Unesco Cautious About Tonle Sap Development

Any oil or gas exploration in the Tonle Sap area should be preceded by an environmental study that shows it would have no negative impact on the newly designated conservation area, a Unesco official said late last week. 

Bruno Lefevre, director of the Unesco office in Cambodia, elaborated on his remarks last week that the possibility of drilling in the area could pose big problems in the view of the UN Educa­tion­al, Scientific and Cultural Organ­ization. Unesco formally designated Tonle Sap lake a biosphere reserve last week.

“The biosphere reserve designation implies that the site has reinforced protection, especially in the core areas [of the lake],” he said in a statement. But “some cases exist elsewhere in the world where exploitation has been allowed in a buffer zone or transition areas provided it has no negative impact on the conservation objectives in the entire area and, in particular, the core areas.”

In March, after a nine-month break, Japan National Oil Co­operation resumed its survey of the Tonle Sap and Mekong river basins to determine the area’s potential for oil and gas reserves.

Men Den, vice director in charge of the petroleum sector at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said Wednesday that the study isn’t yet finished. Earlier, he had indicated that if the results show promise, areas of the Tonle Sap lake may be available for development by early 1999.

The Tonle Sap biosphere re­serve consists of three small core areas in the lake, a buffer zone that surrounds the lake and a so-called transition area that extends well beyond the lake’s borders.

Lefevre said that before any exploration, an environmental impact assessment study would have to be conducted in cooperation with Unesco.

“The fact that we’re dealing with a lake most certainly would increase the risks that such an undertaking would create—if there were oil and gas in that area,” he said.

For their part, officials at the Ministry of Environment and Cambodia National Mekong Committee both have expressed concern about the possibility of oil or gas exploration in either the Tonle Sap or Mekong river basins.

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