There’s not much to Balang — chickens scratching the dust, skinny cows chewing dry plants, kids with shy smiles, amazed by our car. Most people get around by ox-cart here.
Our last day in Cambodia was one of the most special. It included a bumpy ride to some very rural villages including Balang, an earthen Khmer dam, an ancient temple rarely seen by tourists, and being guests of honor for coconut juice at a local grandmother’s house.
Balang is very poor, more so than neighboring villages, because they don’t have a good water source. The community once had a large reservoir, an earthen dam built by the ancient Khmers. Most of the dam still exists, but a large gap was created during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, rendering the dam useless.
A small group of local monks have formed a charity called Human Resource and Natural Development, or HRND, with the goal of repairing the dam. Mean Someth, one of the monks; and Phalo, who’s helping to manage the project; were kind enough to bring us to the dam site.
They drove us down long bumpy dirt roads into remote Balang to show us the dam site first hand. We walked through a scorched field to a small muddy fishing hole where there were about ten men and boys futilely casting their nets. Some were missing limbs; Balang was heavily land-mined — another gift from the Khmer Rouge.
"This is where the dam broke." Mean Someth waves to the fishing hole. On closer inspection I see that the fishing hole is formed by a gap in a foliage-covered ridge. And the ridge is actually part of the ancient earthen dam.
He stretched his arm out. "The reservoir used to go to those mountains." The mountains are way off in the distance — you can hardly see them in this photo.
We begin to understand that the dam had been huge, and had served a lot of local communities.
Summer, Mean Someth, Phalo, Jason.
Mean Someth and Phallo explain that repairing the dam will benefit the communities in myriad ways. An adequate water supply means two crops a year instead of one — profit instead of subsistence. It means people can also farm fish at home, so little kids spend their days in school, not the muddy fishing hole. More water, and hence, more food and profit also means less adults and children will leave town looking for work. Currently, many people (including children) are forced to find work illegally in places like Thailand, and often return with few earnings. Some contract HIV in the process.
An engineer has drawn up plans for repairing the dam. The plan includes utilizing the villagers for some of the construction. It will cost about $60,000 to repair the dam, of which $20,000 has been raised.
After taking in the dam site, Mean Someth took us to visit his grandmother, who lives in a stilt house in Balang, with a large extended family. She brought us delicious coconuts to drink. And we got to hang out with Mean Someth’s cute little siblings and cousins. They’ll all have a better chance at life if the dam is built.
Jason and I think the dam is a worthy project. It will have long-term and far-reaching benefits to the community, and will help them create their own wealth. Unfortunately, it’s hard to raise money for such a project. Although it will help a community of thousands, Cambodia is very poor, and this community is unable to come up with the cash itself. Also, the project is too small for most large charities to fund, yet too large for the government to fund.
We’ve made a contribution to the Balang dam project through Humantranslation.org, the charity that introduced us to Mean Someth. If you’d like to do so, visit Human Translation.