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Tonle Sap: "the project of the century"

Tonle Sap: "the project of the century"

F ifteen seperate studies are now being done on the Tonle Sap. Now, everyone's getting

together to talk - but who's going to be the one making the decisions? Matthew

Grainger reports.

THE Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, is said to be Cambodia's "heart", the link

to the Angkor "soul."

It is critical, maybe the single most critical aspect say experts, to Cambodia's


Biologically and socially so diverse, it is a microcosm of the country - and of Cambodia's

management problems, egos and agendas.

In development circles, the Tonle Sap is the Big Prize.

"[Donors] smell the project of the century," said a leader of one project

now working on the Tonle Sap, who did not want be named. "This could be something

even more glorifying than Angkor Wat."

The Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in South East Asia, covering around

300,000 hectares in the dry season and flooding four to five times that when its

river reverses during the rains. Four million people, maybe more, depend on it for

rice and fish. (For every four kilograms of fish caught in Cambodia, three kilograms

are estimated to come from the Tonle Sap.) It's vital as a spawning ground for all

Mekong fisheries. The dynamics of the Mekong River depend on the Great Lake as a

reservoir and catchment.

Others see commercial potential in tourism, agriculture, hydro-power and transport.

The worst case scenario now is that the lake is dying: over-fished, silting up, and

its banks eroding due to rapid deforestation. Scientific data is poor, and experts

fear increased exploitation from more people, tourists and developers.

King Sihanouk says it should be designated a World Heritage site, and has led the

call for the lake to be better understood and protected.

Fifteen different projects are now supposed to be doing just that, in the hope of

one day producing coherent development plans.

On March 26 - for the first time - representatives from each of these projects will

attend a workshop in Phnom Penh. The meeting of this "Technical Coordination

Unit (TCU)" is being sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and UNESCO.

One last, key project is still in the pipeline - a two-year, $4.5m study that the

Council for the Development of Cambodia (on behalf of six ministries and one government

agency) will present at the upcoming international donors convention.

All current studies will coordinate through this one, which talks more about protection

than it does development.

However, experts - while optimistic that the right steps are being taken for the

good of the Tonle Sap - are wary about who will eventually make the crucial decisions.

The new umbrella study will call for the TCU to be strengthed, but also that a "Tonle

Sap Management Authority" and a "national steering committee" be formed.

At a Feb 8 interministerial forum on the Tonle Sap, State Minister and Vice President

of the Supreme Council of National Culture, Van Moulyvann, said the TCU should serve

as a secretariat "involved with technical aspects of project activities."

He suggested the idea of a national steering committee, responsible for "high-level

decision making on how to protect the lake's heritage."

It was Van Moulyvann who drove the formation of a similar body - the Apsara committee

- to oversee the development of Angkor Wat.

Moulyvann heads Apsara, under the two Prime Ministers, but confusion and jealousies

were aroused when other ministries (such as the Ministry of Culture) were frozen

out of Apsara decisions.

At the same meeting, UNESCO environmental head Christine Alfsen Norodom said the

TCU "was progressing well and should continue their activities according to

the work program for 1996."

Khy Taing Lim, leader of the UNDP-funded Tonle Sap project that has been heavily

criticized (see story page 15), offered during the meeting to cooperate with the

TCU but said a larger unit was needed to oversee all projects. A World Heritage listing

would probably scuttle plans to dam Tonle Sap tributaries - which Taing Lim, as head

of the Cambodian National Mekong Committe - and the Ministry of Energy want to do.

Environment Minister Mok Mareth ended the forum by saying the TCU had made substantial

progress on preparing the Tonle Sap for inclusion into the World Heritage list.

"Establishing a national steering committee... is important. Ministries need

not be concerned about inscription of the lake [as a bio-reserve within the World

Heritage] damaging or obstructing their activities, since the protection of the Tonle

Sap will be done in a cooperative manner and is to the benefit of all concerned,"

he said.

The UNDP - in their project - said: "It's apparent that the problems to be addressed

and the opportunities to be seized for developing the Tonle Sap are too complex and

diversified to manage at the level of individual provinces and ministries. Consequently

there is a compelling need for a sound integrated development plan and institutionalized


French naturalists and explorers began studying the Tonle Sap in the 1850s. Chevey

made the first attempt at analysing the fisheries and socio-economic importance of

the lake in 1933.

The most comprehensive study, from Carbonnel in 1963, took ten years to complete

but it may yet be best remembered for someone else's blunder that is perpetuated

to this day.

Carbonnel said the lake was silting up at the rate of 0,04 centimeters a year. Ignorant

that the French use a comma rather than a full-point to describe decimals, an English

"smart aleck" in Bangkok simply removed the comma and wrote the lake was

silting up by four centimeters a year, said one source.

"It's not silting up that fast," said the source, a leader of another Tonle

Sap project. "In fact, no-one knows, but everyone - even the King - keeps going

on about the lake filling in by four centimeters a year."

"The King wants to protect Tonle Sap just like Angkor Wat, which is great. The

Prime Ministers? Well, it depends on what their mood is on any given day. The United

Nations and all the other donors, they all want a foot in the door... they smell

the project of the century.

"The situation of the Great Lake is not critical. No-one knows the fish numbers,

no-one really knows the fish capture.

"Human exploitation is increasing, but our best guess is that it might be close

to the maximum sustainable level... that is, the fish and wood and natural resourses

the people are using can be regenerated," he said.

He said that exploitation, which was mainly at the subsistence level, was not something

that should necessarily be stopped. "People have got to live and eat and sleep

as well. What do we want to do, pack them off to Phnom Penh into brothels and construction

sites? No, we have to strike a very delicate balance.

"This should all be the government's decision, with community input... it's

their country, it's up to them to do what they will."

Development projects should not try to act immediately. Plans to manage the entire

Tonle Sap watershed - from Battambang to Phnom Penh - might take between five to

twenty years, he said.

He criticized the UNDP project, for "the arrogance" in thinking that ten

foreign experts working in Cambodia for two months each could achieve what others

have stuggled to do for years.

The UNDP project head, Taing Lim, said there were two schools of thought about the

state of the Tonle Sap.

"One, is that the lake is in danger of deforestation, sedimentation, erosion,

over-fishing. If we don't do anything, soon we will have no lake.

"This would be disaster not only for Cambodia but for the whole region... we

would all suffer, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam."

The second school of thought, he said, was that the Tonle Sap was going through natural

change, a natural progression.

"It's too easy to think like that, that it's just natural evolution and do not

do anything," he said. "But how can [people] think like this?"

"We should do something. It's our first priority, not only for Cambodia but

[the UNDP/MRC] project is one for all four [riparian] countries.

"Without dramatizing, I'm just saying something has to be done before it's too

late... In 1964, it was very urgent. Now, it's 1996, nothing has been done and it's

even more urgent," Taing Lim said.

Taing Lim - who has assembled an eight-strong inter-ministerial team to work with

foreign consultants about to be hired by UNDP - has plans for the lake's development.

The Tonle Sap was - with work, which would include dredging natural channels to provide

for dry season transport - 400km of natural "roading" that did not have

to be paved. With the Mekong River, Cambodia had 1,750kms of such waterway transport

that wasn't being efficiently used.

Eco-tourism was similarly important and needed to be studied, he said.

In his position as head of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, Taing Lim - along

with the Ministry of Energy - has identified the Chinit and Battambang rivers as

potential hydro-electric sites. Both rivers empty into the Tonle Sap.

Though not mentioned in the UNDP project document, Taing Lim said that the prospect

of dams would be taken into account by his Tonle Sap project team.

The prospect of damming Tonle Sap tributaries has caused concern: "That is not

necessarily in the interests of Cambodia, and it's certainly not in the interests

of the Tonle Sap," complained one project leader.

Touch Seang Tana, who has worked for four years on the Tonle Sap as head of the MRC's

project on freshwater fisheries, said that any plans for the lake should talk about

biodiversity, because all aspects of the lake - agriculture, forestry, fisheries,

people - were connected.

Changing the eco-system - by dams or the "nonsense" of isolated, seperated

national parks - would cause the Tonle Sap's ecosystems to break down, he said.

"But the ecology of the Tonle Sap is still OK," he said. "With good

management and scientific data, the [endangered] fish will come back."

"If we keep nature there we can live in prosperity. Don't touch the wetlands

and there will be food for everybody," he said, putting an annual estimate on

the value of the Tonle Sap fisheries at around $100m. "I suggest that history,

and the knowledge of the indigenous people, is the best way to solve the problem

of the lake's management."


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