Water Management in Early Cambodia

Water Management in Early Cambodia

No matter where you look in the world, water management has been an important feature in any culture. Remains from different periods of time in different cultures have survived over the centuries and aerial photography is extremely useful in aiding archaeologists uncover these water systems.

In Cambodia, there are remains of an early system of water management (sensu lato); this also includes religious purposes as well as flood control and irrigation. With the help of aerial photography, there seems to be two different types – irregular moats and ramparts which form irregular enclosures, and rectilinear systems of moats, reservoirs and canals.

Near Lovea, in Central Cambodia, located about 6km from the 9th – 14th century capital of Angkor, scholars uncovered an early Cambodian water system. From the air, the moated village has two 12-metre wide earthworks and a 30-metre wide moat surround the village mound. However, on ground level the area is obscured by trees and bamboo. “The alluvial plain on which Lovea is located slopes north from the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). While the lake altitude is only 9 metres, the plain rises to 40 metres. At altitudes greater than 20 metres, the alluvium formation appears to be ancient, whereas at lower than 20 metres recent alluvia are found. Lovea, with an altitude of 18 metres, is on the edge of the old alluvium”. This means that at one point, the water system was closer to the lake shore than what it is today.

Lovea has not been completely excavated and archaeologists are not entirely sure when the water management system was constructed. About 100 years ago, some artefacts were uncovered at Lovea’s monastery. These include human skulls and bronze and iron objects, indicating early human inhabitation.

Another example of early Cambodian water management is at the Mun Basin, located about 200km north of Angkor. Here there are over 200 moated sites which are quite similar to Lovea. They seem to be situated in the middle of rice fields. “The Mun Basin moats provided territorial demarcation, protection from wild animals and hostile invaders, a rich source of plant and animal food, dry season water supply and rainy season flood control. The indigenous perception of the moats may have been linked to cult practices. For example, a story from the Mun Basin moated site of Ban Takhong, relates that the moat is said to have been dug for the spirit of the land in the disguise of a snake or naga”.

Archaeologists have dated some artefacts from the Mun Basin site of Ban Tamyae, showing early human inhabitation. Objects from the later levels at Ban Tamyae suggest that such sites may be linked to the development of local iron manufacturing in the early first millennium CE. This shows that the ancient people here were devising a sophisticated system of water management over 2000 years ago.


Moore, E. (1989) Water Management in Early Cambodia: Evidence from Aerial Photography, The Geographic Journal, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).