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Threats to Tonle Sap Lake outlined at start of Mekong River Commission summit

An aerial view of the Chong Kneas floating village and a number of traditional arrowhead-style fish traps exposed by record low water levels on the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap province in 2016. Over 80,000 people live directly on the lake, and experts say their livelihoods are at risk.
An aerial view of the Chong Kneas floating village and a number of traditional arrowhead-style fish traps exposed by record low water levels on the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap province in 2016. Over 80,000 people live directly on the lake, and experts say their livelihoods are at risk. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Threats to Tonle Sap Lake outlined at start of Mekong River Commission summit

SIEM REAP – A warning about the increasing threats to Tonle Sap lake, one of the world’s richest freshwater fisheries and a vital source of food for Cambodians, offered a sobering start to the third summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on Monday.

Siem Reap Governor Khim Bun Song, in his opening remarks, focused heavily on the lake, which he said was vital to the Kingdom’s prosperity.

“The Tonle Sap Great Lake is recognized worldwide for being rich in fishery and biodiversity resources and it plays the important role, ecologically socially, economically and culturally for Cambodia,” he said.

The freshwater lake produces some 75 percent of the country’s protein, but depends on the annual flooding it receives from the Mekong River. The development of hydropower infrastructure, among other factors, so threatens the lake that some experts have warned of its impending doom.

In an appeal to the conference participants, Bun Song said, “We must work together to conserve the resources of the great Tonle Sap Lake.”

Mekong countries, he said, must make “more effective use of the Mekong’s water and related resources to alleviate poverty while protecting the environment”.

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During the two-day conference, government representatives, civil society and researchers were to discuss the latest data on the Mekong basin and submit recommendations to the MRC member states: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Also present at the summit were two MRC "dialogue partners" – China and Myanmar. In 2015, China established the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation body which includes the sustainable management of the Mekong River, but it wasn't clear how this might challenge the MRC’s turf.

Commission CEO Pham Tuan Phan, in his opening statements, emphasized the relevance and significance of the MRC, an intergovernmental water governance organisation established in 1995.

“No other organisation in the world has as much knowledge about the Mekong River Basin as the Mekong River Commission,” he said. Now is the time to “chart the path ahead”.

Lim Kean Hor, Minister of Water Resources and Meterology, said it was a moment for civil society and scientific experts to “make your voice heard”.

Working together is easy to say but hard to do, cautioned professor David Grey of Oxford and Tsingshua Universities, a former senior water advisor for the World Bank.

Updates to follow

A previous version of this article misstated the year in which the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation body was formed. It was established in 2015.

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