Insights and Analysis

Podcast: Water, Gender, and Poverty Collide in Cambodian Watershed

November 10, 2021

By Chap Sreyphea

Agriculture is vital to Cambodia’s economy, contributing approximately 21 percent of the nation’s GDP in 2019 and accounting for 36 percent of all employment. Rice is a principal crop, and farmers rely on it for both income and food security.

In the wet season, rice production depends on rainfall. In the dry season, irrigation is needed, but despite an abundance of water resources and many irrigation systems, water shortages do occur due to insufficient storage, outdated irrigation schemes, and poor management. The increasing severity of both extreme rainfall and drought due to climate change has also introduced stress into the system and threatens agriculture, especially rice farming.


In 2019, the Stockholm Environment Institute, The Asia Foundation, and Winrock International conducted a study of how water access is connected to poverty and gender in the Stung Chinit Watershed in rural Kampong Thom Province, using the Multidimensional Poverty Analysis framework (MDPA) of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

Fig. 1: Four dimensions of poverty (from Sida’s MDPA)

Poverty is complex and goes beyond monetary measures such as income. The MDPA describes poverty in four dimensions—lack of resources, lack of power and voice, lack of opportunities and choice, and lack of human security (figure 1).

The method used in this study consisted of linking new social analysis with a previously developed technical water-planning model. The basic premise is that including a social analysis of gender and poverty in the refined model would reveal obstacles and inequities in water access that a purely technical analysis was powerless to explain, leading to more robust solutions for improving water access for all.

The study began with an extensive literature review and key informant interviews with government agencies, NGOs, and community-based organizations, which suggested that poverty and gender affect access to water in multiple ways in Stung Chinit. These results were used to develop a survey of 812 households in the watershed??, and this survey data was then used to supplement the technical analysis of the regional planning model.

Resources: Availability of Water for Irrigation

Within the Stung Chinit watershed, where rice is the dominant crop, there are twelve irrigation systems managed by 10 Farmer Water User Communities (FWUCs). Registered by the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, the FWUCs operate and maintain the irrigation systems and manage water allocations under an allocation plan, irrigation schedules, and community by-laws.

Despite these existing irrigation schemes, most agricultural areas in the watershed continue to depend on rainwater and lack alternative sources for irrigation. Water availability is a central concern for households that irrigate crops, and more than half of the surveyed households that did irrigate crops did not have enough water for irrigation in the last twelve months.

Opportunities and Choice: Access to Water for Irrigation

There is a gender difference in access to irrigation water. Of the 50 percent of households with access to irrigation water, more male-headed households (MHHs) than female-headed households (FHHs) were irrigating their crops. Among those who had problems obtaining irrigation water, 73 percent of FHHs, but just 59 percent of MHHs, depended solely on rainwater. Long distances to water sources and lack of tertiary canals are the primary obstacles.

The model confirmed that water from irrigation systems that may technically be available within a subregion may not be accessible to all. Shortages in the irrigation supply are more common groups whose fields are farthest from the irrigation system.

The Stung Chinit Watershed

Power and Voice: Decision-Making

Cambodia’s patriarchal culture, especially in rural areas, retains the traditional gender roles that assign women less decision-making power than men. Men are responsible for heavy work, better-paid commercial activities, and managing water for farming. Women handle domestic work, such as collecting water for the home, which can take up to three hours per day, and caring for the family. These traditional gender norms absorb women’s time and limit their participation, opportunities, and power in managing water resources.

Participation in community decision-making is low for both men and women, but women’s representation is lower. Just 12 percent of respondents reported that their community had an FWUC, and about half of those respondents said they were members. The survey also found that men are more represented than women at FWUC meetings and that women speak up less and feel less heard.

Lack of effective communication between FWUC committees and their members is also a great concern. Almost half of respondents who were members of an FWUC said that they did not know how irrigation schedules and fees were set, and about half of households do not know in advance if there will be irrigation supply shortages. Among the other half—who said they do know in advance—74 percent said that male household heads are the primary recipients of this information.

While FWUCs assert that farmers have equal access to irrigation water and are expected to be aware of information on irrigation and to farm accordingly, the information gap between genders suggests that information may not be equally accessible to male and female farmers. The issue of communication, and the perception that men are the heads of households and the ones managing farming for economic value, could result in unequal access to, and ineffective use of, irrigation water.

Human Security: Climate Concerns and Food Shortages

The effects of climate change are also cause for concern in the watershed, affecting both water security and food security. These effects include rising temperatures, resulting in more frequent and intense events such as the 2015 drought and the 2016 floods. Most respondents said that they had not experienced food shortages in last 12 months, but of those who had, 67 percent said these shortages were related in some way to water problems such as floods and drought.

The Stung Chinit River (photo: Chap Sreyphea)

Considerations for Better Access to Water for Agriculture

The findings of this study indicate the following:

  • Ensuring well-coordinated local water management and planning within and among FWUCs must become a priority, so building institutional capacity for water management is needed. Improved institutional capacity and coordination could do much to reduce inequities in water access due to location and gender.
  • Greater participation in FWUCs, especially by women, should be promoted. When men and women are equally involved, decisions are more likely to reflect the needs and concerns of the whole community. Women should be actively involved in planning and managing irrigation systems and solving challenges such as water-use conflicts, since they are water users with their own needs, insights, and priorities. Their participation contributes to better results, including better-functioning systems, better access to water, and higher crop yields.
  • Water resource management and climate change adaptation strategies for agriculture are especially needed in the upstream region, where residents and their agriculture have suffered from natural disasters in the last twelve months.

Based on this evidence and the recommendations of this study, The Asia Foundation will pilot an initiative in the Stung Chinit watershed. The project will equip FWUCs for more participatory decision-making, improve access to information for both male and female farmers, and help them adapt to extreme weather events. Gender equality and social inclusion will be featured in all trainings, meetings, and decision-making related to irrigation practice.

You can read more findings and recommendations of this study here.

To read more about the Stung Chinit water resources board game, mentioned in this week’s podcast, please click here.

Chap Sreyphea is a program officer of The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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