Far from Cambodia, over in the Gulf of Mexico, the US’ largest ever environmental disaster is taking place.
On Earth Day April 22, the semi-submersible Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which in September dug the deepest oil well in history, sank into the ocean two days after it had exploded and killed 11 workers, uncorking the undersea supply of crude oil below.
By the end of April, the spill covered 6,500 square km, an area equal to 36 percent of Cambodia’s land mass and more than twice the dry-season surface area of the Tonle Sap lake.
Executives from the oil company BP, which leased the rig, reportedly gave US lawmakers last week a worst-case estimate that the oil well could be spilling up to 60,000 barrels, or over 9.5 million liters, into the ocean every day, according to The New York Times. An official estimate puts the flow at 5,000 barrels per day.
As news of the disaster reached Cambodia, it might have given some here pause for thought, as the Cambodian government announces exploration and survey activity around the Tonle Sap lake, which provides 70 percent of the protein in Cambodia’s diet.
Since a million people are estimated to be directly dependent on the rich fisheries in the lake, which was named a UN biosphere reserve in 2001, the thought of it running black, expunging crude along riverbanks and into the Mekong Delta, is less than pleasant.
In November, PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corporation said that it had been granted the right to explore and “exploit” oil reserves in Block 15, a 6,900 square-km site off the eastern shore of the Tonle Sap Lake, and on May 5 Japan’s natural resources exploration agency signed an agreement to conduct a feasibility study in the 6,500-square-kilometer Block 17, situated slightly to the north of the Tonle Sap lake’s basin.
Indonesia’s MedcoEnergi, close to the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, announced this month it had pulled out of Block 12, which touches the western shore of the lake’s northern half.
However, years after the government opened the lake up to exploration, several government officials responsible for disaster management and for the lake’s environmental protection said they had no idea what emergency protocol or measures were being developed for a time when petroleum companies would enter the Tonle Sap Basin or lake to begin oil extraction.
“I have no idea about that yet…. I think the government and the companies who explore for the oil will think about that. I think the government will have the plan to avoid environmental disaster,” Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve Director Long Kheay said Sunday when asked about the potential environmental safety measures to protect the biosphere.
“More than 1 million people live off fishing around the Tonle Sap. If there’s a problem with oil and gas in the Tonle Sap and the fish production goes down, the poor people who live off fisheries, they cannot survive,” he said.
Keo Vy, deputy director of the information department at the National Committee for Disaster Management, said the NCDM had not yet considered making emergency plans for a possible oil or chemical spill in the lake or basin.
“If there will be [oil drilling], we think that we would prepare a plan,” he said Thursday, adding the government would probably request assistance and training from Asean for developing environmental safety issues.
Thuk Kroeun Vuth, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Environment, said his ministry had not been informed of the exploration activities of the oil companies or potential plans for gas or oil extraction.
“We have not seen an official document,” he said.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for fisheries NGO FACT, said Wednesday that the news of the start of oil and gas exploration near and in the lake had not gone unnoticed among local fishermen.
“The fishermen are concerned about possible spills,” he said, adding local communities were eager to know where the exploration surveys would be conducted.
“We hope that there will be a clear principle [from the government] for tapping” oil and gas, Mr Bunly said.
Officials at the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority were unavailable for comment Thursday.