Rain Brings Hope and Joy
By: H.P. Rajana. Picture by:Nathan Dexter. ( September, 2001 Volume 1 No.4 )

All over Cambodia, people's lives are ruled by rain. They wait and endure the long dry season, from late November through to scorching April, willing those first drops of water to fall from the sky. Too late, and the fragile rice seedlings will dry out and die before they can be transplanted into the larger paddies to grow and provide vital food and seeds for next season. Then farmers and their families must prepare for famine. Too little, and there is no water to transplant the seedlings into after they have sprouted and grown strong enough to survive alone. Seedlings must be transplanted between six weeks to two months from sprouting or their final rice yield will drop - if yield will drop _ if they live. Cambodia is a nation of farmers. Well over three quarters of the population name farming as their livelihood. So in the countryside, despite the damage heavy rains and storms can often wreak,destroying roads which link the communities to local markets and washing away early crops, farmers rejoice when wet season arrives, usually in May, because whatever the problems it causes, they cannot live without it. They watch and wait, studying the clouds.
"Farmers have their own methods. They can tell that when it is hot and there is no breeze at all, there might be a downfall," said Mr. Pronh, of Prasat commune, Kampong Trabek district, Prey Veng Province, about 100 kilometers east of Phnom Penh. A former farmer himself, he has escaped the vagaries of rain and is now self-employed as a mini-truck driver. Like other farmers across the country, farmers in Prey Veng province, which suffered badly during last year's floods, waited a long time for the rain this year. The wait was nearly too long for their spindly and delicate rice seedlings as the earth dried around them.
Then, at last, more than two months of dreams and hopes came true in early August when the wind shifted and clouds stacked up on the horizon. The cracked surface of fields that were turned in readiness for rain last April were submerged under abundant rain, which fell not only in Prasat but also other more than a dozen communes in Kampong Trabek. At Tkov village in Chrey commune, about 15 km further southeast, Mr. Kan rested his plough on his shoulder and grinned with delight - and relief. "By July last year the villagers had already completed rice transplanting. We did not sit still but manage to pump water from water sources nearby, including dikes and ponds in our village," he said. "But this year, many of our rice-seed beds had already dried up and our rice seedlings started die around mid-July. Existing ponds and ditches were evaporating fast, too, and in desperation we fought to keep our seedlings alive by hauling buckets of water to throw into the rice-seed beds. Luckily we have rain now." Unlike more developed countries, Cambodia cannot afford to take widespread measures to make it less dependent on the whims of nature.

"Cambodia is a rainfall-dependent agricultural country and about 85 per cent of its population living on farming," Mr. Ngor Pin, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, explained. "However, Cambodia can currently artificially irrigate only 16 per cent of its total 2.25 million hectares of land under rice cultivation. The rest still relies totally on rainfall. "Each year, the Mekong River credits about 385 billion cubic meters to the upper part of the country, bordering Laos, and debits some 500 billion cubic meters in the country's lower reaches, bordering Vietnam. Then there is the volume of rainfall each year that penetrates the ground. There is water, but only where it runs in rivers or falls as rain. "In order to help our farmers smile we need to enhance water management using irrigation projects, but we lack funds. At the moment, by 2003 we will still only be able to ensure irrigation of just 20 per cent of Cambodia's rice fields," he said. "The climate of Cambodia is governed by two monsoons, which set the rhythm of rural life. The cool and dry northeastern monsoon, which carries little rain, blows from the north. But everything has its exceptions, for example in April this year the country had received a lot of rains that prompted our farmers to prepare their rice-seedling bed but then followed a long spell of drought within the rainy season. But real rains come only in August.

The pattern is one Cambodians have relied on for centuries. "From mid-May to mid-November is the rainy season, when the south-western monsoon brings strong rains," Mr. Ngor said. "Even during wet season it rarely rains in the morning. Most precipitation comes in the afternoons, and even then only sporadically. "Annual rainfall varies considerably from area to area. Whereas the seaward slopes of the southwest highlands receive more than 5000 millimeters of rain per annum, the central lowlands average only about 1400 millimeters. "Based on the first half-year report on nationwide rain conditions in 2001, most provinces had so fair received less rain than the previous year."

He said the wettest area was Preah Sihanoukville municipality with 1,710 mm (49 mm less than the previous year) while Kandal province had only received 359.2 mm (274.3 mm less than the corresponding period last year). Even if the rain comes, it is not enough for some farmers. Those who have held off sprouting rice seeds for this year's crop until the rains came and showed they would stay for certain must now prepare for a short season because the monsoon is so late. "Even if it rains until September, and even if we are able to nurse our rice seedling until then, it is still too late for us to farm," lamented Mrs. Lang of Beng village, Prey Paun commune, Prey Veng. "Firstly, we need the water level in the fields to be higher than the highest level of the soil we have ploughed, and secondly, our rice seedlings must not be more than two and a half months sprouted if we are to harvest even a moderate yield." Farmers have a saying. Mean teuk, mean srov, mean trei, heuy neung mean a'vey pseng pseng tiet chroeurn; when there is water (rain), there will be rice, fish and many other things will follow. At Psar Kor Andeuk, or Turtle Neck Market, by the side of National Road 1, Mr. Ma Huot and his telephone box constitute the heart of the district. He hears the happiness rise in his customer's voices as the clouds build, and he understands why. "Perhaps I do not need to rely on rain like a farmer does, but we still need it," he said. He needs rain as much as any farmer to be able to eat, he says. "In same night the rain falls, kids can catch the frogs and crabs that help feed our families and help us survive," he said.

Without rain, the fish die, and supplies of crabs and frogs dwindle. These are staples of the Khmer diet, especially in the provinces. There is not only no rice, but nothing to eat at all without rain. And rain-induced joy is certainly not confined to farmers, for when so many people are joyous, they spread that joy and every provincial business reaps the rewards. Mrs. Phanny works as an administrative clerk at Kampong Trabek High School in the mornings, but turns into a market hawker each afternoon when she brings her spices and seasonings to Psar Kor Andeuk to sell. She looks forward to the rain, not just for the sake of her friends and countrymen, but for her business, too. When the rain comes, my business grows as farmers who put hope in their future rice dare to buy many things they went without before _ everything from foods to clothes," she said. Rain is never far from any Cambodian's thoughts. A popular song all over the country, for instance, is a ballad entitled The Pitiful Life of The Farmer (Anicha Chivit Neak Srer). In the song, a young farming couple suffer floods for two seasons running, then drought in the rainy season. They cry and then console each other, telling each other not to lose hope. In the end, their hope is rewarded with rain and they are saved. The moral of the story is never to give up. "It reflects so clearly the life of farmers here in Prey Veng," Mrs. Phanny said. "It is a song I like very much." If rain is prayed for in the countryside, however, it is dreaded by most in the city as a necessary but unwelcome evil. Bike and car owners complain bitterly about the flooded roads and mud of the capital during the wet season. But for some, this is a bonus.

"I come to help my uncle every weekend and I am happy to see rain," laughed Miss Tan Somala. Her uncle owns Bear Car Wash, just to the northeast of the National Railway Station. "The day after rains, there are a lot more customers. More than 100 cars a day on average!" But city dwellers have still stranger uses for rainy days. For some, lottery draws or international football matches provide entertainment and a gambling opportunity. But or a group of people high on a rooftop in Phnom Penh, television isn't necessary. They are watching the skies, and watching them with as intense an interest as any farmer. These people are rain bettors. They bet on when rain will fall, and how much. After each rainstorm, some of them count their winnings and others look again to the clouds and await the chance to recoup their loses. Rain bettors in Phnom Penh are not meteorologists but to its proponents, rain betting is a skilled craft that requires an intimate knowledge of weather patterns. The rain bettors have practiced this game for a long time. Police are aware of their gambling, but choose to let them be.

"Perhaps because the game is never been a problem among the bettors, no crackdown measures have ever been taken. We all are waiting for the rain to be lucky," said a rain bettor living west of Psar Thom Thmei (Central Market). Rainy season is not traditionally a time for foreigners to visit the region, but Apsara Tours guide Mr. Khim Rithy also believes it is one of the most joyous times of year. "Tourists, with umbrellas in hand, often request that we stop the bus during the rain so they can get out and take pictures of things they never see in other countries," Mr. Khim said. "Things like a child supervising dozens of ducks as they wander about in dikes along the road, or a boy hunting frogs along the edges of a field, or groups women smiling a welcome to their unexpected guests as they transplant rice in the middle of a downpour. These things are new to them and make them appreciate how rain can change the scenery in a country like ours." He said the rain also made the countryside green and cool, making the climate more suitable for tourists. So rain means many things to many people in Cambodia _ to farmers, hawkers, tourists and even gamblers. In Cambodia, rain represents health, hope and happiness. It guarantees food for the next season and greens the landscape. Nothing brings so much joy to the kingdom as plain, simple rain.