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Tonle Sapped

Tonle Sapped

The Editor,

Matthew Grainger's article "UNDP slammed for $1m Tonle Sap 'absurdity'"

that appeared in your newspaper on 22 March caught my attention.

The project is a very important one for Cambodia, as it aims to formulate a development

strategy for the Tonle Sap lake and the surrounding area where four million people

live. It should provide the institutional framework and collect the necessary data,

so that decisions can be made with a view to promoting the sustained development

of the area. It is proposed the study will achieve this with the assistance of international

experts who will cover a number of specialties including institution building, river

basin development, economics, the environment, rural sociology, agriculture, irrigation,

fisheries, forestry, navigation and tourism.

There are two questions, however, concerning the ecological and hydrological balance

of the lake that should be given priority attention. One is what are the effects

of logging within its catchment area, an area extending over nearly half of Cambodia.

Some experts have expressed the opinion that the bed of the lake will be raised and

that large areas of land will appear during dry periods as a result of sediment transported

by the tributaries from deforested areas.

The second question is what are the effects of the proposed dams up-stream of Phnom

Penh on the Mekong River, as any one will affect the river flow down-stream to some

degree. As the Mekong replenishes most of the water in Tonle Sap, it is extraordinary

that an investigation into the hydraulic balance of the two rivers is not included

in the UNDP Tonle Sap study. At this stage, I don't think that is would be too difficult

to determine to what degree the flow in the Mekong can be regulated such that Tonle

Saop Lake levels are not affected. The specific size and location of up-stream dams

would not need to be known at this stage, rather this study could specify a criterion

for their design.

What is the threat to Tonle Sap if the effects of unmanaged logging and regulated

Mekong flows act simultaneously? It is not inconceivable that a combination of impacts

may be far reaching and may lead to drying up of the lake and environmental devastation

to the Tonle Sap region.

The UNDP project now lists a mélange of 65 activities to be completed with

the assistance of 11 international experts, who normally stay in Cambodia for two

months. I wonder whether a thorough understanding can be gained within the period

that is allocated to each specialty and thus whether the project's objectives can

be fully realized. An opportunity may be missed.

If it is not too late, I would suggest that the Government and the UNDP take some

time and redefine the project to give it focus. This could be done in three steps.

First, the project area should be substantially widened to cover the catchment area

of the lake in six provinces, so that the logging and sedimentation question can

be answered. The project now covers that area bounded by Routes 5 and 6.

Second, the project area should be further extended to upstream of Phnom Penh on

the Mekong River to Laos and Thailand, so that the lake's water replenishment question

can be answered. UNDP, as an international organization, is in an unusually good

position to assist Cambodia in this respect. Yet, no reference is made in the UNDP

Tonle Sap project to this important issue.

Third, as project funding is undoubtedly limited, fewer project experts should remain

in Cambodia for a longer period and give priority attention to the two questions

in the up-coming study. Other issues covered in the project document should be treated

as important, but secondary ones. Otherwise, I feel the project's final report may

not be taken seriously.
- Jon Mills, South East Asia Consultants, Phnom Penh.

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