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.