Water: Fewer Drops for Increasing Different Demands

22 Apr 2016

 (Photo: ©UNDP Cambodia)

In the Royal Government of Cambodia’s ‘Policy Document on Promotion of Paddy Rice Production and Export of Milled Rice,’ rice is referred to as “white gold.” This is due to the role of rice in economic growth, poverty reduction and improved livelihoods of the Cambodian people.

But the term ‘gold’ should also be used for another important resource in Cambodia — water. Water is central to agricultural production including paddy rice, through the expansion of irrigation. Water also plays a key role in the energy sector in Cambodia through hydropower development. Therefore, it is fairly sensible to regard water as “liquid gold.”

Currently, over six million people in Cambodia do not have access to grid-quality electricity. The government aims to provide electricity to all villages by 2020 and to 70% of all rural households by 2030.

To realize this goal, Cambodia must diversify its energy sources to include renewable energy. Hydropower is a cornerstone of Cambodia’s renewable energy development. Being a water-rich nation, Cambodia is blessed with hydropower potential, which if fully exploited, this naturally extracted power could fulfill the electricity demand of its population.

However, by making energy development a top priority, investments in building hydropower dams are seen to outweigh issues that are interconnected with water resources, including the environment and food security.

The implication of this interconnection can be drawn from the hydrological system of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Great Lake. Due to its unique reversal water flow, Tonle Sap is one of the most productive fresh water lakes in the world in terms of fish production. The interrelation of the Mekong and Tonle Sap hydrology also brings major nutrients to boost fisheries and agricultural production around the lake and its floodplains. The most immediate and dramatic consequence of hydropower is disruption in water flow and nutrients of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Great Lake, which directly and indirectly support livelihoods to more than half of Cambodia’s population.

Another challenge in water management is the agricultural sector. Water for farming and irrigation are pivotal for improving agricultural production in Cambodia. The current Agricultural Sector Strategic Development Plan aims to reduce poverty, assures food security and safety, and identifies water resources as one of the key solutions to increase agricultural productivity.

Mismanagement in agriculture can also jeopardize water and food security. In Cambodia, there is a lack of infrastructure to manage agricultural wastewater runoff. Pesticide substance, discharged through agricultural wastewater and runoff, pollutes surface and ground water as well as aquatic resources such as fish. Polluted water also decreases water availability for drinking and cultivating crops.

Climate change is universally recognized as a threat to water access. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, countries in the Mekong region including Cambodia are facing temperature rise and prolong droughts particularly in the dry season. Availability and distribution of surface water in major rivers and tributaries as well as ground water are decreasing. Given the anticipated change in the hydrological patterns, capacity to generate electricity from hydropower plants could be reduced/at risk during the dry season. Water scarcity will also have negative effects on agriculture and food production and these effects are felt most acutely by rural population especially small scale farmers and fisher folks.

Water plays a fundamental role in the complex web of energy, food, climate change, economic growth and wellbeing of the country. It will take an integrated view of any nation as well as bold political commitment to ensure that water resource is equitably, fairly and economically efficient while being sustainably used between sectors and amongst different users.

By Phearanich Hing
Policy Analyst working on gender and climate change with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Cambodia

And Chandath Him
UNDP intern and a student of master of Environment of The University of Melbourne in Australia