Taking Cambodian Irrigation to the Extremes: The Vaico River Project

In the third and final article of this short series, I highlight the case of a far bigger irrigation project than considered previously, which is quite audacious in its scope and ambitions but has thus far failed to supply any water at all to its target beneficiaries. It exemplifies not just a general lack of commitment to accountability, transparency and sustainability shown by the Cambodian irrigation sector, but takes to an extreme degree a nationwide devotion towards steering publicly-raised capital and other resources towards constructing utopian irrigation schemes, that will cost the nation several times more than their headline cost in the long run. That this scheme has subsequently failed to deliver even a small fraction of the promised benefits to the agricultural end users should not be surprising. That there has not been a bit more of a public outcry against this project speaks not just to the relative lack of publicity surrounding its development, I believe, but also to the potency with which ideologically motivated irrigation development grips large sections of Cambodian society and the development industry in general, indicated by the uptick in hydraulic sector investment in recent years. In such circumstances, it can be hard or even hazardous to criticize such a deeply embedded ideology in the national body politic.

 

Article 3: Taking irrigation to extremes – the Vaico River Project

“The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with canals, embankments and dams. They presided over hundreds of irrigation projects to revive Cambodia’s glorious but perhaps mythical past of an agrarian wonderland.”- Thomas Fuller, International Herald Tribune[1]

Since 2007, China has become an increasingly influential foreign country in Cambodia’s national affairs, in large part through its generous financial support for large-scale infrastructure projects, prominent among which are irrigation and hydropower development schemes. China has been the lead bilateral development partner in several large hydropower schemes in the last five years, including the highly controversial Se San 2 hydropower scheme nearing completion in northeast Cambodia.

Less well publicized than dams in the hydropower sector has been a series of large foreign aid investments in the irrigation development and flood control sector, which have reportedly amounted to nearly a billion US dollars. To get a sense of what Chinese state involvement implied in practice, I was recommended by several people working in the Cambodian water sector to visit the Vaico River[2] Irrigation project, a large scheme located in the east of the country that apparently represented one of the boldest statements of Chinese development aid of recent years.

This project was reported to have a price tag of some $200 million, with construction commencing in early 2013. Curious about its progression, one of the first things that struck me about such an expensive project was the paucity of relevant publicly available information. Internet searches indicated there were just one or two public or media reports available. Initially, I put this phenomenon down to a general unwillingness to announce large infrastructural development projects in the English language press, mixed with a tinge of Chinese inscrutability over certain aid packages. Hence, given the general air of mystery surrounding the Vaico project, the imperative to track it down on the ground seemed that much more intriguing.

An article in the Cambodia Herald stated that the Vaico River project would irrigate a total of 300,000 hectares of land across parts of Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Kampong Cham provinces, consisting of two phases, each costing $100 million. The project would supposedly divert water from the Mekong River, with the first phase targeting irrigation of 108,300 ha of wet season rice fields and 27,100 ha of dry season rice production. The article hinted that this was a rehabilitation project of existing infrastructure when it reported, “canals will be restored between Koh Sotin district in Kampong Cham and Sithor Kandal district in Prey Veng (13 kms), and between Sithor Kandal and Kamchay Mea district, also in Prey Veng (27 kms)”. The canal design dimensions for the scheme were impressively grand at between 44-55 meters wide and 18-25 meters deep, fulfilling a secondary objective of “navigation”, according to Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia’s Water Resources Minister. This was irrigation on a gargantuan scale and the scheme is comfortably Cambodia’s biggest to date, matching some of the schemes dreamed up in the Democratic Kampuchea period of the late 1970s.

To finance the project, Cambodia would take an ODA-type loan on a concessionary basis from China, extended through the Export-Import Bank of China amounting to $200 million, though few details were available on AidData website concerning the loan, such as interest rate, maturity period and dates involved. It was reported on the Guangdong Foreign Construction Co Ltd’s website that “60 % of VAICO Irrigation Project has been competed with Concessional Loan by China” [sic], not revealing where the other 40 % of funds had materialized from.

The contractor’s website reported that “the main construction contents of VAICO irrigation project includes, construction of two main canal irrigation systems with total length of 78 km, 40 km water survey tunnel, sluice of river flood control dam, irrigation waterway, water drainage tunnel, bridge culverts”, again hinting that there would be a diversion from the Mekong, possibly through a “tunnel” of some sort. The AidData webpage noted that that “As of April 25, 2015, Phase 1 of the project is 91.60 % complete”.

The Vaico River Project main canal, clearly visible running down the centre of the satellite image, runs south from Beung Krapik lake (at the top of image), splitting into two arms after about 9.5 kms. With a planned command area of 300,000 ha, it is considered the largest irrigation scheme in Cambodia.

 

Relying upon satellite data alone to locate the project, the object of our quest was visible as a large canal-like scar stretching in a sweeping arc across the terrain from a large floodplain lake called Beung Krapik and then splitting into two branch canals, themselves stretching for many miles across relatively flat and featureless landscape. A research assistant and myself set off on motorbike from Phnom Penh across the Mekong River along Route 8 in search of the Vaico River project, reaching Sithor Kandal district in the late morning.

A quick scout around the area revealed evidence of abandoned irrigation infrastructure on the northern side of the small Sithor Kandal township that local people reported was first dug during the Khmer Rouge regime (invariably referred to by Cambodians as the “Pol Pot era”). A former irrigation canal leading perpendicularly away from an artificially widened river was now little more than an unsightly scar etched roughly across a rather barren looking landscape, with evidence of extreme erosion carrying the friable, lateritic soil into a heavily silted canal bed (see picture below). The soil encountered is of a type common in Cambodia that does not hold water well, is often associated with salinity and has low natural fertility, which would suggest that neither the canal nor the fields it was supposed to supply would ever have been remotely feasible for irrigated agriculture without vast expenditure on impermeable canal lining, carefully designed water distribution structures and massive soil amendment – steps which would almost certainly leave such a project economically unviable.

Moreover, it has been recognized for many decades that such soils are severely limiting to rice production and in the main, are classified as “marginally suitable” or “not suitable” for irrigated agriculture investment (Sir William Halcrow and Partners Ltd, 1993). But such willful ignorance of basic hydrological, topographical, geomorphological, ecological and agronomic limits and barriers to irrigation development was one of the less recognized trademarks of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and ideological brainwashing of the population (see Himel, 2007). However, one might optimistically imagine that subsequent irrigation planners and developers should have learned something from the basic errors of a ghastly past and try to avoid blind repetition in the present context of purportedly more participatory practices, open information sharing and institutional accountability (i.e. drawing on just some of the popular buzzwords of the “good water governance” discourse, as routinely espoused by most multilateral Western institutions involved in the sector in Cambodia).

A New York Times article in 2008 suggested that the Asian Development Bank (ADB), South Korea and Japan were among the forefront of international donors and lenders rehabilitating “Pol Pot’s deadly canals”.  In the light of a string of past patent failures in Cambodian irrigation rehabilitation (ADB’s and Agence Française de Développement’s Stung Chinit scheme, perhaps being the most infamous), I was increasingly curious to discover how contemporary developers interpret and apply water resources management practices, especially when such projects are located in the vicinity of tangible examples of getting it wrong, like the canal we saw not 10 kms away near Sithor Kandal.

Looking along the route of an irrigation canal dug during Khmer Rouge regime near Sithor Kandal township, but supposedly rehabilitated at some point since and then abandoned. As is apparent from image, the canal has been heavily eroded by rainwater leading to bed siltation and ecological degradation of land

The Vaico River Irrigation project main canal was accessed down a poorly made road from Sithor Kandal district township, comprised of little more than a muddy and rutted track suitable for small tractors across a landscape of a mixture of dry and cultivated paddy fields and scrubby forest that resembled “paa boong paa thaam”, a type of seasonally flooded forest formerly common on riverine floodplains in Northeast Thailand. Just as we thought the road was petering out to nothing and we might have to turn around, we emerged from the scrub right next to the Vaico main canal at a point where it splits into two branches, the left hand (more easterly) arm heading towards Kamchay Mear district and the right hand arm runs more or less due south to cross National Route 8 near Svay Antor district.

At the entrance to this right hand canal stands a substantial, recently-built concrete water-gate structure that is presently inoperable, as there is no power source available to lift the gates. At the time of our visit (March 2017) there was barely more than a puddle of water lying at the bottom of the canal, which was still being worked upon by a small fleet of front-end diggers and lorries, thus calling into question the effectiveness of this project, given that it was pronounced by the developers’ to be over 90% complete, some two years ago.

We drove first to the main inlet of the main canal which juts out into Beung Krapik and quickly realized that judging from its present dry season level and storage capacity of the lake that there would never be sufficient water to irrigate the fields immediately adjacent to the canal, let alone the entire 300,000 ha command area envisaged. To function even at a basic level, the project operators would have to physically lift large quantities of water into the lake and then distribute it down the length of the canal by more pumps (as the project crosses a watershed between the Mekong basin and the Vaico River basin) and regulatory water gates (to maintain a reasonable head of water), which at present are not constructed.

The obvious source of an abundant water supply for such a “megaproject” for planners would be the Mekong River, some five kilometers to the north of Beung Krapik. This prompted a second scan of Googlemaps which revealed that there is some kind of new pumping station built on a tributary of the Mekong in Koh Soutin district and delivery canal constructed linking the river and lake, suggesting this is all part and parcel of the Vaico scheme. However, raising the lake’s level would potentially inundate land of farmers’ already practicing dry season rice cultivation in the absence of the Vaico project. Whether this pumping station is functional or not I cannot say as we did not inspect the other side of the lake, but even if it was, in the absence of more infrastructure to push water into the Vaico project main canal, the project was incapable of delivering water to farmers in the 2017 dry season, never mind addressing the many questions concerning its future social, environmental, technical or economical sustainability.

As things stand under the present configuration, we stared agog at a $200 million behemoth of a dewatered, muddy canal running for mile after mile through an ostensibly flat landscape, lacking any delivery mechanism to farmers’ fields such as water outlets, secondary and tertiary canals, which incises through soil of a type and quality that appeared remarkably similar to the infertile and easily-erodible soils already seen earlier in the day. Indeed, there were already signs of serious and extensive erosion occurring along the banks of the Vaico canals, marked by embankment slumps, gully erosion and shear failures, with notable sediment accumulation on the canal bed. The water was the color of milky tea, suggesting high colloidal suspension and dispersive clay formations. Without massive remedial works to protect the canal banks from erosion or expensive lining, I had a strong sense that before too many years, the canal would look like a scaled-up version of the Khmer Rouge-era failed canal witnessed near Sithor Kandal.

At the Beung Krapik inlet we met a fisherman about to set off in his boat in the lake to check his nets. We asked him about the quality of fishing before and after the Vaico River Irrigation project arrived. He told us that the fish were scarcer and harder to catch since the project started and quite a few villagers had given up this supplementary livelihood activity as it was no longer worth their while. This was not surprising reflecting what has happened elsewhere and it was clear from appraising the scale of the earthworks involved, impacts were not only localized but that serious aquatic and terrestrial ecological disruption continued along the entire length of the canal. Other farmers talked about the decline of frogs, fish and other edible aquatic organisms since the canal was built.

Such grand hydraulic engineering provides strong echoes of the Pol Pot era schemes partially reflected the visions of Chinese state advisers sent by Chairman Mao to help “Brother Number One” act out his “Super Great Leap Forward” plans for the Khmer national economy. The Khmer Rouge had a penchant for designing standardized one square kilometer grid pattern irrigation schemes that were relied upon large, hand-dug canals that ignored the natural topography and hydrology of the landscape, often having the effect of accelerating drainage from higher areas leading to seasonal water scarcity and preventing drainage at the lower lying parts, causing soil water logging and flooding in the rainy season.

Indeed, the Khmer Rouge preferred chessboard-like grid pattern is still visible in satellite imagery as a legacy of the forced labor and mass starvation in the landscape of Prey Veng province, including around the Vaico project area. As a consultant’s report for the Mekong Secretariat observed regarding some of the shortcomings of “Pol Pot systems” in a study of irrigation rehabilitation prospects in the early 1990s, “[e]xcessively long canals have been constructed which cross catchment boundaries. These canals are ineffective because they do not have an adequate water supply and because they often run uphill. Moreover they block natural drainage paths and cause flooding” (Sir William Halcrow and Partners Ltd., 1993, p.12).

Unlike other large-scale foreign-funded infrastructure projects one may observe around Cambodia, there was a curious lack of signboards providing any basic details this project, such as the foreign donor, the implementing agency in the Cambodian government (presumably MOWRAM) and design and construction contractor/s involved. Perhaps the authorities are a little coy about the financial extent of this project and would prefer it if local villagers, curious passer-bys and wider Cambodian tax payers were kept in the dark over its provenance (as after all, they will ultimately be paying back the $200 million loan to the government of China). Or perhaps this is just considered normal practice with public irrigation works paid for by Chinese foreign development aid?

The first water control structure located on the right hand arm of the Chinese-funded, designed and constructed Vaico river irrigation project main canal is presently non-operational. Water from Beung Krapik does make it this far without pumping in the dry season (and there are no pumps at present).

Whatever the reason behind the lack of transparency of the project, the substantial canals dominate the landscape, even if they do not yet provide any irrigation. This crude, but crucial, “success indicator” is one factor that distinguishes the Vaico project from some of the smaller, more carefully planned and constructed projects of CAVAC, like the Wat Thmey scheme covered in the last article, even if both approaches are ultimately likely to be socially, ecologically and economically unsustainable in the long run. At least Wat Thmey is providing some farmers with subsidized irrigation water in the short to medium term and has devoted resources to local institution building, but the Vaico project has been a dismal failure in many regards from the outset.

While there was some dry season rice cultivation taking place in fields besides the Vaico main canal towards the Beung Krapik end (see photo below), this was occurring in spite of the canal, not because of it. Some farmers were using surface water sources such as ponds, while others were relying on pumped ground water. Despite there being no functional water outlets from the main canal built to date,  I did count half a dozen or so small diesel pumps drawing water up and over the massive canal bunds to irrigate adjacent paddy fields or lotus lily ponds. What the design arrangement for supplementary water supply to paddies would be in the rainy season, I had no idea, but it was easy to imagine that floodplain movement of surface water run-off would be blocked by the canal alignment and cause local flooding, further disrupting the local socio-ecological context in myriad ways and reducing natural aquatic and agricultural productivity and resilience of the wetland environment it cuts through.

Without a doubt, all empirical evidence on the ground pointed towards the Vaico River Project having serious environmental consequences, with the resulting potential to diminish and threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of families across dozens of villages. One wonders if an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out for this project or is even required for large irrigation projects of this nature under Cambodian legislation? I have my doubts, but given that the Vaico River Project is a transboundary and trans-basin project that will likely impact downstream Vietnam too if fully operational, then perhaps a retrospective EIA and social impact assessment (SIA) should be carried out by a reputable and independent research group, before any more work proceeds on this hydraulic train wreck of a scheme. Perhaps the Mekong River Commission should seek involvement too, which is often criticized for its retroactive and supine stance to new development, as such a project should logically fall within its remit of managing transboundary water resources.

Ripening rice fields not far from Beung Krapik lay beyond the unconsolidated embankment of the Vaico main canal, but are not dependent on it for water supply. In the foreground are stands of the invasive thorny alien, Mimosa pigra, which thrives on disturbed soil and was likely introduced from elsewhere by the project construction traffic.

Another key question that arises is one of responsibility for ongoing operation and maintenance (O & M) costs for the Vaico project. In this case, as there are no apparent beneficiaries and so presumably no water user fee collected, one must thus assume that the Cambodian tax payer will be expected to pick up the tab for any future canal O & M, such as repairs to the rapidly eroding banks. But what is the point of maintaining an irrigation system that does not provide any discernible benefits besides some limited road access, for a $200 million project that will ultimately have to be repaid to the creditor? At least Pol Pot’s crazy schemes did not involve foreign loans, even though they cost the country dearly in terms of blood, sweat and tears.

This does, of course, raise more profound queries about Cambodia’s wider irrigational development strategy and policies. While the Khmer Rouge era of slogans such as “3 tonnes per hectare” (Himel, 2007) and “the Angkar is master of the waters; master of the earth” (Locard, 2004) surely exacted a terrible price in under four years of irrigated “killing fields” construction; the present developmentalist irrigation strategy of Hun Sen supported by a cabal of willing foreign donors and corporate business allies seems to be leading down an equally unsustainable route that is slowly killing whole ecosystems in its wake. Ideologically-driven “irrigationalism” is alive and well in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, a country that increasingly resembles a modern hydraulic society. It seems some contemporary irrigation developers have merely upscaled the Khmer Rouge corvée labor approach, replacing people with backhoes and bulldozers.

REFERENCES

HIMEL, J. (2007) Khmer Rouge Irrigation Development in Cambodia. Searching for the Truth. Special English Edition ed. Phnom Penh, Documentation Center of Cambodia.

LOCARD, H. (2004) Pol Pot’s Little Red Book. The Sayings of Angkar, Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books.

SIR WILLIAM HALCROW & PARTNERS LTD IN ASSOCIATION WITH MANDALA AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION (1993) Irrigation Rehabilitation Study in Cambodia. Ranking Criteria Report. Bangkok, Mekong Secretariat.

[1] December 4, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/world/asia/05canals.html

[2] The Vaico River project appears to be named after a relatively small river rising in Kampong Cham province near the project’s eastern canal branch, that flows southwards through Kamchay Mea district towards the northern part of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, just to the south of Ho Chi Minh City. It is locally known as the “Song Vam Co”, reportedly having an Eastern and Western branch as it drains into the South China Sea.

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