Natural Resources Conservation and Livelihoods

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                              IN THE TONLE SAP BASIN

                                      YEM Dararath

               Water Resources and Environmental Management Specialist


This paper discusses the natural resources conservation and livelihoods. The natural

resources are critical to livelihoods of people living in the Tonle Sap Basin. The

interactions between natural resources and development activities have been elaborated

to show potential effects on the resources in the basin. Efforts by a number of institutions,

both national and international, are simultaneously discussed in the paper. It is a great

effort that integrated water resources management be integrated into national policy and

development dimension.

Keywords: Natural Resources Conservation, Livelihoods, poverty, Integrated Water

Resources Management, and water flow.

1.    Introduction
The Tonle Sap is the most important inland aquatic environment in Southeast Asia. It

forms a natural floodplain reservoir in the depression of the Cambodian plain. It consists

of twelve main tributaries forming sub-basins, and is drained by the Tonle Sap River into

the Mekong River near Phnom Penh. The Tonle Sap Basin, defined as the catchment

area of the Tonle Sap River at its confluence with the Mekong River, has an area of

85,000 km2, of which 80,000 km2 lies within Cambodia.

The annual flow of the Mekong waters into the Lake basin during the wet season raises

the Lake‟s water level from less than 2 m in the dry season, to deeper than 14 m at peak

flood. By late May, when the water level of the Mekong downstream of Tonle Sap

reaches a sufficient height of 9 m it starts to push water back upstream, thus reversing the

flow in the Tonle Sap River. This results in an accumulation of nutrient rich water from

upstream Mekong River sources covering the wetlands and flood plain and increasing the

water volume from 1.3 billion m3 to 70 billion m3. By October, the water level in the

Mekong River subsides and flow in the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong delta.

However, when the level of the Mekong River is high the flow of the Tonle Sap River is

reversed and nutrient-rich water is pushed into the lake, raising its level by up to 10 m

and increasing its area from 2,500 km2 to 15,000 km2. This unusual hydrological cycle

and the vast area of seasonally flooded low forest and shrubs that it creates, in

conjunction with high temperatures, drives a very high biodiversity of fish, reptile, bird,

mammal, and plant species.

Another important consequence of the hydrology of the basin, is that, strictly

(hydrologically) speaking, the basin boundaries are those of the entire Mekong upstream

of Phnom Penh (the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Rivers).

The lake supports a very large human population through its enormous fisheries

productivity and provides the last refuge for some of Asia‟s most globally significant

biodiversity. Additionally, the flooded areas offer breeding grounds and refuge areas for

fish that subsequently migrate back to the Mekong River, providing thereby a regionally

vital resource.

2.     Geography and Population

2.1. Geography
The Tonle Sap Basin (TSB) within Cambodia, covers an area of approximately 80,000

km2. Eight provinces and one city share the basin, namely Kampong Chhnang,

Battambang, Pousat, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Preah Vihear,

Otdor Meanchey, and Pailin City. Main tributaries connecting to the Great Lake include

Stung Baribo, Stung Pousat, Stung Dauntry, Stung Sang Kae, Stung Battambang, Stung

Mongkul Borei, Stung Sisophon, Stung Sraeng, Stung Siem Reab, Stung Chikraeng,

Stung Staung, Stung Saen, and Stung Chinit (Table 1).


2.2. Population
The total population of the Tonle Sap Basin is approximately 4,198,096 in 2004 (Seila

Programme, 2004). The population density of the eight provinces and one city ranges

from 23 to 91 persons per km2 in 2004. The population density in Battambang and Siem

Reap province is higher than in the other provinces (Figure 1).


2.3. Poverty
The reality of poverty is complex, but it is generally defined to be multidimensional

deprivation. The dimensions include low income and consumption; a lack of physical

necessities and assets; a lack of access to basic services; isolation; vulnerability to shocks

and a lack of means to cope with shock-induced losses; and powerlessness (RGC, 2001).

Half of the villages have 40–60% of households below the poverty line, with a peak of

80% in some areas (ADB, 2005). Many households have no landholdings and are entirely

dependent on fishing and foraging, with access to fishing areas often under dispute.

Percentage of poor in 2000 varies from village to village and province to province

between 0.4% and 52.6% (Figure 2).


3.     Natural Resources and Livelihoods

3.1. Water Resources
Cambodia is generally considered a “water-wealthy” country. In terms of its annual water

availability its gross water resources rank third in Southeast Asia. The average annual

rainfall varies across the Tonle Sap region from between 1,100 mm to 1,500 mm (Figure

3). Water inputs from the Tonle Sap watershed were estimated at (28 x 109) cubic meters

(Table 2). The estimated total volume of rainfall in Cambodia is about 426 billion m3 per

year, of which only 212.5 billion m3 (49.9 per cent) flows into water bodies. The

remainder is subject to evaporation and evapo-transpiration, and recharging of




3.2. Fauna and Flora
Although deforestation in the Tonle Sap basin has been taken place, the forests are still

of importance habitats. The flooded forest of the Tonle Sap is still by far the greatest

continuous area of savannah swamp forest and inundated forest in the entire Asian

region. At least 200 species of fish, 42 species of reptiles, 225 species of birds, and 46

species of mammals within the Tonle Sap Lake have been recorded. Most People live

within the Tonle Sap region have much more benefited from the resources of the Tonle

Sap Basin.

3.3.   Livelihoods

3.3.1. Agriculture
The main livelihood in the Tonle Sap Lake Region is rice cultivation, which offers the

main source of food for the region‟s inhabitants. The rice cultivation is based on floating

and wet season rice (recession rice). The farmers do not commonly use fertilisers,

pesticides, or have irrigation and thus they are dependent on rainfall, as well as floods.

Cultivation of floating and wet season rice is heavily dependent on floods.

Total cultivated area in 2002 was approximately 939,745 hectares, accounting for 41.9%

of total cultivated area throughout the country (Figure 4). Yield per hectare ranged from

1.2 tons to 2.4 tons in 2002 (Figure 7).





3.3.2. Fishery
The fresh water fishery is extremely important in maintaining minimum nutritional

requirements of large numbers of people. It has been recorded that the Tonle Sap alone

provides around 60% of the commercial freshwater fisheries production. However there

is evidence that the fishery yields are declining in the Tonle Sap Lake. Fisheries and the

natural aquatic habitats are under increasing pressure from alterations to flow regimes

increasing turbidity and degraded water quality. Wetlands are being filled, drained and

encroached upon. Development on the banks of rivers, increased urbanization and

industrialization, and aquaculture alter the characteristics of the habitat and the quality of

fresh water to support the population of fish (ADB, 2004). According to the NIS, the total

annual fish catch for the Tonle Sap Basin in 2002 was about 182,600 tons (Figure 8).


3.3.3. Tourism
Ecotourism is at an early stage of development in the basin. Prek Toel Core area has a

significant number of globally rare species of birds and is attracting a number of

ornithologists. The site has presently attracted a number of tourists. The Tonle Sap Great

Lake landscape, the birds of Tonle Sap wetlands, and tropical forest of the Tonle Sap

have also been increasingly visited by tourists from over the world. Local communities

can further benefit from ecotourism additional to cultural sites. The ecotourism potential

is based on the conservation values of the flooded forest being maintained. Ecologically

significant sites are particularly sensitive to damage from overuse by tourists. There are

dangers from over concentration of visitors.

4.    Major Threats to the Tonle Sap Basin
As mentioned above, most people living in the Tonle Sap Basin mainly depend upon rice

cultivation, which consumes large volume of water and exploitation of natural resources.

It has been indicated that incidence of poverty in the Tonle Sap Basin is higher than that

in other areas in the country. The exploitation of natural resources will therefore be

extremely increased due to the increase of population and poverty.

Major threats to the Tonle Sap are as follows: (i) poverty-driven overexploitation of

fisheries and wildlife resources; (ii) conversion of the flooded forest to agriculture; (iii)

collection of fuel wood from the flooded forest; and (iv) possibly, decrease of water flow

in the wet season.

5.      Environmental and Natural Resources Management
It has been indicated that most people lives in the Tonle Sap Basin is mostly dependant

on agriculture and resource extractive activities. Nine out of 10 poor persons identify

agriculture as their main source of income. Poverty is more pronounced in rural areas

40% compared to 30% in urban areas. In fact 90% of Cambodia‟s poor are found in the

rural areas. The Tonle Sap region has the highest degree of poverty at 38%.

5.1. Institutional Framework
Below the Council of Ministers, The Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC)

has a membership of ten ministries and a linkage with the regional Mekong River

Commission. CNMC's role is to advise the Government on all matters related to the

formulation of water policy, strategy, management, preservation, investigation, planning,

and restoration and the development of the water and other natural resources of the

Mekong River Basin within Cambodia. Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve Secretariat

(TSBRS) is also under control of the CNMC, which is headed by Deputy Secretary

General of the Executive Committee (Figure 9). It has a permanent Deputy Head and is

structured into three divisions: (i) policy, strategy, and networking; (ii) research,

monitoring, and data management; and (iii) administration and training.


Environmental management is fallen under responsibility of the Ministry of Environment

(MOE). The MOE is empowered to develop environmental policies in the spirit of

sustainable country development and to implement the National and Regional

Environmental Action Plans in collaboration with other concerned ministries. In practice,

it is required that the MOE closely collaborate and coordinate with ministries involved.

Those ministries include Ministry of Agriculture Forests and Fisheries (MAFF), Ministry

of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM), Ministry of Industry, Mines and

Energy (MIME), Ministry of Rural Development (MRD), Ministry of Tourism (MOT),

Ministry of Interior (MOI), and Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT).

In addition, the provincial and municipal departments of environment are under the direct

control of the MOE and have obligations to be responsible for implementing

environmental policy, preventing and protecting environmental pollution in cooperation

with relevant departments.

5.2. Policy, Strategy and Plans
A number of important national strategies and plans regarding the environmental

management and natural resources conservation are summarised as follows:

      The National Water Resources Policy (NWRP) was formulated in 2004 aiming at

       providing guidelines for efficient and effective water resources management,

       socio-economic development and welfare of the population and ensuring a

       sustainable environment.

   The Strategic Framework for the Water Sector followed on from ADB‟s

    assistance in creating the National Water Sector Profile, and supported

    MOWRAM in the development of its strategy.

   The National Water Resources Strategy for Cambodia was formulated more or

    less contemporaneously with the Strategic Framework for the Water Sector with

    the support of the World Bank through its Agricultural Productivity Improvement

    Program (APIP).

   The Water Sector Roadmap summarises RGC‟s goals for the water sector as a

    basis for setting priorities and planning investment and development assistance. It

    lists a range of indicators for three areas of „water sector outcomes‟ (water

    reforms, water resources management, water service delivery) and for specific

    sector outputs.

   The Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Strategy (2001 - 2011) focuses on issues

    and solutions for the small scale schemes that are under the control of the

    Ministry of Rural Development.

   The Second Socioeconomic Development Plan, 2001 – 2005 (SEDP II) is the

    Government‟s principal strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction and

    includes a target to reduce the poverty headcount index from 36 to 31 percent in

    order to reduce poverty by half in fifteen years.

   The National Poverty Reduction Strategy 2003 –2005 (NPRS) has been prepared

    using SEDPII as its key building block. In it the priority poverty reduction

    actions include maintaining macroeconomic stability; improving rural livelihoods;

    expanding job opportunities; improving capabilities; strengthening institutions

    and improving governance; reducing vulnerability and strengthening social

    inclusion; promoting gender equity; and priority focus on people.

   The Rectangular Strategy 2003-2008 has good governance and implementation as

    its backbone and will be announced as soon as the new government is formed.

    The strategy has four pillars: (i) high economic growth and enhanced

    competitiveness; (ii) job-creation; (iii) improved social equity; and (iv) increased

    public sector effectiveness.       The enabling environment for successful

    implementation includes: (i) peace, political stability and social order; (ii)

    partnership with development agencies; (iii) macroeconomic and financial

    stability; and (iv) integration into the regional and world economy. The

    Rectangular Strategy identifies the following as the priority sectors: (i)

    agriculture; (ii) private sector development and employment; (iii) physical

    infrastructure; and (iv) human resource development.

   The Governance Action Plan of April 2001 (GAP) was prepared by the Council

    for Administrative Reform and has as its main function the definition and

    relationship of public power and authority to management and control over

    societal resources. Crosscutting areas covered by GAP include public finance,

    civil service reform and anti-corruption, judicial and legal system reform,

    demobilization of armed forces and natural resource management. In the field of

    natural resource management, issues related to land, forestry and fisheries

    management are addressed as well as the social question of resource access.

   The National Environmental Action Plan 1998 – 2002 (NEAP) aims to integrate

    environmental concerns into economic activity and ensure future maintenance of

       the functional capacities of Cambodia‟s ecosystems.              NEAP adopts a

       precautionary approach, concentrating on environmental protection rather than the

       more difficult and costly post-impact rehabilitation. Priority areas of intervention

       are forestry policy, fisheries and agriculture in the Tonle Sap, coastal fisheries

       management, biodiversity conservation and protected areas, environmental

       education, energy development and urban waste management.

      The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan NBSAP 2002 (NBSAP) was

       created with a view towards integration of biodiversity conservation and

       sustainable natural resource use concepts into an overall poverty reduction

       strategy. NBSAP provides a framework for action at all levels that will enhance

       productivity, diversity and integrity of natural resources.

5.3. Legal Framework
The Ministry of Environment (MOE) was created in September 1993 with a

responsibility to define environmental planning and actions, to oversee the environmental

impact assessment, the protection of the environment and preservation of ecological

balance, and development project monitoring and inspection in collaboration with line-

institutions and agencies. The followings are the national laws and regulations related to

environmental protection and management, and natural resources management:

      Constitutional Law (1993);

      Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Management Law (1996);

      Fisheries Law (1987);

      Forestry Management Law (1988)

      Environmental Impact Assessment Process Sub-decree (1999);

      Implementation of the Law on Investment Sub-decree (1997);

      Water Pollution Control Sub-decree (1999);

      Solid Waste Management Sub-decree (1999); and

      Air Pollution and Noise Disturbance Control Sub-decree (2000).

6.    Conclusion
The paper presents the natural resources conservation and livelihoods in the Tonle Sap

Basin. As mentioned above, most people living in the basin are mostly dependant on

extractions of natural resources, particularly water resource, from the basin. The natural

resources, for instance, biodiversity throughout the watershed is declining with increased

development, the destruction of habitats and the exploitation of endangered species.

Widespread deforestation, habitat encroachment, the decline in environmental quality,

and the hunting of animals for food and commercial purposes are prime contributors to

natural resources depletion. Ecotourism is also another pressure on the natural habitats

and wetlands in the basin.

The importance of effective management and sustainable exploitation of the nation's

natural resources as a vital tool in reducing poverty is becoming more widely accepted.

Recognizing the depletion of natural resources within the basin, a number of efforts made

by the MOE in collaboration with other ministries involved to suppress any activities that

are likely to deteriorate the natural resources in the basin as a whole and local

communities as a particular.

At the same time, a number of institutional arrangements and legal instruments have been

developed to successfully accomplish the goals of sustainable development and poverty


The author would like to thank H.E. Sin Niny, , who gave the author the great

opportunity to attend the International Forum on Integrated Water Resources

Management of the Mekong River Basin to be held in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Special

thanks are due to Dr. Tue Kell Nielsen for his invaluable advice and material supports.


ADB. (2002) The Tonle Sap in ADB‟s country strategies and programme. The Tonle Sap


ADB. (2005) The Tonle Sap Basin strategy. Author, Manila, p. 5.

CNMC. (2004) Sub-area analysis and development.The Tonle Sap sub-area (SA-9C).

       Author, Phnom Penh, p.18.

DOFW. (2003) Forestry statistics to 2002. Author, Phnom Penh.

DOFW. (2003) Forestry statistics to 2002. Author, Phnom Penh.

DOFW. (2005) Forestry statistics to 2004. Author, Phnom Penh.

MAFF. (2002) Agricultural statistics 2001-2002. Author, Phnom Penh.

MOE. (2004) State of environment report. Author, Phnom Penh.

National Institute of Statistic. (1999) General population census of Cambodia 1998.

       Final census results. Author, Phnom Penh.

National Institute of Statistic. (2003) Statistic year book. Author, Phnom Penh, pp. 6-7,

       27-28, 210-239.

NCDP. (2004) Rapid institutional assessment, water resources (draft). pp. 20-22.

RGC. (2001) Second five-year socioeconomic development plan. Ministry of Planning,

       Phnom Penh, pp. 45-46.

Wright, G., Moffatt, D., Wager, J., Yem, D., & Pang, P. (2004) Establishment of the

       Tonle Sap Basin Management Organization. Author, Phnom Penh.

List of Tables

Table 1: Main Tributaries Connecting to the Tonle Sap Great Lake

  No.     Name                                              Area, Km2

   1      Daun Tri                                            3,530
   2      Sangke                                              4,370
   3      Mongkul Borei                                       11,350
   4      Sisophon                                            3,120
   5      Sreng                                               10,380
   6      Siem Reap                                           3,060
   7      Staung                                              4,370
   8      Chikraing                                           2,750
   9      Sen                                                 16,250
  10      Chinit                                              6,770
  11      Boribo                                              6,080
  12      Pursat                                              5,980
Source: ADB, 2004.

Table 2: Water Balance of the Great Lake Basin: Surface Water Availability

 Inputs                                                            Annual Volume, (109 m³)

 Inputs from the Tonle Sap watershed ( 67,600 km² ):
 Inflow from the rivers                                            +24.3
 Rainfall on the Lake                                              +13.9
 Evaporation                                                       -10.4
 Total inputs from the Lake Basin                                  +28.0
 Inputs from the Mekong River through Tonle Sap river:
 Inflow to Tonle Sap at Prek Kdam to the Lake                      -45.0
 Outflow from the Lake                                             +72.9
 Net Balance                                                       +27.9
Sources: Carbonnel, 1962-63 in CNMC, 2004.

List of Figures
Figure 1: Population Density in the Tonle Sap Basin in 2004 (Person/km2)

Figure 2: Percentage of Poor in the Tonle Sap Basin in 2000

Figure 3: Average Annual Rainfall (mm), 1998-2002

                                 1800                            1674.38
   Average Annual Rainfall, mm

                                 1600                                                 1465.58
                                 1400                 1327.78
                                        Battambang   Kampong    Kampong    Pursat    Siem Reap
                                                     Chhnang     Thom

Figure 4: Cultivated Areas by Province in the Tonle Sap Basin in 1993 (ha)

Figure 5: Cultivated Areas by Province in the Tonle Sap Basin in 2002 (ha)

Figure 6: Percentage Change of Cultivated Area (1993-2002)

Figure 7: Rice Yield in the Tonle Sap Basin in 2002 (tons/ha)

Figure 8: Fish Catch by Province in the Tonle Sap Basin in 2002 (tons)

Figure 9: Cambodia National Mekong Committee Structure

                                             COUNCIL OF MINISTERS

                                          Cambodia National Mekong

                                             Executive Committee

                                               General Secretariat

                                  Administration and
         Planning Department                                 Projects Department    TSBR Secretariat
                                 Finance Department

                                   Administration and                                Administration and
             Planning Bureau                                   Agriculture Bureau
                                     HRD Bureau                                       Training Division

             Socio-economic                                     Water Resources     Strategy, Policy and
                                   Accounting Bureau
             Research Bureau                                        Bureau          Networking Division

             Book-keeping and      Management and               Waterways and       Research, Monitoring
            Information Bureau    Procurement Bureau            Tourism Bureau      and Data Mgt Division

            Basin Development                                   Water Utilization          Finance Monitoring
                 Plan Unit                                       Program Unit                     Unit

     Capacity Building                                        Environment Program
      Program Team                                                    Unit

Figure 10: Percentage Change of Forest Area in the Tonle Sap Basin (1993-2002)


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