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Perspectives on Impact in Cambodia of Developments Elsewhere in the Basin

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6. Perspectives on Impact in Cambodia of Developments Elsewhere in the Basin

The backbone of the Cambodian agricultural economy is rice and fisheries which are dependent on the annual inundation and recession of the Mekong Tonle Sap system for their continued productivity. Inundation not only provides the silt which fertilises the paddy fields, but also the rising water levels facilitating fisheries migration. The maintenance of the Mekong floods are thus a central concern of Cambodia.

Any upstream projects will have a significant potential effect on the reliability and level of floods in the lower Mekong, possibly reducing dry season flows and increasing the variability in the level of annual flooding. The impact of reduced dry season flows generally would be large, and would be devastating for small scale irrigators who depend on each centimeter of level in the receding flood for their flood recession rice production. Some officials within the Ministries and the National Mekong Committee hold the notion that upstream users of the Mekong will utilize the Mekong resources in an environmentally benign fashion. This perspective can be interpreted as being somewhat naive given evidence of water level changes in Cambodia resulting from upstream developments. For example, in 1993 water levels decreased as China was filling reservoirs in Yunnan and in 1994 water levels increased as Yunnan did not need the water (pers. comm. National Mekong Secretariat). Sin Niny (Ministry of Agriculture, and Permanent Secretary, Cambodian National Mekong Committee), notes that increased siltation of the Mekong at Phnom Penh has made dredging necessary and is evidence of the effects of upstream developments on the lower riparian nations.

Sin Niny also recognises the potential dangers of upstream developments but points to geopolitics and Cambodia’s regional weakness as reasons leading to the neglect of their concerns (pers. comm 1995). Sambor is an example of this. The Mekong River Commission has before it a plan to build a 30 km long, 35m high, 3,300 megawatt dam costing $10 billion, where as Cambodia has put forward a “softer” suggestion for a 20 km long canal, with a concrete barrage on the mainstream costing $700 million and able to generate 465 megawatts. Both the Cambodian National Mekong Committee and the Ministry of Energy support the smaller option citing less environmental impacts as the reason for their preference. Critics however, say that the MRC is driven by Thailand and to a lesser degree Vietnam, and could pressure Cambodia, as a weaker partner, into supporting the larger project. Evidence of this is already apparent in that the MRC work plan already included the bigger dam option for Sambor even after Cambodia had submitted its preference for the smaller. Despite this, the MRC claims that it only makes decisions in terms of approaches, leaving project details up to the country itself. This is hardly the case in this instance.

Mok Mareth (Minister for Environment) has also shown concern about upstream developments, specifically citing the example of the Sekaman 1 hydropower project (a HECEC project) in Lao PDR on Cambodian fisheries. Also, Vietnam’s Yali falls hydropower project in the Central Highlands will potentially affect fisheries in Cambodia, however these impacts have not been studied.

7. Perspectives on Impacts Elsewhere in the Basin of Developments in Cambodia

There is little information available about the varying Cambodian perspectives of the implications of resource management within Cambodia on the other Mekong nations, particularly on the Mekong Delta. However, it has been noted that the Tonle Sap supports fish that migrate upstream as far as Yunnan. The conservation and management of the Tonle Sap therefore has regional significance.

There is concern in Lao PDR, especially by fisherfolk near the border at Khone Falls (also known as Leepee Falls) that dynamiting by Cambodian fisherfolk is affecting their fishing yields (Sluiter 1992:51). While Lao PDR fisherfolk have been complaining about decreasing yields from the Khone Falls area, it is difficult without more research to confirm this.

8. Role of the Mekong River Commission

The CNMS hold the perspective that they should link with the National Development Needs and Planning, for Cambodia now, this means following the Implementing National Planning, (CCC document from UNDP). The CNMS should supplement this document, with priority needs focusing firstly on rehabilitation (for example of Kirrirom and Prek Thnot) and then development (for example Sambor). Within the framework of resource management the CNMS is a peripheral actor in a complex power sharing arrangement. This can be partly attributed to Cambodia’s late rejoining of the MRC (1993) and thus establishment in Phnom Penh.

9. Summary and Recommendations

The importance of the Mekong Tonle Sap system to the livelihood of the majority of Khmers cannot be underestimated. As Cambodia is a predominantly agricultural society, Khmers are directly tied to their natural resource base for their livelihood. Prolonged insecurity and political unrest however has undermined food security and sustainability. Internationally, insecurity has allowed rampant resource grabbing by neighbouring resource poor countries, particularly in the forestry sector, in exchange for much needed foreign currency and has weakened Cambodia’s position as a downstream nation in Mekong River Commission negotiations.

Nationally, government policy in all resource sectors has either been nonexistent, unenforceable or inappropriate. The focus on control and regulation, with top down models of enforcement are slowly coming to be recognised by government officials as ineffective. NGO’s and other IO’s are pointing to community organisation, participation and the establishment of resource user groups as the direction in which policy should be headed. Despite these efforts to address resource degradation at the local level, processes at larger scales are the main forces working to degrade resources. Simultaneously, traditional arrangements regulating access of the rural population to natural resources have eroded or completely broken down which in combination with poverty is acting to erode resources locally. The trend toward resource scarcity at the local level can be seen in all sectors and is placing the rural poor in an increasingly precarious position. Political insecurity is increasingly becoming tied to resource security and scarcity. It seems unlikely that more sustainable models of resource utilisation can be adopted until Cambodia’s achieves a more stable political environment.


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1 The UNTAC mandate included the demilitarisation of the rival factions, particularly the Khmer Rouge; the removal of the ministries, army, police, local and provincial administration from Communist Party control; rehabilitation and the restoration of territorial integrity and unity. None of these goals were achieved. UNTAC did however, repatriate 360,000 refugees from the Thai Cambodian border area, this is considered one of UNTAC’s, primarily UNHCR’s, most successful operations.

2 Including eight year tax holidays, duty exemptions and full repatriation of profits.

3 FAO is working on hydrological data for the Tonle Sap and estimates that 60% of the water level in the wet season originates in the Mekong river (pers. comm, 1995).

4 Average yields area 1.3 tonnes per hectare, some of the lowest in Asia.

5 In 1992/3 the United Nations High Comission for Refugees organised the return of 360,000 Khmer refugees from the Thai Cambodian border as a part of the United Nations peace plan. Consequently many Khmers have returned to their villages with the hope of either regaining access to the old plots or being allocated new paddy fields, placing additional strain on already limited land resources.

6 In August 1991 floods caused US $150m in damage to roads, reservoirs and irrigation structures in three central provinces (Dennis and Woodsworth 1992) and in Battambang, Kompong Speu, Kampot and Kandal in August 1994 flooding caused US $200m damage.

7 The Ministry of Environment was created as part of a power sharing deal between co-Prime Ministers Hun Sen (CPP) and Rannarith (FUNCIPEC).

8 By the end of the Pol Pot era in 1979, there were only an estimated 300 professionals in Cambodia.

9 1967 statistics for Battambang province include Banteay Meanchey.

10Production Solidarity Groups.

11There are only twenty forest technicians in the Forestry Department (FAO 1991).

12 The export ban does not apply to processed timber.

13The central and southeastern provinces of Kompong Chnang, Kompong Speu, Kandal, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Takeo, Kompong Cham and Kompot are currently facing wood supply shortages and increasingly soil erosion is becoming a problem on deforested hill sides. Population pressure on forests in this region is significant.

14 Estimates of subsistence yields differ greatly, ranging from 34,000 to 100,000 tonnes.

15 Totals do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.

16For example as a result of mining activites in Pailin, silt load in the Stung Sangker (Battambang province) has increased which is contributing to the siltation of the Tonle Sap.

17 If loan repayment is necessary through increased yields, it is not worth it.

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