How Development Will Affect Communities Living on the Tonle Sap Lake

For Kob Rohimas, the construction of a port facility at the Siem Reap end of Tonle Sap lake can’t happen soon enough.

Sitting on the floor of her floating house, which is an­chored on shore for the time being, she introduces her10-year-old son, whose right arm is nothing but bones covered with a thin layer of skin.

When he was 3 months old, he ran a fever for days; their floating house was too far from shore to take him to a doctor, said Kob Rohimas. She learned later that he had polio. Today, he is lucky to be walking at all.

Kob Rahimas would like to move from her boat to a piece of land. So every time she hears about a development plan in her area, she hopes that when all the planning is done and the building begins there will be help for her and her family.


The Asian Development Bank has been working on a Tonle Sap development program since 1999. One suggested project is the building of separate terminals for fishing vessels, tourists and cargo at Chong Kneas, about 12 km south of Siem Reap town.

“That port will provide the key [to eco-tourism],” said Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth. “Fishing, water tours such as kayaking, a bird sanctuary and restaurants on the shore are environmentally-sound options that the Tonle Sap could offer. Even the fishing villages are part of eco-tourism.”

A second port at Chhnok Trou, at the far southern end of the Tonle Sap where it narrows into the riverbed that flows toward Phnom Penh, would include a road to provide ac­cess in the rainy season. Both Chong Kneas and Chhnok Trou would have fuel stations, said Henry Tucker, an ADB project specialist.

“Right now, there is no environmental or safety control whatsoever,” Tucker said. Tankers come close to shore and run hoses to transfer fuel to drums, with no way to handle explosions, fires or oil spills.

The ports would also have wastewater treatment plants to control pollution created by the floating villages of 5,000 people near Chong Kneas and 10,000 people near Chhnok Trou. The lake dwellers use water from the lake to wash dishes and bathe, Tucker said. Toilets are holes in the floors of houseboats, and garbage floats around the houses. “A sig­­nificant percentage of people don’t have enough money to buy charcoal to boil water before drinking,” Tucker said.

Internationally-funded work planned on National Roads 5 and 6 might reduce cargo traffic on the lake, and thus the need for large cargo facilities at the ports. This might free up some funding for fishery landing facilities at other locations around the lake, Tucker said.


Any construction work on the Tonle Sap that might change fishing conditions could greatly affect Cambodia and other nations on the Mekong River, all the way north to Laos and south to the Vietnam delta.

In Cambodia, fishing is the sole livelihood for about 1 million people. “The Tonle Sap is the heart of Cambodia’s economy,” said Minister of the Environment Mok Mareth. “I don’t dare compare it to Angkor Wat. However, it is the prosperity and wealth that the lake brought the country that built Angkor Wat.” In addition, fish is the main source of protein and calcium for Cambodians, at prices they usually can afford.


The ADB and the UN Development Program are striving to submit a plan by March to the Global Environment Facility, a UN organization that assist developing countries with environmental issues. GEF only considers projects that have the full endorsement of a national government and some funding from the private sector. Hence the ADB/UNDP partnership and the involvement of the Cambodia National Me­kong Committee, which represents 10 government ministries.

In its draft plan, the ADB lists a $36.2 million budget for a project the bank estimates would last six or seven years. ADB would loan nearly $21 million to the government, payable over 32 years at interest rates ranging from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. GEF would offer a $9.2 million grant. and the Cambodian government would contribute $4.2 million. Capacity 21, another UN funding source for environmental projects, would provide nearly $700,000 for training.

The UNDP would concentrate on environmental matters and the ADB on development issues. For example, the UNDP plans to help the government enact legislation and to develop a management structure for the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve.

That zone has special status under Unesco’s World Reserve Program. But fishing regulations in the zone are not clearly defined.

UNDP’s support will include inventories of natural resources, an education campaign for people living along the lake, and a management and technical training program for government staff.

The UNDP will also study water quality in the lake and develop  pollution reduction policies. UNDP is also planning a program to help enforce anti-corruption efforts in all aspects of Tonle Sap lake management.

Tine Feldman, a UNDP acting team leader for a natural resource management  group, points out the Tonle Sap project raises fundamental issues that pit human activity against natural resources preservation.

“This is the classic dilemma,” Tucker said. “The Tonle Sap is a national magnet for poor people living on the edge of subsistence. They come to fish, cut trees, grow long beans.”

With Cambodia’s population increasing at the rate of 300,000 people per year,  Tucker asked: “Where are these people to go? We could spend money trying to lure people away from the Tonle Sap. How big an investment would it take [to keep them away from the lake? We could not stop people from coming.”

So it’s essential to find ways to limit the pressure of an increasing population on the natural resources of the lake. This may take the form of showing people how to earn money from a tree’s fruit, flower or even sap instead of cutting it, Tucker said.

During this year’s dry season, FAO helped sugar palm producers market candies at tourist locations in Siem Reap. Yoeun Yoeum of Thnol Totoeung village said that he doubled what he usually earned selling sugar at the market.

People need choices, said Tucker, “so they are not forced to destroy the resources on which they depend. [But] understanding about cutting a tree will not stop a person with a sick child needing an instant source of money.”

Kob Rohimas knows about sick children. What she doesn’t know is that there is nothing in the ADB plan that would provide land for people who want to move off the floating villages.

According to Tucker, there may be some land created with the piles of land dug up during the port projects. But ADB does not currently plan to encourage people to move onto this land. There would be no land rights; just the creation of new squatter villages.

(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong.)





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