The Ministry of Environment and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on September 12 signed an agreement on “Enhancing the sustainability of the Trans-boundary Cambodia-Mekong River Delta Aquifer and the Mekong Delta of Vietnam”.

The signing ceremony was presided over by ministry secretary of state Sao Sopheap – who also serves as head of the ministry’s working group on cooperation, planning and budgeting – and FAO Representative to Cambodia Rebekah Bell.

Sopheap said the lower part of the Mekong Basin has a trans-boundary subsoil system that covers Cambodia and Vietnam. The Trans-boundary Groundwater System (TBA), defined as the groundwater system of the Mekong Delta of Cambodia, covers an area of approximately 223,000sq km.

A recent UNESCO study showed that about 5,387 million cubic metres of ground water is extracted each year. These resources have a significant impact on the socio-economic development and livelihoods of the local population, in particular through their contribution to rice and other crop production.

“Cambodia is considered a water-abundant country and has a water-dependent economy. It relies heavily on groundwater resources during the dry season.

“Groundwater is becoming even more important. As surface water decreases, groundwater is increasingly consumed by rural Cambodians,” Sopheap said.

According to a study by Stanford University, groundwater use in Cambodia is increasing by 10 per cent every year. At the same time, climate change is becoming a major issue for water management in Cambodia.

Sopheap added that problems and concerns surrounding groundwater include salinity runoff and declining water storage, pollution and an increase in arsenic levels, loss of land and forests due to loss of wetlands, and also a loss of fisheries resources.

“These are the main issues faced by the government and the residents of the Mekong floodplain regions of Cambodia,” he said.

To address the issues, the government has developed a number of key policies and strategies. These include the Cambodia Climate Change Strategic Plan 2014-2023, the 1996 law on environmental protection and natural resource management, and the national strategic plan for sustainable development 2013-2030, he added.

Bell said Cambodia is considered one of the most water-abundant countries in the region. Rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and marine water are important sources for national economic development in many sectors – such as agriculture, manufacturing and small-scale industries, hydropower, navigation, and tourism – and are key for environmental protection and the daily lives of the majority of the Kingdom’s population.

“This project will be implemented thanks to cooperation between several ministries in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Cambodia, the environment, water resources, agriculture and rural development ministries will be our lead partners,” she said.

She added that FAO would be the implementing agency, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) selected as lead executing agency. UNESCO would be a co-executing agency.