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.