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5.7 Water


Despite the high level of seasonal rainfall and abundant seasonal surface water, many areas in the central plains and plateau remain devoid of water resources in the dry season and dependent on irregular rainfall patterns. There is a lack of sufficient water for irrigation and domestic use posing a serious problem in many areas where surface water is the main source. Water resources have not been developed for agriculture, industrial or household use. There is no national water management policy addressing the multisectoral interests of water use. Comprehensive water management policy is needed.

From 1975-79 the population was forced to build an extensive gridlock of canals and other hydraulic works which were conceived with no technical understanding or design. These have caused massive damage to the landscape and hydraulic regime, most ignore or impede the natural drainage flow and most do not warrant rehabilitation. Many structures constructed in previous regimes have consequently become non-functional as a result of the misconceived network. Pijpers (1989) provides a very good overview of the implications of the Pol Pot canals for current water management. Since 1979 there has been a history of failed medium scale projects, mostly because they have attempted to rehabilitate Pol Pot canals. There has been no large scale works begun since Prek Thnot project in 1974. There has been a higher rate of success for small scale projects built during this period than any medium scale projects.


5.7.1 Current Water Management


Catchment wide management has been recognized as a need by the Department of Hydrology, but should be given greater priority in water resource development in both large and small catchment areas. There is a lack of a complete plan and detailed cost feedback as work progresses and makes it difficult to rationally monitor physical progress against financial expenditure.

There is no framework for the management of water resources which integrates all sectors involved. After the elections in 1993 the Overseas Development Agency proposed the creation of a Cambodian Water Management Authority which would involve all government agencies with an interest in water resources, but the proposed organisation structure was refused by the RGC which requested that it must be under the authority of the Department of Agricultural Hydraulics and Hydro-Meterology of the Ministry of Agriculture. The ODA didn’t accept the government request and withdrew its proposed assistance to water resource sector.

Currently there are many Ministries involved in water management:


  • The Department of Agricultural Hydraulics and Hydro-Meteorology of the Ministry of Agriculture has the responsibility to monitor water resources and to develop and maintain agricultural hydraulic structures and some rural water supply structures.

  • The Department of Fisheries is responsible for the management of capture fisheries and of fisheries habitats.

  • The Ministry of Rural Development is involved with the digging of wells, provision of water pumps and micro-irrigation works for the improvement of the standards of living in rural areas of the country.

  • The Ministry of Public Works is responsible for river works, construction of flood control structures, urban water supply and major reservoirs.

  • The Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy is responsible for planning and execution of hydro-power and water using industries.

  • The Ministry of the Environment is responsible for preventing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, carrying environmental impact assessment for development projects. Within the MoE is a water resources management office, but the role of this office is not well defined at the moment.

Coordination between these agencies is not well developed resulting in policy and management that is inefficient. All Ministries lack human and financial resources. Hindering the efficient use of limited resources are the widespread problems of operational constraints due to the lack of resources and ageing equipment, maintenance and spare parts availability.


5.7.2 Irrigation


The Department of Hydrology is responsible for all irrigation and water resource development, like other Departments they lack a policy statement, technical expertise, funding and materials. The main focus of the Department is to get as great an area as possible under irrigation. Currently, they are mainly rehabilitating old irrigation structures, canals and small works. The Department is very much donor driven with their strategy based on the Mekong Secretariat / UNDP (1994) study, although their recommendation that irrigation is not feasible economically.17 The study however, neglected small scale, householder irrigation and has left the Department of Hydrology disapproving of the recommendations.

The topography of Cambodia does not offer good sites for dry season water storage, which means that areas which can be irrigated in the dry season are limited and that supplementary irrigation of wet season crops has to involve diversion and or water storage (pers. comm. 1995). Despite proposals for large dam and reservoir construction by the Mekong River Commission at up to seven proposed dam sites, the most important being Sambor, Stung Treng and Mongol Borey (Battambang). The dam plans are now effectively for sale to international donors. However, most studies of irrigation projects and future development strategies conclude that small scale projects hold the most potential (Himel 1995). This is partly dictated by geography; the flat plains do not lend themselves to large reservoir construction or to central control.

The Mekong Secretariat in conjunction with UNDP completed a comprehensive study of large and medium scale irrigation systems in 1994, including 10 infrastructural rehabilitation projects, five institutional strengthening and planning projects at the pre feasibility level and prepared a rehabilitation strategy which would increase irrigated area by 143% in the wet season and 80% in the dry season. The survey covered 841 irrigation systems finding only 21% fully operational and 14% not operating at all. Reasons given for the low performance of existing systems include: most irrigation works constructed in Pol Pot regime lack of planning and design resulting in insufficient water availability, canal networks with little relevance to natural topography and inadequate infrastructure; systems built both before and after Pol Pot suffer from faulty planning, design and construction; canal systems are often inadequate or non-existent on the smaller systems, so that farmers have to construct channels to bring water to their fields; many pump schemes are inoperable due to breakdown or missing parts; infrastructural damage through a lack of maintenance and annual flood damage and ongoing security problems have not only caused physical damage to the infrastructure but have limited access to many areas because of mines and banditry.

The conclusion of the study is that irrigation rehabilitation is only economically justifiable and sustainable where surplus crops are produced for sale. Thai experience has shown however, that an agricultural strategy that aims at the commercialisation of crop production may produce foreign exchange at the expense of the security of livelihood for rural farmers. This lesson should be learnt from and policy adjusted accordingly in Cambodia.

UNDP (1994) classify irrigation structures according to their size:

1 - Large-scale multi purpose systems. Currently there are none under construction mainly due to the uncertainty involved with large financial commitments, continuing security problems and the possible effects of upstream development. Financially, it is difficult to justify most large-scale projects (Mekong Secretariat 1994).



  1. Projects of this scale and complexity are beyond the current RGC capability to design, construct, operate and maintain. Even if they were to start immediately they would take 7-10 years to complete.

2 - Medium-Scale irrigation and hydraulic works. Several projects have had headwork completed, and there is work continuing on distribution systems, community organisation and extension services. Organisation and maintenance is a major problem which has led to the failure of several projects. The American Field Service Committee (AFSC) completed a review of their irrigation interventions in Pursat province in 1994 concluding a very low success rate largely due to operation and maintenance problems.

  1. As with large-scale projects, few projects of this size are justifiable solely in economic terms, UNDP recommended ten projects of this size for Irrigation Rehabilitation.

3- Small-Scale Irrigation Systems. Although less costly and easier to implement with the participation of the people, small-scale irrigation systems are still very complex in nature and require significant material and technical support. Several systems have been completed but again operation and maintenance is a major problem. Several projects have failed entirely, particularly pump irrigation projects. As small-scale irrigation takes place without official recognition or assistance, it also means it is often ignored, making it difficult to assess its importance to overall agricultural production. It seems that small-scale irrigators are faced with many of the same challenges as those involved in more formal irrigation; water supplies are becoming increasingly scarce while demand for reliable rice production continues to grow. Small-scale irrigation also provides localised water sources which are productive sources of fish and other aquatic life, adding to the nutritional intake of Khmers.

In general irrigation works are not operated in a way which encourages the efficient use of water. In most cases there are conflicts between user groups, upstream and downstream users, and a lack of prior consultation with villagers before planning and design resulting in systems which do not address their needs. Community organisation and the establishment of water user groups are seen as essential in guaranteeing the efficient use of water and operation and maintenance of irrigation works.


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