Siem Reap’s Water Demands Threaten Stability of the Temples

The ground under the Angkor temples—which have stood for as long as 12 centuries—may sink at a threatening pace unless water supplies used by big hotels in Siem Reap are carefully monitored and the area’s waterways restored, experts say.

This was the message conveyed by experts at the Seventh Bayon Symposium held in Siem Reap on Dec 9 and Dec 10.

“The total amount of underground water is limited,” said Yoshinori Iwasaki of the Geo-Research Institute in Osaka, Japan, one of a number of experts who attended the Symposium.

“If you take water away,” Yoshinori said,  “inevitably the ground sinks.”

By the end of the rainy season in October each year, underground water tables reach their highest mark, nearly to ground level, said Yoshinori, who has just completed a one-year study of rain patterns and drainage at the Bayon temple.

During the dry season, the water level drops three to five meters while the surface dries up and shrinks, he said.

Meanwhile, the large hotels springing up around Siem Reap, just a few kilometers from the temples, dig deep wells to accommodate their needs. If all these wells pump enough water to lower the underground water level to 10 meters, the surface will respond by settling in an uneven pattern, Yoshinori said. “These structures are very sensitive to changes.”

At the moment, there is no in­formation on the depth of hotel wells and the amount of water pumped, Yoshinori said. The first step to prevent damage would be to collect this data from them to get a clear picture of what is happening, he said.

Ros Borath, director of monuments and archeology for the Apsara Authority, said that recommendations for protecting Angkor had been made as long as seven years ago. (Experts had been making recommendations for the protection of Angkor against water.)

There even was a water-management project in the works, he said. Since then, private development has been carried out with no regard for regulations, damaging the waterway system.

Angkor conservation efforts must include cooperating with authorities that enforce regulations, not to stop development, but to encourage it while protecting the irrigation system, he said.

Vann Molyvann—a senior government adviser and former director of Apsara Authority—said the issue spread beyond the temple walls, to include the Tonle Sap lake.

Citing researchers who believe that geological movements have impeded reservoirs and canals at Angkor ever since the Khmer kings ordered them built, he recommended a series of measures including restoring the ancient hydraulic system at Angkor and rehabilitating the Siem Reap River from the Kulen mountains to the Tonle Sap lake.

At the end of the Bayon Sympo­sium, participants recommended that restoration teams working at Angkor compare notes on drainage and waterways in the park, and that information on the water networks of ancient and modern times between the Kulen mountains and the Tonle Sap be prepared for use during the review of new projects.

The symposium was attended by representatives from organizations involved in the preservation and restoration of Angkor’s monuments, such as the UN Edu­cational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Japanese Government Team for Safe­guarding Angkor (JSA), the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient and the German Apsara Conservation Project.

One issue raised during discussions was the population in the temple area that, as Ros Borath pointed out, makes Angkor a “living city.”

According to data collected this year by Angkor Participatory Development Organi­zation, more than 24,000 people live in Angkor’s 20 villages. In the last few years, some people have been coming from other provinces to sell goods at Angkor, said Tek Sakana Savuth, executive director of the NGO that assists Angkor villagers create means of income. These temporary residents live either with villagers in the park or in Siem Reap, work at Angkor for a few years, and then return to their provinces, he said. There are no statistics as to how many they are, but they have arrived in increasing number this year, Tek Sakana Savuth said.

The population in the park should be monitored so as not to grow out of proportion, said Azedine Beschaouch, a Unesco advisor and former president of the Unesco World Heritage committee. If it grew to 100,000 people, conservation efforts would be jeopardized, he said.

Representatives from historical sites around the world said that their preservation efforts strove to include not only villagers, but also the restoration of ancient monuments and the needs of the tourists who come to see them.

Barbara Schock-Werner of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany said that the Angkor Authority may eventually have to control the flow of tourists at each temple. This will help protect monuments, and tourists may appreciate visiting them in small groups, she said.

Finally, Takeshi Nakagawa, director general for JSA, asked the support of all participants in the preparation of a master plan for the conservation of the Bayon, with the goal of completing in 2004 a “Bayon Charter,” that will contain restoration guidelines for the monument.


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