A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) plan of just under $1m to study the Tonle
Sap has been slammed by experts as, to quote one: "A total absurdity."
The two-year project is being managed by the Cambodian National Mekong Committee
(CNMC), and is part of the Mekong River Commission's (MRC) 1996 workplan.
According to the project document, UNDP will spend $480,000 hiring ten foreign consultants
- eight of whom will spend only two months in Phnom Penh, and another required to
stay only four months.
In that time, they will be asked to prepare what amount to full national development
plans for the Tonle Sap - in cooperation with a team of Cambodian ministry officials
who have already been chosen - in the following areas: fisheries; forestry; agriculture;
water resources and irrigation; navigation; tourism; environment and socio-economics.
Critics say that 14 current Tonle Sap projects - some of which have been running
for four years or more and have only recently begun fully coordinating with each
other - have yet to finish gathering the sort of data needed for any national plans.
Members of some current Tonle Sap projects - including at least one working under
the MRC - had no idea that the UNDP project was about to begin, nor that it contained
areas already being worked on by themselves.
Touch Seang Tana, director of the MRC's project on Cambodian fisheries management,
said: "We've spent three years studying the Tonle Sap, talking to the people,
and still there's not the data available to make good scientific judgements. What
do these [foreign consultants] expect to achieve in two months?"
"I'm worried about this international 'top-down' approach, together with the
national 'top-down' approach," Tana said.
Tana, who wasn't aware that the UNDP project had begun, said that history, and the
knowledge of Cambodian people living on the waterways, was more important in solving
problems facing the Tonle Sap.
Other critics say that the CNMC hasn't yet the staff experience nor the capabilities
to undertake such a project.
They also say that - as part of the MRC - the CNMC is driven by Thailand, as to a
lesser extent Vietnam, in the MRC's "agenda" to tap the Mekong and its
tributaries for hydro-power.
The CNMC also has its own plans to dam, among other rivers, the Chinit and Battambang,
both of which empty into the Great Lake, or the Tonle Sap river.
"That's not necessarily in the interests of Cambodia, and it's certainly not
in the interests of the Tonle Sap," said one member of a Tonle Sap project team,
who would not be named.
The UNDP's project is "Phase II"; the first phase being a 1993 French study
that was no more, said one critic, than a "literary review" of historical
information on the Great Lake.
Another critic said that the UNDP project was flawed before it started because it
exaggerated the problems said to be faced by the Tonle Sap.
"There is no way that any of the outcomes (the UNDP) expect from this project
will happen," said the critic. "It won't harm any work currently being
done, but it's a waste of money... you might as well forget it."
The UNDP project is not been included on the agenda of the first gathering of all
14 projects currently working on the Tonle Sap, in Phnom Penh on March 26, hosted
by UNESCO and the Ministry of Environment.
Project leader and CNMC director Khy Taing Lim - who will moderate one question and
answer session at the March 26 workshop - said that the project was important.
"In 1964 it was very urgent," said Taing Lim, "now it's 1996, nothing
has been done and it's even more urgent."
Taing Lim said that the eight Cambodian ministerial officials who will work with
the foreign consultants had been chosen, and a project office promised by Ing Kieth
in the Ministry of Public Works.
Taing Lim said that the project would result in a group of trained Khmer technicians
who would "formulate a strategy... taking into account our own culture and people."
The UNDP was asked to comment. A UNDP spokeswoman said the UNDP would reserve its
right of reply, and wanted to reply because the project was so important. However,
it could not do so in the three working days it was made aware of the criticisms
before the Post went to press