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ADB Tonle Sap lake plan 'an outrage'

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A FISHERIES management and development blueprint for the 1.25 million hectare Tonle

Sap lake has been labeled "an outrage" and a "thinly veiled investment

proposal" by critics concerned at how the plan would affect food security, livelihoods

and the environment.

About 300 Cambodian and Japanese monks, nuns, and clergy parade to celebrate the second Sat-Dhamma Yietra (march) for peace at Wat Sampov Meas last Tuesday (June 1). The aim of the march is to promote a return to peace through Buddhism.

The General Fisheries Plan (GFP), financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was

produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with input from the government's

Department of Fisheries.

The rolling five-year plan outlines strategies to protect the lake's fish resources,

better regulate access to fishing areas, support community fisheries, control illegal

fishing, improve the infrastructure of fishing villages and commercialize fisheries.

If approved by the government, the fisheries plan would be implemented through a

portfolio of 45 existing research and development projects, 20 of which are financed

by the ADB, as well as new projects to be formulated by the government.

The estimated value of the current project portfolio for GFP is $30 million but this

would rise to between $50 million and $75 million once major infrastructure projects

are approved, according to the plan.

A development analyst, who asked not to be named, described the plan as a "smokescreen

for pushing investment".

But Olivier Serrat, from the ADB's Agriculture, Environment & Natural Resources

Division, Mekong Department called such claims "nonsensical".

"One can say with certainty that, without improvements in the regulatory and

management framework, and in capacity, investments in the Tonle Sap region will become

progressively less productive," emailed Serrat from Manila on June 3. "Why

should ADB wish to 'push' investments in such an instance?"

The blueprint says the fisheries sector could earn up to $273 million a year by implementing

the GFP but admitted a more realistic expectation would be half that amount. The

plan does not explain how these figures are reached.

However, proposals to modernize fish production with a new harbor near Siem Reap,

wholesale markets around the lake and the cultivation of high value species of fish

have attracted criticism from NGOs and fisheries experts.

"People have caught less fish already this year and last year, so putting in

more infrastructure like this is not going to benefit the lake itself ...but in fact

will further degrade the lake and the fisheries," said Mak Sithirith, director

of Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT).

The Tonle Sap lake provides around two-thirds of all protein consumed by Cambodians

and 15 per cent of the population depend on it for their livelihoods, according to

ADB research.

NGOs are concerned that moves to use plentiful low-value fish - currently made into

prahoc - to feed high-value fish in aquaculture cages, along with improved processing

facilities and increased exports, will take fish from the poor to supply wealthier

consumers.

"The implementation of the GFP could disadvantage the small-scale fishers, lessen

the access of the poor to cheap and available fish, and lead to deterioration of

the lake's natural resources," said Rena Sugita, the Phnom Penh representative

of Mekong Watch, a watchdog for Japanese aid money in the region.

Sugita said development projects like the GFP reflect a "false reality"

of life on the Tonle Sap.

"In this reality, small-scale fishers and poor communities are presented as

the source of environmental destruction; whereas commercial and capital-intensive

fishery would lead to improved natural resource management and poverty reduction,"

she said.

"Such manipulated reality, in effect, justifies large investment projects and

allows more disbursement for international financial institutions, such as ADB."

One of the most controversial investment projects proposed by the GFP is the construction

of a harbor at Chong Khneas, the docking point for Siem Reap tourist ferries and

the site of seven floating villages.

Under another ADB technical assistance scheme, the 'Chong Khneas Environmental Improvement

Project', a feasibility study was conducted for the harbor as well as a new township

created on a flood-free platform.

The platform would be built with earth excavated during the widening and deepening

of an existing canal, providing year-round shipping access and an end to communities

having to move up to 8km during the seasonal fluctuations of the lake's water level.

"Inherent in the project concept is the resettlement of Chong Khneas houseboat

dwellers in fixed houses on dry land to achieve effective and sustainable improvements

in living conditions," stated the proposal for the technical assistance in November

2002.

In an interview with the Post on June 2, Sithirith said he was worried about the

environmental damages from digging the canal and the risk of oil spills from increased

shipping traffic.

Sithirith also said the 1,000 familes affected by the Chong Khneas harbor might struggle

to adapt to a life away from floating villages,

Sithirith raised these concerns in a February 13 letter to the ADB, saying the community

was not presented with any alternative to accepting a harbor as part of any improvements

to the local infrastructure.

The ADB's response later that month cited a previous ADB study that "confirmed

the affected persons' desire to be resettled as an integral component of any project

for improving boat landing facilities," wrote C R Rajendran, then director of

the Agriculture, Environment & Natural Resources Division Mekong Department.

However, his present-day counterpart, Olivier Serrat, softened the ADB's approach

to the relocation of floating villages.

"Resettlement would be entirely voluntary. People presently living on boats

would have the option of remaining as boat dwellers or settling in the township as

they wish," wrote Serrat.

A public consultation on plans to develop Chong Khneas on January 16 this year was

attended by around 450 stakeholders.

Mekong Watch and FACT have criticized the public consultation, saying the voices

of local fishers and the poor were not incorporated into the final draft of the GFP.

Thay Somony, who led the team of domestic consultants from the Department of Fisheries,

said the public consultation process was solid and described the GFP as a good starting

point.

"It's a living document that can be updated when we see the situation is no

longer applicable," said Somany.

Somony said the GFP is currently being translated in Khmer and is expected to be

subjected to a peer review before being given to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry

and Fisheries for approval.

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