Water resource challenges are difficult to define and solve because they are affected by the interlinkages of human and natural components [1
]. Multiple human and natural linkages in relation to water can be highlighted. First, climate variability and its impacts on water supply availability [2
]. Second, water demands for human consumption and productive uses, which are connected with the equitable access to and decision-making power over water resources [3
]. Third, the sustainable management of those resources, and the ecological constraints of natural ecosystems [4
]. Managing water resources to ensure both the production of rice and a healthy aquatic ecosystem for fishing are essential for supporting the livelihoods and poverty reduction efforts of local communities in many countries in Asia [6
]. Addressing poverty and inequality in water resources planning needs to be part of decision-making processes in order to respond to context-specific poverty [7
], socio-economic conditions [11
], and development path challenges [14
]. Ensuring sustainability needs to balance the adequate management of natural resources while preserving the socio-economic activities of the people living in the watershed [16
]. Without having an accurate understanding of the social and environmental challenges, development policies could exacerbate existing inequalities and poverty [17
]. Inclusive management of resources can contribute to higher sustainability and more equitable socio-economic (and social) outcomes for the people living in the watershed [18
]. The ability of technical analyses to respond to social inequality depends on how effectively they can be interlinked [3
]. This study examined the linkages between hydrologic and social components to inform water resources management for the Stung Chinit watershed in Cambodia.
The assessment of change and variability in water supplies has benefited from advances in scientific models that represent the hydrological system and estimate plausible ranges of future basin climate conditions [26
]. These climate conditions can be combined with expected changes in demands related to human activities and desired development paths, e.g., increase in agricultural production, expected population growth, and higher food demands for fishing activities [29
]. Arriving at a selection of optimal water management options for sustainable future outcomes under deep uncertainty is often based on environmental parameters to define resilience and ecologically desired thresholds [30
]. In comparing the outcomes from such thresholds, sustainability- and resilience-focused actions are based on physical and natural metrics without considering the effects on livelihood and socio-economic activity [32
]. Analysis of complex environmental systems dynamics needs to be coupled with an assessment of the degree to which implementing such environmental thresholds would inhibit people’s well-being in addition to the ecosystem services these systems provide.
While the consideration of economic and budgetary aspects has a long history in water resources analysis, the integration of sociopolitical factors into hydrologic modeling is much more novel [35
]. In natural resources analysis more generally, social and power considerations have been incorporated into mathematical models through socio-ecological systems (SES) modeling, while, more recently, socio-hydrology has attempted to integrate human social responses into hydrological systems modeling specifically [38
]. Even so, researchers often incorporate social factors during the results analysis and policy formation phases, rather than use social science research, particularly surrounding poverty and gender, to inform the model formulation process [40
]. Recent efforts in stakeholder-driven participatory planning have proposed robust decision support (RDS), which adopts the analytical framework of robust decision making (RDM) [26
], but it is embedded within a broadly subscribed participatory process to drive problem formulation, model definition, and alternative development [27
]. By combining these processes and tools, a numerical hydrologic model can be constructed with the incorporation of local knowledge; however, it often fails to understand and incorporate the realities of poverty, gender, and social status.
In transitional economies [14
], people’s livelihoods are inextricably linked to natural resources, from access to safe drinking water in their homes to access to water for productive activities and fishing. Shifting hydrological conditions due to climate change, varying water-related challenges based on the location relative to water supply infrastructure in the watershed, increasing demands from socio-economic development activities, different gender roles and livelihoods in relation to natural resources, and growing environmental constraints add to this complexity [42
]. In developing economies, poverty reduction efforts can be an important influence in places where productive activities and income depend on natural resources. In the case of Cambodia, rice production and fishing, which are heavily dependent on water resources, are the key sources of income and food security. Strategies that ensure water security have the potential to support poverty reduction and gender equality efforts; however, they can also aggravate existing inequalities or exclusionary water practices if such social considerations are not identified as part of the modeling process.
Efforts to reduce inequality from the governance and management around ecosystems must address the complexity and interdependency of the system components and the connections with the social context and factors inhibiting access to resources [25
]. Ecosystem services marginality occurs when social groups are at the margins of ecological sustainability conditions [47
]. This marginality or water access exclusion occurs when a group of people is located at the margins of social and ecological conditions that prevent them from accessing and utilizing natural resources [47
]. These types of marginalizing conditions include location-based inequalities and environmental constraints that contribute to poverty.
Poverty indicators that demonstrate the influence and connection between water resources and poverty can help identify environmental and social conditions that contribute to the reduction of poverty and social inequalities. These findings on the environmental and social conditions can inform numerical hydrological models and RDS-based analytical frameworks. In 2018, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative [48
] developed a global poverty index that considers many overlapping deprivations experienced by the poor. Access to safe and reliable water is one of the deprivations related to poverty. Multidimensional poverty analysis, such as the multidimensional poverty analysis (MDPA) framework [49
] are useful tools for understanding the socio-economic realities within a watershed and allow for the adaptation of the analysis to these realities. Standard indices for monetary-based poverty indicators should not be the only way of measuring poverty, but they can add another wealth-related layer to the analysis. The wealth index is often used to rank households based on their assets. Addressing poverty and inequality in the access of resources can support decisions that link the biophysical components and the social components to ensure sustainability and secure people’s livelihoods.
This paper describes the results from the incorporation of poverty and social inequality aspects into technical projects to establish that water security actions can also support the wellbeing of households in community-managed systems. A series of steps are suggested in which a qualitative analysis informs quantitative analytical tools. First, a literature review and key informant interviews informed the development of a survey. Results from the survey were then used to create actionable indicators and refine a water planning software application, namely, the Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) [50
] software that was previously developed for the Stung Chinit watershed [29
]. Using the insights gained from the qualitative analyses and the WEAP tool, we explored three main questions: 1. How are water availability and water access related? 2. What inequities and experiences are revealed with finer-scale survey information that can inform water resource planning? 3. What insights are provided when poverty and gender are used to contextualize and inform water systems modeling formulations? This study shows how scientifically informed water management actions can ensure water security while also contributing to the reduction of location-based poverty induced by marginal ecological conditions.
The scale in which policies were developed and implemented was mismatched from the challenges of the people and ecosystems that are affected. National-level decisions aimed at improving macroeconomic indicators exacerbated poverty at local levels. Poverty realities were affected by the relative location of communities within a watershed, which emphasized the need for inclusive participation and joint consultation at the local level and coordination between people within a watershed and with the national government. Aspects of the decision scale, relative location, and coordination created inequalities in water access for domestic use, rice production, and fish conservation in the Stung Chinit watershed.
Results on drinking and domestic water use indicate that communities in the upstream part of the watershed had limited access to water in their homes, had food shortages, and spent a significant amount of time collecting water. The upper watershed should be targeted for interventions to provide safe access to domestic water supplies that result in making this time available for other purposes. Gender analysis of the survey data shows that the gender of the household head was also a variable that was linked to water access and water sources. For example, across the locations, the numbers of male-headed households experiencing water shortages were higher than those of female-headed households.
The information gap between genders suggests that while entities such as FWUCs expected farmers to be aware of information on irrigation and bear the responsibility to farm accordingly, there was limited consideration on how that information may not be equally accessible by male and female irrigators.
Overall, there are key aspects of the survey that could be clarified through qualitative methods to bolster the assessment of gender aspects of water-related access. Additionally, quantitative data are limited in capturing the dynamics of decision making (e.g., how decision making is negotiated at the household and community level). Thus, data on decision making can be further substantiated with qualitative methods to better understand how personal experiences and household dynamics can provide a more holistic picture to the survey data.
Climate change adaptation strategies for rice production, as well as water management actions, are needed upstream where most of the households suffered from natural disasters on agriculture in the last twelve months and there was low participation in local water management, i.e., the FWUCs. The other parts of the watershed would also benefit from more participation in the FWUCs and strategies to prevent and mitigate natural disasters affecting rice production.
Models are often not developed with household or community level input, but rather with national-level or coarse-level datasets. It is evident that without the poverty and gender survey considerations, the Stung Chinit model was largely underrepresenting shortages in the irrigation supply seen by groups farthest from the irrigation system. The previous study suggested that there was sufficient water in the modeled irrigation system to expand the irrigated area by 10%, grow rice twice per year, and protect downstream flows under climate change [3
]. However, this study shows that while this water may be available, it was not necessarily accessible to all. Without adding this aspect of reality into the model, new irrigation systems, changes to existing systems, or other policies or infrastructure that may be assessed in the model would not accurately represent those who benefit and those who do not. This could lead to reinforcing existing inequalities. It is often those who do not have a voice or are not included in technical discussions or policy development who experience these inequities and do not have their experiences represented in decision-making tools.
Additionally, the model results suggest that collaboration and coordination between the groups, and therefore the FWUCs, not just within the groups/FWUCs, should be a priority. The Stung Chinit FWUC tended to be successful in supplying water to their members; however, this was sometimes at the expense of other groups farther down the canal system, such as groups 6 and 8. Staggering planting times, when irrigation demand is the greatest, between the groups may allow for more water for everyone. Coordination of rice plantings and who plants once, twice, or three times per year should also be planned among all groups collaboratively because planting is the more water-intensive period, and therefore when shortages occur.
There were many aspects of the watershed that were reflected in the survey data that were still not well represented in the model, for example, irrigation demands outside of the irrigation scheme that was studied. For a better representation of these areas, a complete understanding of the irrigation demands of the system should be improved as more information becomes available. Additionally, access to water is only one aspect of agriculture. Many households indicated the importance of agrochemical use, such as fertilizer and pesticides, which should be further investigated, both to better understand the impact of these products on yield, as well as on the environment and water quality. While water access is still a challenge for many in the watershed, coping strategies when there are shortages is another major aspect where poverty and water intersect. Understanding who can still maintain their crops during shortages and who cannot should be better understood to develop a more complete picture of the interlinkages between water for agriculture and poverty, particularly under climate change. For this analysis, scenarios of climate change were not considered but should be in future work.
These findings point to several potential policy linkages or interventions. The model points to the opportunity to engage with the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology; the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries; and the Ministry of the Environment to inform the model’s findings, particularly in terms of overall access to water resources and illuminate the influence of issues such as poverty, gender, location, and information access. This study can inform the National Strategic Development Plan’s Strategy for Agriculture and Water to achieve their goals around water resources development and management, poverty reduction, and economic growth for households in the Stung Chinit watershed.
The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology; the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; and the Ministry of the Environment institute planned capacity strengthening and information sharing interventions with gender mainstreaming in the agricultural sector, water resources, and climate change under the coordination and direction of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
This ministry has just recently endorsed Neary Rattanak (2019–2023) for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Cambodia [82
]. This five-year strategic plan, together with the National Strategic Plan on Gender and Climate Change 2014–2023, Master Plan for Gender and Climate Change (2018–2030), and Action Plan on Gender and Climate Change 2019–2023, as well as other national guidelines for gender mainstreaming [83
] in these prioritized sectors, will be a roadmap for the development of programs that help to address the needs of women and other vulnerable groups [82
]. For example, addressing apparent information gaps between men and women regarding FUWC operations and schedules could be one of the focus areas.
Finally, it is evident from this analysis that the benefits of water supply are not equally shared among all areas of the watershed such that proximity to a main canal or up/downstream can substantially impact a household’s access to water. Given the connection of water access and climate change vulnerability to poverty reduction, it would be important to evaluate whether policies, such as the Law on Water Resources Management (2007) and the National Water Resources Policy (2004), have any specific focus or mechanisms directed at addressing these issues of unequal access.