Project Update

In the rainy season of 2000, an earthen dam in a rural area outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia was washed out leaving thousands of residents without sufficient water for irrigation. The surrounding villagers live in extreme poverty. Local families are primarily rice farmers, yet during the dry season they are unable to grow rice because of arid conditions and a lack of proper water storage and irrigation. This has left many crushed by poverty, unable to rally resources in order to improve their standard of living.

In Cambodia, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) fund the majority of infrastructure projects. A few groups are working together to complete this initiative including the Commune Council, monks from the temple at Wat Trach, Human Translation, and Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The monks at Wat Trach targeted this project and worked with the Ministry of Hydrology to come up with a conceptual design to repair the dam. Human Translation, a USA based NGO, became involved in the project and reached out to EWB for engineering expertise.

The rebuilding of the dam will be implemented in three phases to ensure the use of local farmers for labor, paid in rice, and to reduce construction costs by eliminating the need to use a contractor for all but the most technically challenging aspects of construction. The goal is to have the farmers that will directly benefit from this project be the people contributing their time and effort into building. We hope that this will provide a sense of ownership for the community. Phase one, beginning March of 2007, will focus on repairing the intact portion of the 600-meter-long embankment which has been severely eroded. Phase two will take place at the start of the next dry season, and will include repairing the existing canal system. Construction will conclude with Phase three, during which a concrete water gate will be erected by a Cambodian contractor to fix the current hole in the embankment.

In November of 2006 EWB sent three team members to Cambodia for the first site assessment. In order to successfully complete this site assessment the team had to overcome many constraints. The majority of the area has no electricity and very little infrastructure due to years of war followed by decades without maintenance. This lack of resources forced the team to create improvised engineering techniques with material available. Unique issues concerning this site were discovered such as the possibly of land mines in the area and structurally unsound bridges on the road leading to the dam. In addition to these challenges, the team explored possible new projects for Engineers Without Borders.

Working under a tight time limit, Ryan and his fellow engineers researched the area, reviewed engineering techniques, and studied the design for the new dam. Since the team could not acquire precision engineering equipment in Cambodia, they brought a scale and a number 200 sieve, and they developed innovative methods to build other engineering tools from light weight, portable, and easily acquired materials. The team improvised and created two additional sieves using rice screens, and constructed a bore hole permeameter from a bucket, hose, and a simple plastic valve, all purchased at the local market. They had a hand auger fabricated at a local metal shop. Things move slowly in Cambodia, and this required a longer stay in order to finish the preliminary engineering work.

Throughout the month, the team traveled 1.5 hours each direction to Balang Commune. “Our first day at the job site, we were surprised to see the Cambodia Mine Action Committee at work. We were misinformed that the site had been cleared of landmines years ago.” The team was further surprised to learn the dam was constructed as a forced labor project in the 1970’s under the Khmer Rouge communist regime, contrary to their previous research of the area. During the brief occupation of 1975-79 and the ensuing years of war, the Khmer Rouge Regime placed landmines throughout the country, in most cases specifically targeting civilian areas. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that four to six million landmines remain in the country, making Cambodia the most densely mined country in the world today. The project site, rarely traveled and covered with lush vegetation, was identified as having a high likelihood of being mined. This limited the EWB team to working within areas already cleared by CMAC. On their last day at the site, CMAC workers found and detonated three unexploded ordinance (UXO’s) on the embankment dam.

On another occasion, the team discovered a timber bridge on the route to the dam is falling apart. After a quick inspection, the team spotted beams that had failed due to overloading and recognized signs that other areas were structurally compromised. The bridge will have to be repaired in order to transport the equipment needed to fix the dam, and in order to ensure the safety of its many daily users. “We’re using simple, readily available construction materials that can be installed by local residents using only hand tools, with the hope that this experience will improve the community’s collective knowledge base and lead to better locally built structures in the future.”

While working, they also identified a few additional projects EWB could potentially become involved with in the future. One team member has suggested a project to mitigate deforestation north of the job site, where farmers have been clearing the land during the dry season as a supplemental form of income. A solution could be simple reforestation, or alternatively a concept to plant trees bearing fruit that can be sold at the market. Another NGO has proposed using the reservoir for small-scale fish farming. The EWB team could become involved to help recommend simple measures to reduce downstream pollution from the fish farm effluent.

EWB faces a major challenge ahead, instilling within the community a sense of ownership in order to ensure the project’s long-term sustainability. During this first site visit the team met with the local government officials numerous times to discuss the project. The team plans to continue working with the local officials to create a Water User Group. This Water User Group will be a local, elected management board responsible for the maintenance and inspection of the dam and equitable water distribution within the communities. EWB plans to continue contact with the community well after project completion to ensure the effectiveness of this Water User Group and the long-term success of the project.

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