Floods and droughts are two leading causes of agricultural losses in Cambodia, where farmers have begun using solar power to manage their water supply and counter the impact of increasingly erratic weather patterns.
In the disaster-prone Bosleav (also known as Bos Leav) commune in Kratie Province - some 480km northeast of the capital, Phnom Penh - the country’s first solar-powered water pumping station was recently completed. The solar-powered pumps push water into storage tanks and then gravity takes over to distribute the water to households, said Dara R.M. Ung, a project advisor at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
Some 140km of the Mekong River, where 70 percent of residents live along the banks, runs through Kratie Province, which has been ranked as one of the country’s most disaster-prone provinces. The ministry is carrying out the project as part of its National Adaptation Programme for Action (NAPA) to help farmers adjust to extreme weather.
“Having access to water allows me to cook more foods than before [and] spend more time with my children,” said Sophorn Chay, 33, a mother of four, as she tasted her first tap water delivered by the solar pump. Until recently she spent about 2.5 hours each day in search of water. The commune has 1,573 families but only 150 were selected to join a community water association, a requirement for being connected to the network supplied by the solar-powered pump, and Chay’s family is one of them.
In most big towns, the government supplies piped water and regulates the prices, but in places without electricity, water gauges or access to water pipelines, like Bosleav, farmers must source their own water, often from nearby rivers that may be polluted, or from private suppliers that charge twice the government rate of 30 US cents per cubic metre.
“Because the farmers are in the remote villages, their cost of transportation to the water supply is expensive and time-consuming,” said Bunly Meas, a NAPA communications officer. “The solar pump system provides water to selected households at a lower price.”
None of the three newly formed water associations have decided on the fees for membership or water usage. The first water association meeting is scheduled for October. “Water will be distributed to each household according to their needs,” said Ung from the MAFF. “Each member will pay a [fee, based] on the amount they use.”
Bunrith Chin, of Kratie’s Provincial Department of Water Resources and Meteorology, said the fees will be less than what residents currently pay private vendors.
MAFF estimates that each family will spend some 50 US cents a month, a fraction of what they spend to get water to the village now. Meas said the money will go to maintaining the solar power system. Kratie’s provincial agriculture department will train water associations in water resource management, including how to fix the pumping system.
“There is a… [local] saying that people search for water to survive, but here the water comes to destroy us,” said Um Le, president of the water users’ association in Bosleav Leu village, in the Bosleav commune.
In recent years, district farmers have been unable to predict the weather, as they have done for generations, to decide when to plant their crops. “Every year, the land gets dry and floods reach higher up to the house. We lose our income, food supplies, cows and even our lives,” Le noted.
In 2011 the commune experienced the worst floods in recent history, in which 167 hectares of rice fields, or 60 percent of the commune’s harvest were destroyed, according to the government. Bosleav commune provides 78 percent of the district’s total rice production.
The solar systems - set up by local NGOs at a cost of about $20,000 for each of the three testing sites - have their limits. Bosleav commune council member Nhoem Chhay Heam, 50, said even with arsenic filters on the pumps, the water is still not suitable for drinking, though villagers still do so. “The water has to be boiled for drinking. The objective of the solar pump is to provide water to farms for home gardening, washing and cooking.”
Arsenic, which causes health problems like skin discoloration (melanosis), hardening of the skin (keratosis) and cancer, can contaminate groundwater naturally and through human activities such as mining. It can also come from pesticides and fertilizers that contain arsenic. In a recent government study, Kratie was identified as one of six provinces nationwide at high risk for arsenic-contaminated groundwater.
Pinreak Suos, a MAFF project consultant, said preparing the water associations to manage water resources - which only the government has done until now - will also be a challenge.