Benchmarking irrigation system performance in Cambodia

The Australian Water Partnership recently supported the development of a system to assess the performance of the irrigation sector in Cambodia as part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) NextGen Program.

Infrastructure expansion, rehabilitation and modernisation is critical to addressing water scarcity and increasing productivity in Cambodia but increasing competition for financial support and higher expectations from investors are necessitating strong, evidence-based investments.

With no existing method to measure the sector’s linkages to water and land productivity, profitability, poverty reduction outcomes or food security, the Cambodian Irrigation Performance Assessment activity was conceived as a strategy to assess the value of the irrigation sector to the country and provide information on the real returns on investments already made.

As the Australian irrigation sector has a long association with the concept of industry performance reporting and benchmarking, the project sought to apply some of the key learnings from the Australian experience to the Cambodia context. The initiative is also highly complementary to Australia’s flagship $90 million Cambodia-Australia Agricultural Value Chain Program (CAVAC) supported by DFAT.

Representatives from Blackwatch Consulting and FAO visited Cambodia in October last year to initiate the program and establish relationships with key stakeholders including the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM), the Institute of Technology Cambodia (ITC), and the Cambodia-Australia Agricultural Value Chain Program (CAVAC). While in Cambodia, they also visited existing irrigation schemes and sought to gain a comprehensive understanding of the project requirements.

Representatives from Blackwatch Consulting and FAO visited Cambodia in October 2019 to initiate the program MOWRAM, ITC, and CAVAC.

Blackwatch Consulting then facilitated a study tour to Australia in December that focused on the Murrumbidgee Valley and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Over four days, a delegation that included representatives from MOWRAM, ITC and CAVAC visited Australia to gain insights and learnings from Murrumbidgee Irrigation’s modernisation journey at various scales.

Blackwatch Consulting’s project lead Brett Tucker said, “The study tour was a great opportunity to introduce our Cambodian colleagues to Australian irrigation water delivery from dam to farm, irrigation systems and their management. Participants were able to learn more about the importance of a basin-wide water allocation system and the monitoring and measurement needed to establish and enforce a system of water rights, as well as the concept of objective irrigation performance assessments.”

Specific topics covered included water allocation and management across scales, the importance of collecting data in irrigation, how a modern irrigation scheme is managed, the importance of on-farm irrigation management, the importance of good agronomy, the potential for remote sensing and the potential negative impacts from irrigation on the environment.

Following the study tour, a draft performance assessment framework was developed and then piloted in early March this year within a field survey and remote sensing exercise that developed and tested the benchmarking methodology. The testing was undertaken at the Taking Krasaing Irrigation Scheme in Kampong Thom province, where a range of valuable crops are grown including rice, mango, cashew, bamboo, and rotations of rye and watermelon.

Effects of infrastructure investment: Kokoah canal investments in 2017 and 2019 allowed for greater dry season cultivation – irrigable area was estimated to have increased from <5% to 69% by 2020.

The Remote Sensing team, including members of MOWRAM, ITC and the local Farmer Water Users Committee, spent two consecutive days in the field gathering ground-referenced datasets that targeted irrigated and non-irrigated land-uses, and a total of 192 ground-referenced images were collected at the scheme representing fifteen land-classes. When combined with the results of the field survey, the pilot showed considerable promise as a reliable method for measuring performance and guiding investment prioritisation.

“Our work on assessing irrigation performance in Cambodia shows substantial promise as an effective method to help guide future investment decisions. As a next step, we recommend that the concepts and methods deployed in the pilot project be extended across a broader geographic and temporal scale,” said Mr Tucker.

Once finalised, the framework may be applied to additional countries in the Asia-Pacific region where public policies seek to reduce rural poverty and increase household nutrition.

Feature image: Agriculture field in Cambodia (credit: Adobe Stock / Kazu)
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