Grand Delusion: Khmer Rough Irrigation Development in Cambodia, Jeffrey Himel
Source: Documentation Center of Cambodia, searching for the truth magazine
Map from the paper: Land Development of the Khmer Rouge as taken from satellite imagery (courtesy W.J. van Liere).
Cambodia Revives Pol Pot’s Deadly Canals, New York Times
The dry season has taken hold here, but water is everywhere. It pours out of sluice gates with the roar of an Alpine torrent. Playful children do back flips into the ubiquitous canals and then pull their friends in with them. Fishermen cast their nets for minnows, and villagers wash their Chinese-made motorcycles.
“It’s never dry here,” said Chan Mo, a 36-year-old rice farmer standing on top of an irrigation dike.
The Khmer Rouge canals have come back to life.
By the time the brutal government of Pol Pot was toppled three decades ago, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead from overwork, starvation and disease, and the country was a ruin. But the forced labor of millions of Cambodians left behind something useful – or that’s how the current government sees it.
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.
“There has never been a modern regime that placed more emphasis and resources towards developing irrigation,” wrote Jeffrey Himel, a water resource engineer, in a recent study of Cambodia’s irrigation system.
“The Khmer Rouge emptied all cities and towns, and put practically the entire population to work planting rice and digging irrigation dikes and canals.” Some of the canals were poorly designed – “hydraulic nonsense,” says Alain Goffeau, a French irrigation expert with the Asian Development Bank. But many were viable.
The Khmer Rouge built around three-quarters of Cambodia’s more than 1,000 canal networks, according to a survey commissioned by the United Nations in the 1990s.
Now, across this impoverished nation of 14 million people, the canals are being rebuilt by a government hoping to take advantage of the world’s increasing demand for rice.
The Asian Development Bank is helping finance the rehabilitation of a dozen canals, adding to projects financed by the Japanese and South Korean governments.
“There’s a lot of possibility,” Goffeau said.
For older Cambodians, the canals are a source of ambivalence. Men like Loh Thoeun, 61, now a rice farmer, think back to the baskets of dirt that he carried away, hour after hour.
He recalls the horrors of the Khmer Rouge – the laborers, hands tied behind their backs, who were “dragged away like cows” and never returned, the Muslim families who were thrown down a nearby well. The foremen of the irrigation project in Baray were killed after the canals and embankments were completed – without explanation. Loh says he once saw Pol Pot inspect the canals on what he described as a “speedboat.”
All of the work was done by hand here in Baray, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Phnom Penh. No talking was allowed among laborers. The Khmer Rouge played revolutionary songs and banged hubcaps to encourage the workers. Contemporary photos show huge crowds toiling in the dust.
“The earth here is very hard, and when we dug deeper we got to the hardest part – the most compact ground,” said Loh, sitting in a bamboo shelter beside his rice fields. “We had to hammer at it. It was like cutting down a tree.”
For so many Cambodians the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, were about digging. Villagers and residents of Phnom Penh, who were forced to move to the countryside, were organized in small work units.
“I was a slave,” said Ang Mongkol, now the deputy director general of the Ministry of Interior who was a law student when the Khmer Rouge came to power and was assigned to haul dirt.
Yet despite the sorrow of those years, there are only traces of remorse here about taking full advantage of the canals. Loh hopes the canals he built in slave-like conditions will help double or triple his rice output.
“I always recall the past to my children,” Loh said. “I say, “We have water from this canal that was built by the people. And many of them died.”
Ang is leading an experimental project that uses water from the canal to irrigate fields of hybrid rice varieties that promise to yield four times as much as the variety traditionally grown here. Because only about 20 percent of Cambodia’s fields are irrigated, its rice farmers harvest on average half as much as Vietnam’s and one third as much as China’s.
The irrigation system in Baray, which is fed from water diverted from the nearby Chinit River, functioned for several years after the Khmer Rouge left power. But in the mid-1980s it fell into disrepair. It was only in 2005 that the government began rebuilding it. Today, the local municipality hires a maintenance crew to keep the water flowing.
Among the workers is Sim Vy, 48. As a teenager she was enlisted by the Khmer Rouge to help build the canals. She was told she was working for national glory but received only a watery gruel as recompense. Now she is paid $55 a month. “I prefer working this way,” she said.
This song came back on Google as Struggling to Build Dam and Dig Canals (Khmer Rouge Song). I need to find someone who speaks Khmer to tell me whether this is in fact true but here it is nevertheless.
Title: Grand delusion – Khmer Rouge irrigation development in Cambodia
Description: Himel, J., 2002: Integration and management of irrigation, drainage and flood control Volume 1B 18th International Congress on Irrigation and Drainage, Montreal, Canada, 2002: 1-15