Excellency Greenwood, Vice President of the Asian Development Bank,
Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me a great pleasure to attend with you all Excellencies, Ladies, and Gentlemen in the National Forum on the Tonle Sap Initiative, jointly organized by the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). I would like to take this opportunity to thank the ADB for supporting the national forum and devoting substantial attention and resources to the development and conservation of the Tonle Sap Lake.
I strongly believe that this national forum can become an important platform for regular dialogue between policy makers, development partners, NGOs, international organizations, business sector and the local communities on promoting the sustainable development of the Tonle Sap basin and natural resource protection and conservation within the coverage of this great natural lake.
Indeed, the Great Tonle Sap Lake is not just a unique ecosystem of inundated forest, fish habitats and subsistence agriculture; it is also a vital part of our historical and cultural heritage that defines Cambodia’s national identity. For instance, Tonle Sap has played a crucial role in shaping the richness of Cambodia’s economic, political, cultural destiny over the last several centuries of our history. Recognizing the strategic significance of the lake, all former Khmer Kings who reigned over Cambodia from the 9th to the 13th century A.D have selected the shores of the Tonle Sap as the foundation to build the Khmer Empire’s capital. Although the capital of Cambodia has shifted to Phnom Penh in recent times, Tonle Sap continues to deeply influence the lives of the Cambodians until today.
In contributing to the discussions, I would like to share with you all some thoughts on the Tonle Sap, as well as outline some of the key policies to address the pressing issues of the Tonle Sap basin.
Let me begin by noting that the Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The ecosystem is characterized by a unique hydrological phenomenon, in which the Tonle Sap River, is the supplier of water for the whole lake and a tributary of the Mekong, to ease the flow of water in and out of the river. It means that the river functions as an inlet during the rainy season and reverses its flow during the dry season. This incredible phenomenon has created an extensive wetland area which provides shelters to a rich biodiversities such as fish, reptile, bird, mammal, and plant species. The Tonle Sap’s biodiversity includes 200 species of fish, 42 of reptiles, 225 of birds, and 46 of mammals. There are more than 200 plant species.
This biological richness underpins the enormous productivity of the Tonle Sap as a fishing resource: the lake supports one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world, and provides Cambodians with their main source of protein, calcium, and vitamin A. Apart from the fishery, the basin is an important supplier of timber, firewood and a variety of agricultural products. It is a potential source of drinking water and hydropower. Today, the land, water, and biotic resources of the Tonle Sap directly benefit 40% of the population of the 6 provinces adjoining the lake and provides the people of Cambodia with food security and livelihoods. The Tonle Sap basin is home to about 4 million people, most of whom derive their livelihoods directly from its natural resources. Around half of those people depend on the lake and its associated wetlands. Some farmers grow floating rice at the Tonle Sap Lake’s edge, and taking advantage of the receding flood during the dry season. Besides growing rice, the Tonle Sap freshwater fish form the most important component of the Cambodian diet.
In recognizing the lake’s economic and environmental importance to the country as mentioned earlier, there was a Royal Decree that designated the Tonle Sap basin as a Multiple-Use Protected Area in November 1993. Furthermore, the lake was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve in October 1997 under UNESCO’s Human and Biosphere Program.
Notwithstanding these initiatives, the management of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve is still a great challenge for Cambodia. It needs a step by step action and support from communities living in the Tonle Sap Basin, who depend on the products and services of the Tonle Sap. At the same time, the management of the Mekong’s water both inside and outside the coverage of Cambodia is also critical for a long lasting priority of Tonle Sap. In Cambodia we have proposed the “Water Law” for effective use and management of the water resources. The draft “Water Law” has already been approved by the Council of Ministers, and it is now with the National Assembly for consideration and approval.
Without any doubt, all of these works are our institutional and political commitments to the Tonle Sap, and we will continue working toward realizing them for the good of Cambodia, for the benefit of poor people, and for saving our environment.
The growing population pressure, unequal access to receive the fruit of growth and severe poverty of the population depending on its resources for survival, has placed the lake’s ecosystem at an enormous risk. The lake is facing a serious threat of over-exploitation and its ecosystem has turned quite fragile. Honestly, if this problem is not addressed decisively and soon enough, Cambodia could face a serious environmental disaster.
At the same time, there are several factors contributing to the environmental threat. The continued high population growth in the basin due to the natural growth of the residential population and the inward migration of non-residents from other parts of Cambodia searching for livelihood, has stressed the sustainable use of the lake’s resources. Major threats to the Tonle Sap include overexploitation of fisheries and wildlife resources, conversion of the flood basin to agriculture land, encroachment on the flood basin itself, collection of firewood from the inundated forest, and illegal fishing. The reduction in the area of the inundated forest has severely impacted the productivity of fishery due to land encroachment for agriculture purposes, both in large and small scale and collection of firewood due to limited availability of alternative energy sources.
At the same time, the rapid degradation of natural resources in the Tonle Sap basin has resulted in high poverty incidence in the region and reinforced the pressure on the lake’s resources. Moreover, the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides in the basin could create serious environmental problems in the Tonle Sap Lake. Harnessing waters of the upper catchments would pose a threat to the natural habitats of several species and introduce potentially conflicting uses of water for hydropower, domestic consumption, and irrigation. Furthermore, the encroachment of the forest areas, whether for water, timber and firewood, or clearing the forest for agriculture purposes, would destroy the ecosystem’s sustainability and cause erosion, loss of soil fertility, silting, flooding, and polluting the downstream’s water sources.
The most dangerous threat to environment is posed by the clearing of the flood forest land for large-scale rice farming. I would like to appeal to the provincial and local communities to take immediate action against this disastrous practice and report directly to me so that we can move effectively to save the Tonle Sap Lake.
It is clear that any disruption to the lake’s hydrology would have detrimental effects on fishery. Various studies have shown that water levels at peak and fish catch in the Tonle Sap are strongly correlated. This means that the development planning of the Tonle Sap must be done through an Integrated basin-wide approach. However, the effort to save the Tonle Sap and to preserve it as a national and global asset should extend beyond Cambodia’s borders. Outside Cambodia, the main threat to Tonle Sap is the cumulative impact of infrastructure construction of the hydrology in the Mekong basin.
By noticing the environmental problems and the growing conflicts over the use of natural resources, I have initiated wide ranging reform on the fishery sector. for instance, in 2000, the Royal Government of Cambodia decided to transfer the bulk of fishing rights from the private to the household sector. As a result 56 per cent (500,000 ha) of the former fishing lot allocated to the commercial sector was released to the local communities for management. This reform is designed to give the poor communities with access and management responsibility to fishery resources and inundated forests in the country including the Tonle Sap Lake in order to improve livelihood opportunities and food security. This reform is a major decision made in empowering the communities in the Tonle Sap basin and providing them with the resources for improving their income and livelihood. As a result of this reform, the local communities have gained more access to fishery resources. Some 175 fisher communities were formed to promote community-based natural resource management. It is our firm conviction that community management with appropriate financial and institutional support can help achieve equitable and sustainable natural resources management and environmental protection.
However, this reform is not the magic bullet to solve the entire regional conflict, there are many more issues and problems need to be addressed in order to help the communities get out of poverty, and manage the natural resources for sustainable development. A key issue is to provide the local communities with the power to govern themselves.
I am proud of the accomplishments of the Cambodian people living in the Tonle Sap area, particularly those involved with the local governments in fisheries management. Notwithstanding their limited exposure to management techniques and technical know they are eager to participate and learn. We have reallocated large fishing areas for fishing communities so that poor communities get more benefit from fishing. The protection and management of fishery, flooded forest and wildlife is now a part of cummunities’ responsibility. I also appreciate our fishery officials who have been working very hard to organize the fishery communities even though the concepts and practices of local governance and community management of resources are quite new to most of them. Overall, we have achieved considerable progress in getting the local communities involved in natural resources management and environmental protection.
I would like to reemphasize that in view of the complex problem of coordinating the competing claims for resources by different sections of society, the development of the of the Tonle Sap must be planned and implemented through anIntegrated basin-wide approach. In this regard, I praise the Tonle Sap Initiative (TSI) prepared by ADB and adopted by the government in 2003, which provides a framework for Sector Wide Management of the Tonle Sap basin, in harmony with the Government’s Rectangular Strategy for Growth, Employment, Equity, and Efficiency. The TSI forms the basis for setting priorities and planning assistance in the Tonle Sap basin over the next 5-10 years. For that reason, the TSI is one of the best illustrations in Cambodia of a development strategy based on the Sector Wide Approach.
As part of the TSI, the Tonle Sap Basin Strategy has been developed to bring together all development partners through well integrated loan, grant, and technical assistance projects. Apart from the ADB, there are other bilateral and multilateral donors involved in the development of the Tonle Sap basin, such as the AFD, AusAID, Belgium, Danida, Finland, EU, FAO, GEF, GTZ, IFAD, the Netherlands, the World Bank and UNDP, as well as many NGOs. On behalf of the Cambodian people and government, I would like to thank all these development partners for helping us preserve the unique Tonle Sap ecosystem.
At the same time it is noticeable that the TSI is designed to reduce poverty among the population in the basin through a pro-poor, and sustainable economic growth strategy. For instance, in just over 3 years the TSI has developed a comprehensive, integrated program of loan, grant and technical assistance (TA) projects with over $130 million in already committed funding from ADB and its co-financing partners. Another $55 million in planned funds from ADB, along with additional cofinancing from development partners will be available for developing and implementing a sector-wide approach for the development and management of the Tonle Sap Basin.
The gains of the TSI are impressive but the battle is not won yet. Much more remains to be done to ensure sustainable development of the Tonle Sap basin. In this sense, we must continue to address:
- the acceleration project delivery poverty reduction at the community level by working with the communities to provide them with capital, credit, technologies, markets and improved coordination between government agencies and local communities;
- enhancing effectiveness of program coordination at the national level among various stakeholders including government ministries, international communities and NGOs;
- more forceful enforcement of Regulations on the Use and Exploitation of the fruits of development by giving independency for the local communities;
- evolving a Plan of Action for Basin-wide Management and Sector-wide Development, which identifies medium-term and long-term goals and objectives and provides the resources, both financial and human, from all stakeholders; and,
- integrating the TSI with the Centralization & Decentralization program by having clear programs and implementation.
Being a large ecosystem and sector-wide intervention, the TSI will need an effective, proactive, responsible and accountable organization that can mobilize and galvanize supports from all ministries, and from wide-ranging development partners. In this regard I would like this forum to examine the feasibility of establishing a “Tonle Sap Authority” or a“Supreme Council of Tonle Sap” under the guidance of the Royal Government of Cambodia.
In closing, I would like to thank the international community, especially the ADB, for the assistance to the Tonle Sap basin. We in the Government and the people of Cambodia are committed to engagement in this partnership in the weeks, months and years ahead. We look forward to working with the ADB and other development partners to make the grant and loan assistance more productive and effective for accelerating growth and achieving sustainable development, in the rural areas.
Finally, may I wish successful deliberations during the conference and wish you all good health and successful implementation of the TSI projects and programs.