. Source: Mukherji et al, 2009)

Between 2000-2013, the “Agriculture” sector in Cambodia reportedly attracted over $455 million investment, of which the two biggest recipients were classified as “agricultural development” ($128 million) and “agricultural water resources” ($99 million) according to figures held by Open Aid Data. However, this broad-brush data could be construed as misleading as it is not clear whether projects that purport to address one of these headings would actually be better reflected by being assigned under another category.

In other words, it seems quite likely that some Cambodian agricultural projects are being classified as “agricultural development” (or placed in another category), when in fact, they would be more accurately classified as “agricultural water resources” projects. More specifically, I would hazard a guess that the “agricultural water resources” category is significantly underestimating actual water resources (read: “irrigation”) development projects, thus providing a misleading picture as to the extent that irrigation is being promoted (and underwritten) by foreign aid donors to Cambodia.

A case in point would be the Cambodian Agricultural Value Chain Program (CAVAC), supported by bilateral Australian Aid (AusAID) to the tune of $45.6 million between 2010-15, which claims its goal is to “reduce poverty through a market systems approach” by aiming to “improve farmers’ incomes by increasing the value of agricultural production”. CAVAC’s promotional literature focuses on two main areas: “agribusiness and information systems” and “irrigation and water management”, claiming it works with “companies and other market actors to improve support to farmers in a systemic way, in close alignment with the Royal Government of Cambodia’s own policies”. CAVAC is executed by an Australian consultancy company, Cardno Emerging Markets (Australia) Pty Ltd, and is run out of executive offices in central Phnom Penh.

The “Market Systems Approach” prescribed by CAVAC believes it can reduce poverty in rural Cambodia by precipitating long-term changes in markets that serve “poor farmers”, which will lead to improved agricultural practices and thus, higher yields and increased production. While it seems that the CAVAC programme is well managed internally and certainly runs a slick public relations department, it has created a considerable paradox by believing it can reduce Cambodian poverty through targeting the bulk of its budget on irrigation hardware investment, thereby trying to succeed in a well-trodden sector where most (possibly all) other donor-funded and government-funded projects have ostensibly failed in the past.

Indeed, CAVAC’s own online promotional literature more-or-less admits these historical failings related to systemic limitations of Cambodian irrigation development interventions, both in terms of project design and institutional reform. Despite a plethora of alternative potential focal areas and issues it could have concentrated resources on to reduce rural poverty and social inequality in contemporary Cambodia, , CAVAC Phase 1 spent some 85 % of its total budget on the irrigation and water management line item (Component 2). And of this amount, the bulk of the sum was spent on hardware with just 10-15 % devoted to operation and management costs. While this is a higher proportion than most other irrigation development projects, it should be remembered that CAVAC was never originally conceived as an irrigation-focused project, but has morphed into this devotion to irrigation system construction and rehabilitation.

CAVAC Phase 2 (2016-21) is anticipating spending about $41 million out of $79 million total budget on irrigation and water management activities, again highlighting irrigation’s privileged status (materially and discursively) within a project that is nominally billed as targeting “agricultural value chain” improvement. On the basis of budget allocation alone, it would be far more accurately allocated as an “agricultural water resources” project in the Open Aid Data database.

A project sign on the side of the main pumphouse of the Wat Thmey irrigation scheme announces the chief project actors, including foreign donor, government partner and private sector implementing agency. Water is lifted by electric pumps up a gradient from a reservoir to supply a main canal, and then drains by gravity through secondary and tertiary canals into surrounding fields.

 

The CAVAC rationale for development rhetorically prioritizes “sustainability” considerations, claiming “what is required is not a technical approach to the rehabilitation of dysfunctional schemes but rather an approach that puts sustainability at the forefront of program design”. It sees sustainability first and foremost in terms of raising the economic and institutional credentials of each individual scheme, recognizing that to be sustainable, the projects “need to be commercially viable and well-managed” with farmers willing and able to pay a realistic water fee.

By comparison, it places relatively little overt emphasis on the ecological sustainability of its projects, although it does claim in a brochure titled “Achievements and Lessons Learned” (not yet available on the CAVAC website) that “sustainability meant that the key resources for agriculture (fertile land, water, biodiversity and natural crop protection) remain as productive as they currently are” in relation to Phase 1 activities. Issues surrounding practical sustainability of irrigation was a dimension of the program I was particularly interested to investigate further.

Having heard from the previous CAVAC team leader in 2013 about routine political interference that tends to accompany the funding and implementation of donor funded irrigation development projects and already seen firsthand some rather suspect projects under development in Kampong Thom province (which have reportedly run into numerous difficulties since), I was keen to see an example of a “successful” irrigation project during my latest visit to Cambodia. I was directed to the Wat Thmey project in Prey Kabas district of Takeo Province by the programme’s senior irrigation advisor, who suggested it was functioning well, if not “the best” project in the CAVAC portfolio that spreads across three provinces. Interestingly, CAVAC has spent $4.6 million on this single project, mostly on hardware items like pumps, canals and buildings, representing over a tenth of its entire operational budget, so one might reasonably expect it to be a flagship scheme.

On paper, the Wat Thmey project has rehabilitated an existing scheme dating back to the Khmer Rouge era, with a supposed command area of 2,117 ha and 2,311 households benefitting spread across 11 villages in an area on the edge of the Mekong floodplain, bordering an area prone to annual inundation. A so-called “Farmers Water User Community” (FWUC) of elected farmer representatives that manage the scheme had been established in 2014, following the standard “participatory” approach to irrigation institutions found across Cambodian schemes funded by Western donors. It is widely acknowledged among observers that most of the FWUCs nationwide are ostensibly dysfunctional, due to a complex set of socio-political circumstances that mitigate against their institutional effectiveness, social equitability and sustainability (e.g. Chea et al., 2011; de Silva et al, 2013).

On the ground, I found the Wat Thmey project was functioning relatively well in late March 2017, at a time when the dry season rice crop was being harvested for some households and others were preparing fields for the coming wet season. At the time, no water was physically being lifted by the two main project pumps, but a plethora of villagers’ personal surface or groundwater pumps were at work irrigating individual farms. I witnessed an active FWUC overseeing water management duties and liaison with outside entities, including government agencies and CAVAC staff. Farmers that received water from the project for dry season cropping were paying a $55/ha irrigation service fee and had achieved reasonable yields of around 6 tonnes/ha on average.

There were some concerns expressed about the cost of the water fee, which some thought should fluctuate with the market price of rice, and a few others met were not satisfied with the financial transparency of the FWUC leadership, but overall it seemed to be reasonably run. Rice was the predominant crop grown under the CAVAC-supplied water regime, but there were a number of farmers growing cucumbers and melons near the town of Prey Kabas, all relying on their own diesel-powered groundwater pumps (see photos).

While the Wat Thmey scheme may be deemed successful according to CAVAC’s own criteria and there are positive elements evident within this project, the rapid field visit suggested that the project’s socio-economic impact could be exaggerated, while the sustainability credentials may not be as strong as claimed. Of particular note was a lack of attention paid to environmental credentials and a seeming dearth of reliable extension services reported by farmers interviewed, but of greater concern for the medium to long term viability of this project was growing labor shortages, placed in the context of rapid changes apparent in the Cambodian employment market. I shall deal with each of these “deal breakers” for sustainability in turn, starting with the labor question.

A farmer (left), having recently sold his rice crop delivers his irrigation service fee to the Chairman (right) and finance officer (centre) at the Wat Thmey scheme’s new FWUC office, built with CAVAC funds over the main canal near Prey Kabas district town

Anyone travelling out of Phnom Penh on any of the main roads south, would find it hard not to notice physical evidence of a significant shift underway in the Cambodian labor market. The national highways to Sihanoukville, Kampot and Takeo are flanked either side by one large foreign-owned factory after another, that collectively are employing hundreds of thousands of young workers (mainly women), the vast majority of whom have recently moved out of the agriculture sector. Women reportedly constitute 90 % of the workforce in the rapidly growing garment production industry, with many of the factories unregistered according to Human Rights Watch. At the end of the work shifts, main roads in front of the factories are blocked by a mass exodus of low paid employees streaming out to catch shared transportation back to their villages.

Indeed, a study commissioned by CAVAC itself estimated that during the period 2014-19, between 891,000 to 1,043,000 additional people would join the Cambodian labor force, with most of these working in the textile, tourism and construction industries, plus a significant proportion moving abroad as temporary migrant labor, with Thailand the primary destination. The upshot of this tectonic shift from farm-based to off-farm employment is that labor to carry out agricultural tasks is becoming increasingly scarce and more expensive, thus leading to a shortage at certain times of year and for key tasks. As elsewhere, farming is increasingly becoming an occupation of an aging demographic, who find it a challenge to manage the family landholding and make a living as new external pressures mount on their time and energy, such as demands by migrant workers on grandparents to look after their young children in return for regular remittances.

Yet irrigated agriculture induces a need for extra labor, if it is to succeed as a strategy for achieving higher farm productivity, thus negating a major part of the rationale of the CAVAC project, which claims it is targeting poorer smallholder farmers, i.e. exactly the kind of people most likely to be migrating to the more financially secure and stable jobs in non-farm work. If irrigated agriculture could deliver a higher, more reliable and regular income than off-farm opportunities, then there would be a better chance people would stay at home and farm. Then there are also questions of aspiration – especially of the younger generations being swept up in a gathering maelstrom of urban-driven consumerism, regionalization and globalization.

At the present time, there is little indication that the economics of dry season rice will be sufficient to ensure most adolescents and young adults desire to remain in farming. This aspect of the changing labor market was further underlined through a question put to each farmer encountered regarding their grown-up children’s present main occupation (invariably working in non-farm employment, both locally, in the city or abroad) or what they wanted their school age children to do when they left school in the future (if it was not to study further, most parents wanted them to work in off-farm jobs). Just as in neighboring Thailand and countless nations undergoing a fundamental agrarian shift, there seemed little appetite in Cambodia (especially in areas well connected to the city like Takeo) for preserving the vagaries of smallholder agricultural work, even where new irrigation schemes have been subsidized by foreign aid donors at significant expense.

But there also seems to be little evidence that either AusAID or their agents have adequately internalized the impact of a dwindling labor-base on the future economic sustainability of the prescribed irrigation development model, especially in provinces with easy access to the capital and expanding local non-farm employment opportunities, like Takeo. As was conceded to me by the CAVAC irrigation adviser, a farming household probably needs to have a minimum of 5 ha of land to realistically reap dividends from modern irrigation schemes, thus ruling out the majority of rural smallholders from ever being project beneficiaries. Most households at Wat Thmey were cultivating less than 2 ha of irrigated rice.

Harvesting the 2017 dry season rice crop next to a CAVAC project rehabilitated canal to which no water reaches, due to over-allocation, a recurring problem nationwide. Farmers must still rely on pumped groundwater for irrigation needs.

 

Receiving regular and relevant agricultural extension services, whether from governmental or non-governmental sources, including agribusiness companies striving to increase their clientele, is an issue recognized in the CAVAC design principles as being important, in a bid to encourage “adaptive management” which “relies on quick feedback loops as a way to speed up learning”. Unfortunately, on the basis of my field-level encounters with farmers I saw little evidence that this claim was being translated into practice on even a limited basis, with most people professing little or no contact with agricultural extension services of any description over the last few years.

Wat Thmey is primarily perceived as a CAVAC and Provincial Department of Meteorology and Water Resources (PDoWRAM) owned project, and while officials may often visit the FWUC, they are not filtering down to the field or farmer level regularly enough, creating a discernible gap between managers and water users. PDoWRAM staff possess minimal skills and experience of practical agriculture in any case, being focused on hydraulic development expansion, while the supposedly more-qualified Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) provincial and district level staff were notable by their absence.

Most agricultural extension in Cambodia seems to be carried out in a self-interested manner by agribusiness firms, a sector which CAVAC claims to have directed a lot of resources towards, but they too did not seem to have a perceivable presence in terms of extension services, at least among the farmers we talked to. Farmers were mostly reliant on merchants and farmer-to-farmer contact for their receipt of knowledge about novel products or techniques, and there were concerns expressed about the former group’s impartiality. Empirically speaking, CAVAC did not seem to be living up to its promise on this front, for all the hubristic claims of promoting sustainability.

The third aspect of the sustainability matrix that I wish to highlight is the environment, having been struck by a number of issues at the flagship Wat Thmey project. It seemed to me that environmental sustainability was not being treated with the seriousness it deserves. CAVAC has rightly identified that pest and disease problems are an issue of high concern among farmers, since they are inherently being encouraged to practice more intensive agriculture through irrigation development investment. It was evident that there was high and regular use of pesticides (applied weekly on dry season rice crops) and chemical fertilizer among farmers, but there was a correspondingly low awareness of public and environmental health dangers and risks.

As noted above, farmers lacked any credible extension support, so ignorance and misuse of pesticides was an unavoidable consequence in a situation where most products are imported from Vietnam (so labels are in Vietnamese language) and functional literacy levels are low among users. In such circumstances, long experienced in neighboring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, it is almost inevitable that there is going to be acute and chronic impacts on human health, both directly through pesticide (mis-)handling and application, but less directly through soil, water and aquatic organism contamination, as well as multiple negative impacts on the aquatic ecology and the wider environment.

CAVAC appears to have failed in producing any mitigation strategy that would have a tangible impact at the farm level, instead focusing most attention on yield and productivity increases as its key measures of “success”. Unsurprisingly, farmers reported a precipitous decline in fish, frogs and other edible aquatic biodiversity, that formally constituted a significant proportion of local diets.

Finally, I would like to point out a more egregious issue with reporting overall impact within the CAVAC project, a phenomenon not uncommon among peer projects keen to impress donors, host state bureaucrats or politicians, the media and other external parties, but raises questions about accountability and transparency nevertheless. In project literature outlining the fundamentals of the Wat Thmey scheme, it is claimed that the “potential command area” of the entire scheme is 2,117 ha, but for “recession cropping” (i.e. dry season rice) 1,200 ha are cultivated “after rehabilitation” that supposedly benefits 728 households.

My site visit indicated that these figures represent a significant exaggeration of actual irrigation provision by the project, with only farmland located near to the main canals being effectively served by the CAVAC water delivery system. We met farmers that had land located between 500-1,000 m from the primary canals who were not able to access water from the CAVAC project, as available water was insufficient. Often there were secondary or tertiary canals located nearby, but no water reached them. Many farmers were still growing irrigated vegetables or rice in the absence of public irrigation water, but accessed water supplies themselves from groundwater pumps, which while reliable, was invariably more expensive than the CAVAC surface water and reportedly of less good quality, being acidic. Thus the number of households actually benefiting and paying the irrigation service fee, according to the FWUC chairman, was 337 families, some 46 % of the CAVAC claimed figure. The area actually irrigated was likely to be less than 500 ha. It could be assumed that the numbers of beneficiaries were also exaggerated for the “early wet season” crop, thus leading to the conclusion that CAVAC was almost certainly significantly over-stating the scale of project benefits.

A farmer tends a crop of melons. Despite the $4.6 million rehabilitation cost of the Wat Thmey scheme by CAVAC, many farmers like this one with land nearby new canals continue to rely on pumped groundwater for crop irrigation, but are still counted as “project beneficiaries”.

Such over-statement of farmer numbers, land area irrigated, productivity gains, added economic value, etc. for a single project can also be detected in CAVAC brochures produced at the program level. In its “Achievements and Lessons Learned” booklet, CAVAC confidently claims that up to 2015, “at least 19,000 households now have access to year-round water allowing for double or triple cropping each year” from 20 schemes constructed, which will “potentially enable farmers to produce an extra 200,000 tonnes of rice a year”, which would have an estimated value of “around US$ 43 million”.

However, reviewing the available project literature and on the basis of my knowledge of the Cambodian irrigation sector overall, I would have strong reservations about there being adequate justification for such optimistic claims. Given that the “crown in the jewel” scheme at Wat Thmey seems to have overstated actual beneficiaries by 216 %, then I would hazard a guess that the situation is considerably worse at the other schemes, calling into question the whole basis by which CAVAC is claiming to be a successful, sustainable and value for money project for its implicit core component – irrigation development. It is also tempting to question whether the “demand-driven” claims of the project are more reflecting the desires of ruling politicians and bureaucrats in Cambodia than meeting the actual needs of rural Cambodians, especially the professed target demographic of “poor farmers”? I dare say, however, that the on-the-ground situation and level of socio-economic benefit hype is considerably more egregious at other projects supported by different donors, as shall be explored in the next article in the series.

REFERENCES

CHEA, C., NANG, P., WHITEHEAD, I., HIRSCH, P. & THOMPSON, A. (2011) Decentralised Governance of Irrigation Water in Cambodia: Matching Principles to Local Realities. CDRI Working Paper Series. Phnom Penh, Cambodia Development Research Institute.

DE SILVA, S., JOHNSTON, R. AND SELLAMUTU, S.S. (2013) Agriculture, Irrigation and Poverty Reduction in Cambodia: Policy Narratives and Ground Realities Compared. Colombo, Sri Lanka, International Water Management Institute.

MUKHERJI, A., FACON, T., BURKE, J., DE FRAITURE, C., FAURES, J.-M., FULEKI, B., GIORDANO, M., MOLDEN, D. & SHAH, T. (2009) Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To sustainably meet tomorrow’s food needs. Colombo, Sri Lanka, International Water Management Institute and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

THUON, T. (2013) Localizing Development and Irrigation Management in Cambodia. IN DANIEL, R., LEBEL, L. & MANOROM, K. (Eds.) Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge. Selangor, Malaysia, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cambodia, FEATURES, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *