For generations, farmers in Cambodia have relied on rain, which usually starts from May when the rainy season begins, for their rice crops.
Dry season rice farmers, like those in Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district, depend on lake water that is filled by the rising Mekong River around June every year.
However, some farmers in the district cannot rely on the lake water as it has been hardly half-filled this year, as the Mekong River started flowing into it almost two months later than usual.
Therefore, some farmers have resorted to using underground water instead for their rice farming.
Ban Nhok, a 46-year-old father of two, says he has paid well-diggers $300 to dig a well pump some 40 metres deep into the ground to supply his 25 acres of rice fields.
However, he says only about 50 percent of the underground water can be reached by the pump.
“So, it takes two days and twice as much fuel to pump underground water to fill my land,” he says, shaking his head.
“My land is higher than other farmers’ land, so the water leaks into other rice fields,” he says, looking at the surrounding rice fields which seem to have a comparatively more promising yield to come.
During previous years, Nhok says his rice fields could produce around one tonne and 300 kilogrammes of rice per year. However, he says he may only get one tonne of rice from the same rice field this year, using the underground water from the well.
He says he will get only around $250 selling his rice this year.
“So, I know I will not make any profit this year,” he says, adding that he hopes he can use the same pump well for many years to come if the lake does not fill again in years to come.
“This year, I will have to do construction work to supplement my income and to feed the family,” he says.
Like other rice farmers, Nhok says he has to work from dawn until dusk seven days a week.
“We have no days off except during the Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben festival,” he says.
A stone’s throw from Nhok’s rice field, Yong Yim, 43, is also watching over his water pump he had installed around the same time.
“My well pump can access around 70 percent of the underground water,” he says, adding that the water has to supply around 50 acres of rice fields.
Yim, a father of three who has been a farmer for more than ten years, says he hopes he will get around two tonnes of rice this year.
“However, I will not make any profit,” he laments, saying he will need to earn an extra income working as a bike mechanic.
Though most farmers in Kang Meas district’s Sdao commune say the well pumps cannot access enough water, they think they are lucky that their land is located in a relatively good spot.
One of the unlucky farmers is 58-year-old Neang Aun, who lives in the same commune. He says he also hired diggers to drill two pump wells.
“But, there was no water,” he complains. “But, I still paid $50 for each well based on the agreement to help share the cost.”
He says he relies on receding lake water and that he has to use a machine to pump it to his fields around 500 metres away.
“So, it consumes a lot of fuel to fill one hectare of my rice field,” Aun laments.
He says he and other farmers have appealed to the local authorities to help them by providing some fuel, to no avail.
“The authorities are like our parents,” he says. “So, who can we depend on if they said no?”
Aun says luck has seemed to have turned against rice farmers in Cambodia when it comes to the price of rice.
“Last year, the yield was good but the rice was cheap,” he says. “Whereas, the rice is getting more expensive this year, but we cannot do good rice farming.”
For Pan Bunnath, a 64-year-old farmer in Sdao commune, the choice to spend money on a pumping well will be her last resort.
She says she has tried her best to make use of the remaining lake water, no matter how far it is from her one-hectare rice field.
“I use two pumping machines,” she says. “One machine to pump water half way into a ditch and another machine is to pump water from the ditch into my rice field.”
“However, it costs a lot of money for the fuel,” she says. “But, I have no choice, because this is my only career.”
Regardless of her efforts, Bunnath says she does not know how much rice yield she can reap this year.
“Because the rice fields were not flooded, they have been infested with rats that destroy the rice,” she says.
Like Aun and other farmers, Bunnath says she is not happy with the lack of help from the local authorities.
“The commune chief does not care about the people,” she says. “He does not see our difficulties.”
Nevertheless, Sdao commune chief Lay Senghong says he does care about the more than 6,000 people in his commune, about 80 percent of whom are farmers.
“The rice farmers whose rice fields are far from the lake have turned their land into vegetable farms,” he says, adding that about 30 families have drilled well pumps to use water for farming.
Senghong says the village and commune authorities will respond to the people’s concerns when needed.
“For those farmers who have difficulties, we will help them according to our capacity,” he says. “We will distribute some rice and instant noodles to some families.”