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The Cambodian People’s Party and a “proof of concept” irrigation scheme

Cambodia’s dominant political network has infiltrated down to the local level through a hydraulic control paradigm, unwittingly aided and abetted by international development assistance.

Harvesting rice in Prey Kabbas, Cambodia. Despite the US$4.6 million Wat Thmey irrigation scheme, many farmers continue to rely on pumped groundwater, yet they are counted as “project beneficiaries”. Photos: David JH Blake

By David Blake

Prey Kabbas, October 2, 2018

Mekong Eye

This article (first of two parts) examines the case of a single, donor-funded irrigation scheme in Cambodia’s Takeo province, in the context of the recent general elections. Project promoters claim that the project is highly sustainable and consider it a shining example of irrigation development in Cambodia. An on-the-ground investigation, however,  reveals a different story, one of a ruling party flexing its might to prop-up a project with poor development outcomes in an effort to wrestle away local management of water resources.  

Vehicle canvassing votes for the Cambodian People’s Party in Prey Kabbas town, Takeo, Cambodia.

On a mid-July Sunday morning at a small district town, somewhere in Takeo province of Cambodia, a group of casually dressed men and a couple of women sit round tables of the only modern-style coffee shop in town (appropriately named “Power Coffee”), talking excitedly amongst themselves. They look like typical city folk, somewhat out of place in their spotless shirts and shiny shoes in this rather gritty and grimy rural backwater.

At 8 am precisely, they climb into a fleet of seven expensive SUVs and king cab pick-ups, before driving towards Prey Kabbas market, with a pair of police motorbike outriders up front. I spot a gleaming white Range Rover, a Lexus LX570 Sport, a Mitsubishi Pajero, a Toyota Hi-Lux “Revo”, a Toyota RAV4L amongst the departing convoy, half of which are sporting the distinctive Cambodian People’s Party logo stickers. A loudspeaker blares out a recorded message to the handful of people and smattering of mangey dogs pottering along the main street at that hour. 

No sooner have they gone, than another loudly amplified political speech comes into earshot, but this time simply broadcast from the back of a single motorbike with a driver and pillion passenger gamely holding a large flag bearing a green triangle against a white background – the logo of the Grassroots Democratic Party. It’s one of the 29 opposition parties, hoping to wrest political control of parliament away from the CPP on general election day in two weeks’ time. Though on the basis of this demonstration of the vast differential in wealth and resources between the incumbent rulers (Hun Sen has been premier for 33 years thus far) and the challengers, it is hard to imagine such smaller parties making much of a dent in the CPP’s firm grip on power. Their task was made all the more difficult when, in September 2017, Hun Sen dissolved the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and subsequent jailed its leader, Kem Sokha, invoking a heightened climate of fear and intimidation across the country.

Of politics and water resources control 

CPP poster situated next to one of the Wat Thmey irrigation canals. Other party’s posters were very much less obvious, relegated to subordinate positions along roads and canals.

Prey Kabbas could be a typical rural town in any of the provinces surrounding Phnom Penh during the 2018 general election run-up. However, what singled it out and prompted my visit was not so much the David and Goliath show of vote canvassing, but that Prey Kabbas also happens to be the location of what is considered by an Australian bilaterally funded development project as the most successful example of irrigation development amongst its twenty or so schemes scattered across Cambodia. 

The misleadingly-named Cambodian Agriculture Value Chain Program (CAVAC) project (1) has sunk a full ten percent of its overall US$ 45 million grant into this single scheme, known as Wat Thmey. It has been a favourite site to take visitors to show off the project’s reported “triumphs” as a “sustainable” and “proof of concept” scheme. (2) I had been purposefully referred to it by CAVAC staff early last year prior to an initial visit that had raised a number of issues of concern regarding claims made about its sustainability. This second visit was primarily timed to observe the project under rainy season conditions, with the election crossover purely a fortuitous coincidence, but one that happened to reveal a close link between donor-funded irrigation development and dominant party politics in an authoritarian state. 

It has long been claimed by certain academics and keen observers that there is an intuitive relationship between the power held by ruling elites and the social engineering of populations via control of water resources (including both large-scale irrigation and flood control developments) in particular formations of a bureaucratic state, known as hydraulic societies. 

Such connections have been both theorized and empirically documented for various Asian societies, both historically and contemporaneously, but most controversially argued on a grand scale by the Sinologist, Karl Wittfogel, in his classic book, “Oriental Despotism: A Study of Total Power”. Debates about the conceptual value of this book still rumble on, over 60 years after its publication, though it is worth noting that more hydraulic infrastructure has been built globally in this modern period than the entire historical period preceding it. 

Cambodia is no exception, with most hydraulic infrastructure having been built (or “rehabilitated”) in the last three decades, coinciding neatly with the inexorable rise of the CPP. Given Cambodia’s historical past (not least the lengthy Angkorian and brief Khmer Rouge eras) and recent adoption of a hydraulic development paradigm, it would seem like a good place to put elements of Wittfogel’s hydraulic society theory to the test, in particular the purported links between political elites, irrigation development and social control.

Thriving on unaccountability 

The Wat Thmey scheme in Prey Kabbas, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is relatively modest in scale as irrigation projects go in Cambodia, with a target command area of about 2,100 ha. It is a rehabilitated Khmer Rouge era scheme that relies on water pumped by electricity in two stages from a seasonal wetland lake along a main canal and then supplied via gravity-fed canals to fields. CAVAC claims it has supplied over 2,300 households with irrigation water, but as my last visit indicated and was reiterated during the present visit, this is a gross exaggeration of actual numbers (perhaps by a factor of four to six times in terms of land irrigated and households reached). 

Farmers prepare their field located next to a CAVAC project canal for a crop of tomatoes and aubergine. They prefer to use pumped irrigation water from a pond or tubewell, rather than pay for canal water.

Meetings with farmers cultivating land right next to the CAVAC-built canals revealed that many prefer not to access the project water supply but rely on their own on-farm water sources, either from groundwater or surface water pumps, which avoids paying the water user fee (viewed by them as excessive) and allows them to receive water at a time of their own choosing.

Essentially the project has been counting all households in a theoretical command area as beneficiaries, even though many neither receive water from the canals nor pay into the Farmer Water User Community (FWUC) organization established to manage the scheme. The exaggeration of numbers claimed by both the FWUC committee and CAVAC management appears to be a device to make the project impact seem greater than is actually the case to the donor and government.

This paradigm of poor accountability and critical evaluation remains the norm it seems, as indicated by a 2017 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) funded project evaluation of CAVAC that failed to exercise due diligence by conducting a rigorous ground-truthing exercise with regards to project claims, but instead relied mainly on CAVAC’s self-generated data to base the consultant team’s judgements. In their report, the review team claim to have visited several projects (including Wat Thmey) and conducted an assessment of sustainability criteria for each of CAVAC’s irrigation projects (shown in Annex 5 of the report). 

For Wat Thmey, they state that the project has connected 100 percent of the targeted command area, 100 percent of farmers are paying the Irrigation Service Fee (ISF), the life of project is projected to be 20 years, the FWUC is “well-functioning” and will continue to be so in the future, and award a maximum “scheme sustainability score” of 10, which was the highest of any irrigation project in the CAVAC portfolio. This calls into question how long the review team actually spent on the ground at Wat Thmey, who they met besides CAVAC project staff, government officials and FWUC representatives, and whether they were free to talk to ordinary farmers at a number of locations across the site?

Rising costs of system operation and maintenance

Gilding the lily of CAVAC project impacts by using spurious figures is one matter, but of more concern to the donors and Australian tax payer ought to be the way that aid funding is being used to prop up the CPP-Hun Sen regime, recognized to be the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. While CAVAC likes to portray it is running a series of innovative, participatory and decentralized water management schemes, exemplified by its support for FWUCs (as noted in various project reports on its website), the reality is rather different to the rhetoric. 

When I visited the Wat Thmey scheme in July, it was evident that the FWUC and hence the scheme’s management had effectively been taken over by the CPP and was a now a party political institution. Moreover, I was informed by a senior CAVAC manager based in Phnom Penh that CAVAC field staff had been barred by the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MoWRAM) from going to the site during the election period, thus leaving a major hole in the original management model. In Prey Kabbas, I found that three months previously there had been a putsch of the former FWUC chairman, who had been a CNRP supporter, with the new FWUC chairman and committee entirely made up of CPP appointees. 

The FWUC Chairman (left) and his deputy (right) demonstrate a water gate controlling flows from the main canal to a secondary canal. The system is assumed to have a lifespan of 20 years, but operation and maintenance fees are steep.

Coincidentally, we bumped into the new chairman and his deputy on the day we arrived at Wat Thmey, as he inspected the main project water pumping station and checked his large flock of ducks grazing the nearby paddies. Perhaps under the impression I was a representative of an NGO or donor organization and having noted that CAVAC funding was due to end next year, he was quick to lobby me for future financial support for the project, evidently unsure how the project would survive without it.  

The chairman explained that the cost of water pumping was becoming increasingly expensive, largely due to rising electricity costs and punishing costs of system maintenance. In particular, he was worried about how the committee might repair the CAVAC pump, as last time it was repaired by a CAVAC-provided foreign engineer at a cost of $2,739 to the FWUC. Apparently, there was nobody trained locally to repair it and he was worried that should it break down again beyond the CAVAC project life then they would not be able to afford to cover the cost. However, this expense paled into insignificance against the continual rise in canal repair costs from $30,000 in 2016 to a reported $60-70,000 in 2017. 

As the project constructs more concrete secondary lateral canals, these operation and maintenance costs will only carry on rising. Indeed, electricity bills were reported to be $6,000 per month for the 1st rice crop and a hefty $18,000/month for the 2nd crop, contradicting claims by the evaluation team than schemes like Wat Thmey exhibit “relatively low operating costs” (DFAT evaluation, p.33). 

All these costs will have to be met from the irrigation service fee (ISF) paid by farmers for receiving water and collected by the FWUC. The ISF is set by the FWUC committee after the costs of a season’s pumping, system maintenance and committee expenses have been totted up and divided amongst water users, so it varies from season to season. 

However, as rice production input costs have been rising over recent years, especially the cost of artificial fertilizer and pesticides, but also fuel, ploughing and harvesting costs, the uncertain and less-than-transparent water user fee paid retrospectively can seem like an additional unwanted financial burden to the farmer, already operating on minimal profit margins that rarely takes into account the cost of household labour in its calculation. 

Tapping into social control

It was my sense that many families might discover they are operating at a loss, if they cared to calculate their labour costs, so preferred to ignore it. Rice yields are either stable or declining, with pests and disease a growing problem; something which could be expected under such intensively farmed double mono-cropping conditions. Farmers were relying on sons and daughters going to work outside the village to send money home to cover agricultural expenses, throwing into doubt most of the “poverty reduction” claims made by CAVAC. Management privately admitted that there are far better opportunities for employment outside the agricultural sector – and indeed farmers overwhelmingly said that they did not want their sons and daughters to follow them down the road of agriculture for a living.

Last season the water user fee was $55/ha for the 1st (or “recession”) rice crop (Oct to Jan/Feb) and $65/ha for the 2nd (or “early wet”) rice crop (April to July). There is apparently a range of fees charged, depending on the relative elevation of land above or below the canal and whether the farmer has to pump into the fields or water is supplied by gravity. 

The FWUC Chairman told me that he was concerned that farmers may not pay the ISF once the CAVAC project ended. Farmers indicated to me that they thought the water fee was prohibitively expensive and furthermore, they were not happy with the way the FWUC was run, in particular a perceived lack of transparency and responsiveness to user concerns. Farmers were particularly dissatisfied with the ISF payment system, which varied depending on the individual. 

The combined second pump house and FWUC office, where the Committee administer the scheme, built with Australian aid in 2016.

Some paid in cash directly to the FWUC office, whereas others paid electronically to a bank account apparently managed by CAVAC. These farmers claimed it was more convenient for them to do so by smart phone, rather than wait for the treasurer at the FWUC office to be present. However, the FWUC committee complained to us that the system led to confusion for them, as they did not know who had paid nor how much money was in the account at any time, as they had not been given access to it. This arrangement, which seems to have been a CAVAC initiative to make payment easier for some digitally connected farmers and perhaps reduce FWUC committee opportunities for graft, was clearly unsustainable past the life of the project and leading to confusion and mistrust between system members and management. 

It was plain to see that the FWUC was far from a democratically run institution (the ordinary water users do not get to vote for the Committee, for instance) or directly accountable to the farmers. Several farmers told us they preferred the previous FWUC chairman, who was more active in his management of the system. Nobody referred directly to the alternative political affiliations of the old and new chairmen, which was clearly a locally divisive issue bubbling under the surface as the scheme became progressively more politicised. 

It was apparent that both participation and awareness of the governance system of the FWUC were low, while ordinary farmers were marginalized from decision-making. The FWUC has evidently been co-opted a further tool of the governing party and bureaucracy in exerting centralized social control over citizens. 

Donor complicity and a blind eye to failings

Discarded fertilizer and pesticide packaging next to a CAVAC canal. Despite claims that training on responsible use of pesticides was a project priority, there was little evidence that farmers we met had received any extension advice from the project or state agencies. Given numerous unaddressed externalities, it would be hard to claim “environmental sustainability” for such a project.

 Despite CAVAC and Jim Adams’ (Chair of the Independent Evaluation Committee) claims that the project was following “a markets systems development approach working closely with the private sector rather than through the Cambodian government”, the heavy emphasis and financial commitment placed on irrigation infrastructure development tends to negate this claim. 

Each irrigation scheme is handed over to the provincial office of MoWRAM on completion of construction. The evaluation revealed that over 90 percent of direct activity costs were spent on irrigation hardware (c. $24.6 million), yet only 5 percent of outreach (i.e. extension to water users) costs was spent on the irrigation component and over 90 percent of outreach costs were allocated to the agribusiness component, mostly as subsidies to the private sector. 

Far from supporting “market systems”, the irrigation component takes land and water resources out of the hands of farmers and the common pool, and essentially delivers it to the state and ruling party, since MoWRAM itself, as with most if not all bureaucracies in Cambodia, is recognized to be under the effective control of the CPP. 

Farmers have become less autonomous and self-reliant post-CAVAC intervention in my view, through being dragged into a system based on monopolistic rice market relations with Vietnam and dependency on a joint quasi-bureaucratic and CPP water resources control regime in which they struggle to have a voice. The private sector has been enabled to sell farmers more artificial fertilizers and pesticides than ever before, but it would be naïve to think that this is a “positive benefit” of CAVAC or promoting sustainability.

The DFAT-funded CAVAC evaluation did concede that there were doubts about the relative value for money of the CAVAC irrigation schemes and that comparisons with other schemes “were complicated by inaccurate figures for traditional schemes on irrigated area and the number of connected households”. 

The evaluation missed a considerable opportunity to check the accuracy of CAVAC’s own data claims against the field reality, but instead accepted the figures more or less at face value. This allowed them to describe projects like Wat Thmey as “proof of concept, complete schemes” with “strong sustainability” and a 20 year expected lifespan (DFAT evaluation, p. 40), repeating CAVAC’s words and raising questions about the team’s impartiality. 

It is my contention, given that the Wat Thmey scheme was awarded full marks for its sustainability credentials, that the entire stable of CAVAC projects are quite likely unsustainable on economic, social and most definitely, environmental grounds. Several farmers lamented the loss of formerly prolific edible aquatic life from the paddy fields since the rise of intensively farmed double cropped rice, leading to loss of income and varied diet amongst poorer households.

The evaluators singularly failed to place the project activities within a political context that actively works against social and environmental justice and public participation in such development schemes, a pattern that has become more readily apparent in the last eight years of CAVAC’s interventions, a period that has seen worsening national indicators of democracy and human rights. 

That CAVAC Phase 2 (2016-21) has been awarded $94 million for expanded activities, including replicating its “successful” irrigation development model to other parts of Cambodia, should be a cause of concern for the Australian taxpayer and legislators. The disconnect between good governance principles, democratic rhetoric and donor actions seems wider than ever.

In the general election on 29 July, Hun Sen’s CPP won with a landslide victory, securing 125 out of 125 seats in the National Assembly, securing over 76 percent of the total ballots cast. Despite a call by CNRP to boycott the election, poll numbers showed a 13 percent rise in voter turnout to 83 percent of the electorate, invoking widespread suspicion of election skullduggery. Accusations that Cambodia is now “a party with a country”, appear more apposite than ever, helped in part by continued irrigational mindsets by those wielding power, backed up by solid material support on the part of international donors and development planners alike. 

While donor agendas may be significantly different from that of the CPP and its network, the outcome for ordinary Cambodian citizens caught in the “unintended outcomes” of hydraulic development amounts to essentially the same – greater social control, less local autonomy and declining environmental quality. This case I have highlighted, illustrates how Cambodia’s dominant political network has infiltrated down to the local level through a hydraulic control paradigm, unwittingly aided and abetted by international development assistance.

————–

  1. Despite its name, CAVAC has spent the vast majority of its funds on constructing irrigation projects, which exert a questionable effect on “value adding” to agricultural produce and effectively become state property on completion, thus running counter to “market based” claims of CAVAC. 
  2.  All these terms were used to describe the “model” irrigation component by Jim Adams, the Chair of the Independent Evaluation Committee hired to evaluate CAVAC Phase 1 (2010-15), which was seen as having “a real possibility of having a systemic impact on agriculture across Cambodia.”

David Blake has worked and conducted research on environment and natural resources management issues across the Lower Mekong Basin countries for over 20 years. He has a PhD from the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia on the political ecology of irrigation development in Northeast Thailand.

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