Cheav Pokun, a 50-year-old farmer from Kompong Thom province, repeatedly flouted an order from district authorities in 2004 asking him to stop building an earthen basin that would turn 32 hectares of seasonally flooded land along the Tonle Sap lake into his own water reservoir.
Officials said the barrier would harm the natural migratory patterns of fish and disturb their spawning grounds, but, absent any punishment, Mr Pokun completed his 1,200-meter-long and 3-meter-high dam three years later.
“At that time, I did not seek permission from local authority because I just thought that I was building on my own land. When I began digging they also asked me to stop, but I did not stop,” Mr Pokun said last week, recalling the repeated pleas from the Stong district governor.
And Mr Pokun is not the only one to construct a manmade reservoir in the vicinity of the lake’s biosphere reserve.
More than 100 such reservoirs have been built on the edges of the Tonle Sap flood plain in Kompong Thom and Siem Reap provinces without government permission, according to an Oct 19 report from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The report advised dismantling the manmade reservoirs since they destroyed spawning sites and endangered fish that can be exposed to poisonous chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides used on nearby farms.
Water Resources Minister and chairman of the Tonle Sap Authority Lim Kean Hor wrote in the report that the reservoirs, which trap the lake’s receding water during the dry season, were built by a “movement” of businessmen and other prominent individuals in the area to grow rice beyond the wet season as well as to harvest large quantities of fish trapped inside the reservoirs.
“This situation was created by businessmen or through the support from influential persons,” the report states. “There were 82 reservoirs in the 2007-2008 statistics but now it increased to more than 100,” it adds.
The problem has grown to such an extent that in November the Council of Ministers, following recommendations from the Water Resources Ministry, ordered the reservoirs partially or completely destroyed. No deadline, however, has been set for their complete destruction though Mr Pokun, the Kompong Thom farmer, said he would follow such an order if it came.
The Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, laps against the shores of five provinces: Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, Battambang, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang. Although several reports detail the controversial dam projects in Kompong Thom, information about the four other provinces was unavailable.
According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture in October, 113 reservoirs spanning roughly 10,000 hectares of flooded forest and flood plain in Kompong Thom province should be slated for destruction.
Both Mr Kean Hor and Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun were unavailable for comment .
Ou Bossphoan, director of the agriculture department in Kompong Thom, could not provide exact statistics on the reservoirs in his area but said on Monday the number of such constructions had increased to more than 130 by late 2009.
He said most of them were built before any study could be conducted on the environmental impact on spawning grounds, fish migration or people’s access to the lake.
“If we forgive [the owners] by legalizing those illegally erected dams, this would look like we raped someone’s daughter and then we go to ask her parents for forgiveness or eventually ask for an agreement to marry their daughter,” Mr Bossphoan said.
In addition to the environmental and legal concerns raised by the ministries, conservationists are also worried.
A Forestry Administration official working with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bengal Florican Conservation project, which works to protect the critically endangered bird in Kompong Thom and Siem Reap, said the dams are destroying the birds’ usual dry season habitat.
“It is bad for the Bengal Florican and fish and other biodiversity,” the conservation official wrote in an e-mail asking to remain anonymous out of concerns of retribution.
WCS Country Director Mark Gately declined to comment.
Chan Yuttha, cabinet chief of the Water Resources Ministry, said on Friday the Tonle Sap Authority was drafting a master plan concerning the reservoirs. He said the “basins” would be removed but those used to grow rice might be allowed to continue until after their harvest.
“Delaying the dismantlement one more year is not too [long],” he said, but added that “the dismantling must be made without any exception.”
Nam Tum, former Kompong Thom provincial governor and current chairman of the provincial council, defended the reservoir owners, saying the basins boost agricultural yields and help drive economic growth in the area. He said the captured water could help grow between 4 to 6 tons of rice per hectare, a larger amount than is produced in other parts of country.
“These reports came from the people who sit in armchairs and wrote them on the desk,” Mr Tum said, dismissing the two reports on the subject written by the Water Resources and Agriculture ministries.
Speaking about his own reservoir, Mr Pokun said he had received mixed messages from government authorities.
“The district governor asked me to stop but the provincial governor was encouraging villagers to build water reservoirs to farm rice,” he said.
Mr Tum said the idea to dam up man-made reservoirs was his own after he observed in 2004 the province’s potential for dry-season rice farming. He acknowledged the basins’ environmental impact was a concern but preferred to continue the practice until the government could find a better alternative.
“If they could once visit the site they might have learned the facts and would not do like this,” he said.
“They are merely good at talking…but when we turn an idea into the production of rice, they start to get angry at us,” he added.