Under water but not overcome.

The weird landing approach to Siem Reap – all you see is water.

Every year, Cambodia ‘s rainy season lasts from May to November. During that time, this bowl-shaped country experiences floods and deluges in the low-lying center of the country, particularly around Tonle Sap (Great Lake), which expands from 1,000 square miles in the dry season to 9,500 square miles during the rainy season. The farmers in this densely populated plain which is devoted to wet rice cultivation make up the heartland of Cambodia.

Rice field in the Tonle Sap watershed

But despite the government’s insistence that the Cambodian economy depends on “helping people improve their land so they can grow more rice,” (90% of all agricultural land in Cambodia is devoted to raising rice), it appears that little  of the $18 billion Cambodia has received in international aid has been spent on irrigation or flood control to prevent devastation of rice crops and animal loss, or to make rice farmers more productive.

Water, earth, sky, animals.

In fact, Cambodia produces the lowest rice yield per acre in Asia – 2.4 tons/acre compared to Vietnam’s 4.9 tons, Burma’s 4.0 tons, or even North Korea’s 3.8 tons. With no irrigation system, Cambodian farmers can produce only one crop a year in the rainy season – while Thai farmers produce two and the Vietnamese three. Meanwhile, disastrous flooding occurred just last year, destroying 175,000 acres of rice, and with climate change farmers expect a lot more of the same.

The incomparable Mith Loeuy

The near total lack of water management and infrastructure puts Kralanh district farmers like Mith Loeuy and her husband Phach Phey at risk every year. When we visited the dynamic duo, the floodwaters had just receded from their front yard. The chicken coop was partially flooded and empty: they’d just sold 800 of their chickens and Loeuy was heartbroken we hadn’t gotten to see her birds. But she was also mad as a wet hen that the floods kept jeopardizing her progress.

Mith’s big coop, minus her 800 chickens.

“Last year, floods destroyed all the farms around here so a lot of people have migrated to Thailand. We had to put all our chickens on a boat and evacuate them that year, so I lost of money selling them in distress. This year, we sold all our chickens early, but now I have no birds and I feel very bad when I can’t earn money.”

Loeuy’s been earning money with her animals since 2008 when she started in Heifer’s original Self Help Group in this village. She received a cow and found out she had a gift for raising animals, then decided with her husband Phey to do “more, more, more!” as she eloquently puts it.

Phey with all the bags of rice they’ve saved to plant when–and if — the waters recede.

“I started with 10 chickens, then upped it to 20, then 80 .. I love chickens because they’re better than swine and easier than cows. (which she also raises) “When you want to eat, you just kill one, and when you need eggs, they’re always producing. You can make money to put your children through school with chickens. (She and Phey have 8.) “But now, with our rice and our animals, we’re just at the mercy of the water.”

It’s hard to see people this passionate, self-sufficient and focused have to work so hard to keep their heads above water,  – or even protect them from disaster.

Man vs. Water – and in Cambodia, it’s every man for himself.

Loeuy and Phey aren’t just exceptional farmers and animal raisers, they are also role models in championing education, even amidst envy and jealousy in the community that they are “acting rich” by educating their children.

“I tell people, ‘Look in my house, I have nothing more than you do,’ ” Loeuy says adamantly. “But we’ve sacrificed because we want our kids to have  to have education, good jobs and success.’”

Phey, Loeuy, and 3 of their educated 8 .. plus two smart grandchildren!

Louey & Phey’s example of investing in their children’s education has had a big influence on the community in which they lead by example, and by their deep commitment to helping others. Louey is the leader & trainer of her Self-Help Group, and the couple has even offered to take in other girls and send them to school — in addition to their own 8 kids.

Here’s hoping this family’s example of true leadership will provide an example for the nation’s leaders to follow.

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Education, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Under water but not overcome.

  1. I understand how hard it is to witness this kind of struggle. And sad that the government is so corrupt. Sounds like Cambodia needs to do some disaster mitigation. Does Heifer do disaster mitigation at all?

    • Nope, Heifer is all about long-term agricultural development, not relief. And disaster mitigation can really only be a part of major infrastructural reform … and that can only come from government, not an NGO or charity operation. It’s sad but true. Which is why I am so hoping for reform and a renewed commitment from the government to make these desperately needed changes.

  2. I doubt I’ve seen a profile of a more proud and forward-looking family than you have shown here. I’ve read this post five times, staring into the soulful eyes of the parents, knowing if I were up against such life obstacles, I would fold. Their inner strength is mind-boggling and awe-inspiring. I want to go buy them 1000000000000000000 chickens, today! Thank you for bringing us another incredible Heifer success story.

    • EOSR — I love your enthusiasm SO SO much!! These really are amazing folks — mother, father, and children — but the really wonderful thing is how they band together and work as a unit. Their handsome son is going to be a teacher and all but one will finish high school — Mith was still really discouraged that her one son just wanted to be a farmer and dropped out but if he’s got her skills and drive, he’ll do FINE as a farmer. How about those huge bags of rice behind Phey?? Can you believe they plant and then transplant EVERY seed??? Love your gazillion chickens for Mith !!!


    hi —  there is a technical error in your transmission of this email today.  where the email message should show, i only get a lite gray blank screen.  pls check it out. thanks Dennis

  4. Julia Russell

    Betty- I have been a faithful follower of your incredible blog. This seems like one of the more challenging countries thus far. Please know that your work and your words make an incredible impact. I (and millions more) admire and genuinely appreciate all you’re doing. I’m so proud to share the planet w/ one who so beautifully illustrates the truth.

    Best to you always,
    Julia Russell
    your friend from afar

    • Thanks SO much, Julia — and despite the fact that Cambodia made me angry in some ways (mostly because I really felt the government should be doing more to help its citizens) it also is such a lovely, enchanting place. I really adored the people, the food and the landscape…. hope I get to return before too long!!

  5. Sad statistics
    “almost none of the $18 billion Cambodia has received in international aid has been spent on irrigation or flood control …”

    but you always manage to show us something good: Mith Loeuy and her husband husband Phach Phey are managing to feed, clothe and educate their eight children inspite of all the corruption.
    800 chickens is a huge operation!

    • You wouldn’t believe how motivated Mith and Phey are — and their kids are really sweet and happy and accomplished. I feel like this year I’ve been lucky to see so many happy families .. not all, mind you, but certainly a LOT of folks who don’t have money or privilege or abundance but have love, commitment and goals galore. I have NO doubt Mith will be back up and running an even bigger chicken operation in a matter of months!
      (and yes, the government should do way more to help manage the flooding — and only a government CAN do something of that magnitude .. I’m waiting!)

  6. Martha Radatz

    To the end of your article, I can only add a resounding, “AMEN”!
    However…I just have to wonder, despite the courageous way they are handling their situation, if their life might have been a easier if they hadn’t had 8 children. Is family planning help available?

    • Absolutely I think their life would have been easier if they hadn’t had 8 children — but as one of 8 children myself (and 6th in the lineup) I’m thinking – what would life be like without those later kids?? I’m only half-kidding, Martha, and YES there is a lot of emphasis in Heifer in Vietnam and Cambodia to talk about family planning and controlling your own reproduction. And of course — educating girls is the REAL key! THANKS!!

  7. Judy

    Betty – It is refreshing to read the inspiring stories you are finding in each of these difficult countries, of people with such grit and determination to make a better life for their children. It is wonderful that Heifer is there to help, despite the hurdles of government, climate, lack of opportunity and education. Thank you. Judy

    • Judy, Thanks for the comment!! I really was profoundly moved by the struggles and courage of the people in Cambodia … and that is always
      cause for celebration, in my words and photos. Really glad it connected with you!!

  8. So where the heck DID the money go ?

  9. That’s an excellent question, Sybil — I would strongly urge you to read Cambodia’s Curse by Peter Brinkley .. it’s a great inquisition into that very query.

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