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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A nightmare vision of a dead Tonle Sap lake

A nightmare vision of a dead Tonle Sap lake

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Boats line up along the shore of the Tonle Sap lake at Chong Khneas commune, the port where travelers arrive from Phnom Penh and Battambang and pass through the floating village before landing to go to Siem Reap.

C

hum Limsreng, 53, deputy chief of Chong Khneas commune (near Siem Reap) has a nightmare

that within the next 50 years Tonle Sap lake will silt up from increased soil runoff

because of degradation of forest, and the millions of fishnets, trellis fencing and

household trash dumped by the tens of thousands of villagers living on the lake.

"Our villagers don't have a place to dump the waste; sometimes they even have

to throw dead bodies into the water," said Limsreng.

Limsreng is not an expert on the environment but he worries about the flow and quality

of river water into and out of the lake; 34 years ago he used to drink the water

and take a bath in the lake, but now he has to buy water for his family.

Sitting in a chair in his floating office commune, Limsreng said: "The water

was cold 34 years ago when I dived in, but now it is warm."

Rena Sugita, the Phnom Penh representative of Mekong Watch, a watchdog for Japanese

aid money in the region, said in a press release on May 8 that the Asian Development

Bank (ADB) is planning to build at least two harbors in the floodplain of the Tonle

Sap Lake.

Five public consultations on the Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project (TSEMP)

have been held in the province around the lake.

Sugita said the concerns raised by local communities and NGOs at the public consultations

for TSEMP included degradation of the lake ecosystem and fish resources, increased

migration into the lake region, boat traffic, pollution, exploitation of lake resources,

land grabbing, and impoverishment of local fishers. She said they believed the poor

would be particularly vulnerable to the growing power of private companies to impose

fees in the areas of the harbor that they lease.

However, Limsreng said his villagers support the ADB harbor project. They expect

to each get a plot of land about 8 by 13 meters on which to build houses.

"But we have been waiting for three years to hear more news; the ADB first came

to study in 2002, and they keep quiet," said Limsreng.

He said if the villagers can resettle permanently on higher land they can save about

200,000 riel a year, which is currently the cost of towing their boathouses into

deeper water as the lake rises and falls.

He said the annual shifting - about six times a year - has created poverty in the

community of Chong Khneas, where 5,812 people live on the houseboats.

He said another problem was the increasing traffic on the road embankment beside

the channel, which puts children at risk of traffic accidents.

Limsreng says Chong Khneas channel will become shallower and the water polluted if

the provincial authorities have no plan to control garbage.

One of the investment projects proposed by the ADB's General Fisheries Plan (GFP)

is the construction of a harbor at Chong Khneas, the docking point for ferries and

the site of seven floating villages.

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

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

are approved.

The GFP is currently being translated into Khmer and is expected to be subjected

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

Fisheries for approval.

The ADB wrote in a report in November 2002 that the resettlement of the floating

villages into houses on reclaimed land would facilitate the provision of clean water

and sanitation, together with a range of other social services and facilities hitherto

denied the community.

The report said that the improvement of environmental conditions and reduction of

poverty for the community at Chong Khneas were interrelated and strongly linked with

improvement of living conditions for the dependent community.

The report said the community has requested that upgrading of the port facilities

be accompanied by the provision of a permanent living area for the commune of Chnong

Khneas. This will draw the interface of human settlement with the Tonle Sap Biosphere

Reserve further from the lake, eliminate sources of pollution and create favorable

conditions in support of the Tonle Sap initative.

Limsreng says: "If the project of harbor building is approved and construction

begins, the CPP will win as commune chief here in the next commune elections."

CPP won all the commune council seats in 2002.

He said he is concerned about how to find services such as water supply, sanitation,

waste collection, electricity, schools, clinics, and markets because the commune

has no income.

Touch Sopath, a 49-year-old villager, said the channel along the road embankment

was becoming choked with garbage, especially plastic. "We cannot catch fish

and grow vegetables around the house," said Sopath.

To catch 3kg of fish now he has to release about 1 kilometer of net.

He said that about 80 percent of Chong Khneas villagers were floating fishers and

half of them had now stopped fishing and started tourist boat services.

Seng Kun, director of boat management of the Association of Tourist Boats said there

were 80 boats in Chong Khneas and each boat owner must wait in line to get a share

of the business.

Kun said the boats were divided into three teams; each boat could earn $5 for one

trip, but individual boat owners must wait about three days to get a trip, which

is dependent on tourist numbers arriving. He estimated about 40 tourists visited

per day on average through the year.

Uch Run, 49, said she hoped to save money if she could put a house on a permanent

plot under the ADB's project for harbor building.

"I earned money for one year which was just enough to pay the cost of moving

house, and each time I have to make additional money to repair my boathouse because

it deteriorates in the water," said Run.

The lake is one of the richest areas in the world for freshwater fish. Chong Khneas

is the main access point from the lake to the town of Siem Reap.

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