Protecting Cambodia's Watery Heart

Feature | 27 July 2010

Kampong Phluk, Siem Reap Province - Muth Seak has lived along the Tonle Sap lake, the geographical heart of Cambodia, all her life. Now in her 30s, and having seen the way the Tonle Sap has changed over the decades, she is worried that her village's way of life may be at risk.

A combined lake and river system, the Tonle Sap covers a vast area in the center of the country, its smaller rivers and tributaries converge on the lake like a system of veins and arteries. Protecting these waterways - upon which millions of Cambodians depend for food, soil fertility, and drinking water - is vital to the health of the country.

"There are many communities around the Tonle Sap, and if they build something that affects the environment then the natural resources like the fish or the forest could disappear," Muth Seak explains.

"We Tonle Sap people are very concerned because in the future there may be fewer and fewer fish. Our living depends on them. With less fish it would be difficult for us to survive."

In fact, the whole country stands to lose. Fish caught in the Tonle Sap provide four-fifths of the average Cambodian's protein intake. It is a food source they simply cannot do without. But the unpalatable truth is that the lake and its tributaries are vulnerable on several fronts.

The rapid increase in Cambodia's population has put fish stocks under strain - a problem exacerbated by destructive fishing techniques involving electricity and even explosives removed from landmines and other ordnance left over from the country's long civil war.

Development along the water's edge has also resulted in greater pollution from both private and commercial sources. And external factors also loom: in particular, climate change and the construction of dams upstream.

There is a growing awareness among the government, its development partners, and Cambodians that conservation is essential. In partnership with the Fisheries Administration, and with financial support from ADB, the villagers of Kampong Phluk have established a community fisheries organization (CFO), and taken a significant stake in decisions affecting their environment.

Members of the CFO sit around a long table as CFO leaders elected by the community point to a map of their watery neighborhood that illustrates where fishing is allowed or restricted and where villagers can gather wood without damaging the forest. Dissenting voices are conspicuous by their absence; community members know the stakes are high.

The deputy head of the CFO, Ouk Lum, reinforced the point. "People support the CFO when they see the benefit to the community. We are trying to create more fish sanctuaries for fish to breed and live. We have fishing, ecotourism - lots of activities that support people's livelihoods."

As deputy director of the Fisheries Administration, Eng Cheasan has been watching the proceedings at the CFO with interest. "Before the CFO was set up there was a problem with natural resource management," he said. "People did not know how to carry out planning and coordination or manage conservation. Creating the CFO makes for equitable, sustainable, and democratic benefits to all the people on the lake, and reduces conflict among the fishing community."

The conservation work has to go beyond the lake itself. Eng Cheasan explains that the lake and its fisheries products are under threat, not only from many dams upstream but also from its tributaries, since construction projects are polluting the waters that feed the lake.

The Fisheries Administration and local authorities have employed a "carrot and stick" approach.

They have clamped down on destructive fishing methods, but they have also been working with development partners to help local people develop alternative livelihoods.

Eels writhe in a squirming, squeaking mass as part of an eel farm. The creatures repeatedly poke their heads out of the water to grab a bite, as the farm owner lowers a grid piled with small fish into the tank. "They give me a much better lifestyle," the man said with a smile. "With the extra income, my children can go to school and I do not have to leave home to work."

Fish farms, home gardens, and a fish-processing factory run by a women's cooperative all play their part in allowing fish stocks to recover, while providing locals with a better standard of living than they had before.

The message - that Cambodians have to act to preserve the Tonle Sap - appears to be getting across. Muth Seak is cautiously optimistic. "I was born in this area, and I can see the environment is getting better. People here know the value of the water and the forest so they preserve it; without it we would have no fish."