Thai And Finnish Scientists Will Soon Begin Examine Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake

Global warming and economic exploitation destabilise key lake’s ecosystem. The Great Lake of Tonle Sap has always been Cambodia’s spring of life. Abundant fish stock and seasonal flooding to fertilise rice fields have blessed the region long before the builders of Angkor Wat arrived 900 years ago.
    But economic development policies are having the reverse effect. Locals are finding it more difficult to survive, a trend that may only worsen as climate change continues to take hold.
    Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest lake, and the source of protein-rich food for Cambodia’s 14 million people. As such, the government has sought assistance to aggressively exploit its fisheries under the banner of poverty reduction. But Cambodian sociologist Mak Sithirith of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team said it is not the poor who are benefiting.
    Under the scheme, the Cambodian government built infrastructure and introduced market economy to Tonle Sap communities. This has resulted in the end of interdependence between fishing and farming communities, Mak said. The traditional barter system between those growing rice and those catching fish disappeared after an industry of middlemen evolved to wander from village to village, exchanging rice and fish for cash.
    “Neighbouring communities who used to rely on one another now compete for material consumption and accumulation obtained by cash and loans,” Mak said.
The traditional small-scale fishermen are losing out entirely. The Cambodian government sold fishing concessions to large fishing businesses, banning villagers from the waters that ensured their livelihoods.   
    Scientists also suspect that changes of water flows caused by dam construction on the lower Mekong River and tributaries may affect the delicate relationship between the Mekong and Tonle Sap. During the rainy season, water flows from the Mekong to fill the lake, with the reverse occurring as the dry season settles in.
Climate change is adding a new level of anxiety. A coalition of Thai and Finnish scientists will soon begin a project to examine the potential climate-change impacts that those around Tonle Sap might experience in the next 50 years.
    “Tonle Sap’s topography makes the lake very sensitive to changes,” Suppakorn Chinvanno of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Start Regional Centre said. “A water-level rise of just 0.3 metres can mean a kilometre more flooding on land because of the flat landscape.”
    This article is based in part on a presentation by Mak Sithirith at the third International Conference of the Asian Rural Sociology Association in Beijing.  

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