Battambang, one of six provinces bordering the Tonle Sap Lake, is taking a leading role in protecting its vital resources. The lake, brimming with fish and biodiversity, sustains local communities and underpins Cambodia’s socio-economic development.

Home to the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, Samlot Multiple Use Area and vast swathes of the lake itself, Battambang boasts over 20,000ha of wetlands. These areas hold immense social, cultural and environmental value, supporting agriculture, tourism and internationally-recognised areas like the Prek Toal Ramsar site.

Battambang provincial deputy governor Soeum Bunrith says that due to the lake’s unique geographical features, including its location within the province and its vast size, protecting the lake is crucial.

He says provincial governor Sok Lou actively encourages collaboration between authorities and all stakeholders to safeguard these vital resources. 

The efforts were evident during a recent visit by EU ambassador to Cambodia Igor Driesmans, German ambassador Stefan Messerer and Minister of Environment Eang Sophalleth to wetland areas in Siem Reap and in Battambang’s Ek Phnom and Sangke districts in late January.

“Prek Toal, a crucial part of the lake, boasts rich biodiversity and supports the livelihoods of local communities. This vast flooded forest, one of the largest in the lake, contributes to the Tonle Sap’s status as a globally significant hydrological system,” says Bunrith. 

EU aids wetlands conservation

The EU-funded “Our Tonle Sap” project grants $5.3 million over four years (2021-24) to restore scenic landscapes and bolster resilience against environmental changes within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve’s ecosystems, communities and biodiversity.

The EU in Cambodia has confirmed its support for the first landscape restoration project of its kind in the country, aiming to revive the biosphere reserve. The initiative builds upon successful restoration efforts conducted in other nations.

The wildlife sanctuary’s community has expressed its commitment to tackling threats to both the wetlands and their livelihoods, recognising the area’s importance.

Wrapping up their visit, Bunrith noted the positive impact of EU assistance. By empowering communities, they have significantly enhanced conservation efforts, protecting not only fisheries resources but also flooded forests, mammals, birds and the overall biodiversity at the heart of the lake. 

Birds flock to the trees in the Prek Toal Ramsar site.Heng Chivoan

He stressed that the destruction of Prek Toal wouldn’t simply be an ecological tragedy, it would cripple an entire ecosystem. As a crucial conservation area, the wetland site safeguards the lake’s biodiversity, acting as a breeding ground for fish, attracting waterfowl and even serving as a migratory stopover for Siberian birds. 

Without its protection, the cascading effect could devastate fish populations, leading to the disappearance of reliant bird species and disrupting the migratory cycle for generations.

Bunrith also notes the importance of training community representatives, saying local understanding is key to enabling wider community participation in the conservation and protection of vital natural resources.

Community-driven collaboration

“This resonates deeply with our community, already actively integrated with local stakeholders. We urge the EU to continue empowering them through sustained support and training,” says Bunrith.

He says the project has yielded valuable insights into priority areas for conservation and sustainable resource management, revealing both challenges and successes in community engagement. This underpins the vital role of the EU’s “For Our Planet” campaign in tackling climate crises.

Driesmans stated during a press conference regarding the visit that the EU’s programmes and projects target conserving biodiversity while sustaining the income of families residing in the area, who rely on natural resources for livelihoods. 

Additionally, these initiatives actively support attracting visitors and safeguarding Prek Toal, which has transformed into a tourist destination. 

He noted the area’s substantial ecotourism potential, underscoring the essential role of environmental conservation in generating income for the locals.

“There is a lot more potential here and ecotourism benefits the men and women who live here as additional sources of income,” Driesmans told reporters. 

At the press conference, minister Sophalleth called for an end to environmental degradation through land theft in the Tonle Sap Lake area.

“Endless land grabs threaten the Tonle Sap, the protein source for around six million Cambodians. Let’s choose sustainability over short-term gains and protect these vital resources,” he said.

“Maintaining Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake is not just about protein. It’s an honour and an economic asset unique to Cambodia. Protecting it unlocks tourism potential far exceeding the short-term gains of individual land grabs,” Sophalleth added.