In Bong Bot Khang Lech village, part of Bot Trang commune in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district, farmer Muth Ren is diving into the cultivation of dry-season rice across more than 2ha of land.

This new venture took root just two weeks ago, and as the fields surrounding him brim with the promise of recent sowings, some fellow farmers wrapped up their planting a month earlier.

Ren notes the ripple effect of the rising rice prices, prompting a shift for farmers previously focused on vegetables to now embrace dry-season rice cultivation. Even those unfamiliar with this pursuit are stepping into the rhythm.

Currently, water scarcity hasn’t impeded dry-season rice cultivation in the village. While canal water is depleted, the presence of reservoirs and numerous large ponds proves advantageous, especially for those near water sources. Yet, the growing competition among farmers vying for canal water near these sources raises concerns of potential irrigation shortages for those situated farther away.

 The ebb and flow of agriculture in this village tell a story of adaptation and shared challenges.

“Last year, farmers without reserve ponds couldn’t grow dry-season rice. But with the current surge in rice prices, farmers are diving into dry-season cultivation this year,” Ren says.

“At the moment, things look good in my village when it comes to irrigation water. We’ve got four to five large ponds and reservoirs in the fields. But for those farther away, there’s a chance they might face water scarcity as some irrigation systems are already in use,” he notes.

Pang Vannaseth, head of the provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, notes that the surge in dry-season rice cultivation has surpassed initial plans, potentially leading to a future water shortage.

Despite a provincial plan for 25,000ha, farmers have already cultivated over 50,000ha, driven by a boost in rice prices. Navigating them back to the plan, especially in areas with available water, proves challenging for officials.

Vannaseth urges farmers to stay vigilant about real-time water supplies during cultivation. Assessing water availability in the moment helps avoid potential shortages, as initial sufficiency might dwindle towards the end of the season.

He also says that if farmers stick to their current practices and halt dry-season rice cultivation, there may not be an irrigation water shortage. However, a repetitive pattern could lead to future scarcity. It’s a delicate balance that requires careful consideration for sustainable farming practices.

Changing farm practises

“In truth, there’s no water shortage if farmers stick to their usual routines. Yet, some are changing things up. In areas where dry-season rice wasn’t common, people are embracing it once they perceive the benefits,” Vannaseth says.

As of December 25, the Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF) – the Kingdom’s apex rice industry body – reports that in neighbouring Battambang province, fragrant rice cultivar Sen Kra-ob (SKO) averages at 1,350 riel ($0.34) per kilogramme.

Across Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Battambang, Takeo and Prey Veng provinces, OM rice is priced from 1,350 to 1,400 riel.

Meanwhile, IR rice in Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom and Takeo provinces falls in the region of 1,380 to 1,400 riel, while Sra Nge rice in Battambang is set at 1,325 riel.

Lay Sothy, deputy director of the Banteay Meanchey provincial Department of Water Resources and Meteorology, reveals that several communes and districts in the province boast well-established irrigation systems. These include reservoirs, canals and numerous sites capable of storing water. This ensures a reliable water supply for daily needs and facilitates irrigation for rice cultivation during both the rainy and dry seasons, as well as for other crops.

To ensure enough water for dry-season rice, the department set a one-time cultivation plan for 20,000ha province-wide.

“If they go beyond this plan, it gets tricky for us to help because our water supply is earmarked specifically for the set plan,” he warns.

Beyond Banteay Meanchey, residents of Pursat province are also embracing dry-season rice cultivation beyond the designated water plan. 

Pursat provincial governor Khoy Rida shared this on social media on December 23, stating that the allocated water storage for dry-season rice in his province is set at 20,000ha. However, farmers have surpassed this, cultivating dry-season rice on 43,000ha.

“People aren’t sticking to specific seasons for cultivation anymore. Right now, authorities are working hard to tackle water-related problems because farmers are planting beyond the planned water sources in the storage,” he says.

To safeguard the rice crop from water shortages, Rida advises against attempting dry-season rice cultivation more than three times per year. This ensures enough water sources for timely intervention.

Water conservation urgency

Hay Thura, director of the Pursat provincial agriculture department, observes that people are embracing repeated bouts of dry-season rice cultivation, fuelled by the surge in rice prices.

As of the close of 2023, the province has been spared from water shortages. Nevertheless, he cautions that rushing into more cultivation may likely lead to a water shortage.

“This is why the provincial governor and the department have told the districts to recommend against any more cultivation after the harvest, to prevent the risk of water depletion,” he explains.

Battambang provincial deputy governor Soeum Bunrith notes a rush into dry-season rice cultivation beyond the plan causing water shortages in certain areas, saying that pertinent authorities are actively addressing this issue. The provincial administration encourages local authorities to spread the word, urging the public to save water and prevent difficulties during water shortages.

“We often remind people regularly, not waiting for directives from the ministry. We know that some districts in our area, like Kors Kralor, Rukhak Kiri and Moung Russey, are prone to drought,” he says.

Moul Sophort, a resident of Daunba village in Battambang province’s Kors Kralor district, shares that the daily water needs for drinking, bathing and cooking pose no problem. The village boasts abundant water resources, including ponds, lakes and a reliable clean water system.

However, dry-season rice cultivation is a no-go for people in his commune due to the lack of an irrigation water supply system.

“The ponds and lakes in our village are currently supplying enough water for growing cabbage, cucumbers and beans. This should cover irrigation needs until mid-April. But if no rain comes by then, we might face a water shortage,” he explains.

Swift cultivation

Doeuk Seoun, a resident of Thibdey village, also in Kors Kralor district, owns over 2ha of farmland. Having already cultivated dry-season rice twice, he’s now in the midst of a third cultivation, with about a month and a half until harvest.

He says that this year’s dry-season rice cultivation has been swift, thanks to timely notifications from authorities and experts warning about potential water shortages. 

Seoun, residing near a canal, is less worried about water scarcity. However, those over 5km away from the canal might face shortages due to depletion caused by closer users.

“Just a few days back, farms farther away had trouble with irrigation since those nearby used it up. Right now, there’s still water, but people farther away get it slower. Plus, down the road, water distribution might get even slower as everyone needs more,” he says.

Chhim Vachira, director of the Battambang provincial agriculture department, notes that people have cultivated over 50,000ha of dry-season rice, exceeding the planned water supply. Despite this excess, if cultivation progresses faster than in previous years, those near the water source could complete it by the end of January this year, avoiding issues.

Chan Yutha, secretary of state at the water resources ministry, outlines the ministry’s measures to ensure efficient resource management post-rainy season. Prioritising daily needs to prevent shortages is the primary focus, with the second aspect being dry-season rice cultivation following the established plan.

Provincial authorities, along with agriculture and water resources departments, regularly share information with farmers. Despite this, spurred by high rice prices, farmers quickly resumed cultivation after harvest. This ongoing cycle poses a risk of water shortage in heavily cultivated areas.

The water resources ministry, Yutha said, is committed to efforts in bringing water to areas facing shortages, given a favourable supply.

Yutha shares a story from Moung Russey district, where cultivated areas once grappled with the challenge of scarce water. In the past, officials transported water from a multi-purpose dam in Rattanak Mondul district, traversing over 100km, to successfully irrigate. However, when a water source isn’t available, transporting water becomes impractical.

“If there’s a water source, no matter how far, we do our best to transfer it. But if the source runs dry, we’re left wondering from where we can get water,” he says.

He shares that every year, crucial water sources for dry-season rice cultivation, such as large reservoirs, see consistent development. Notably, on the Stung Sen River in Kampong Thom province, where there used to be no water source, the ministry has built a reservoir exceeding 200 million cubic metres in capacity. There are also plans for another reservoir in the lower part of Prasat Balang district, also in Kampong Thom province.

For Battambang province’s Moung Russey district, the Dountry reservoir is under construction in neighbouring Rukhak Kiri district, with a storage capacity of 163 million cubic metres, set to be completed in 2024. 

Additionally, the ministry taps into the Mekong River, utilising the large-scale Vaico Irrigation System – spanning Prey Veng, Kampong Cham and Svay Rieng provinces – as well as numerous floating stations along the Bassac River to meet the water needs of the people.