The Tonle Sap River Initiative

The Tonle Sap River Basin is important to around two million Cambodians. Their livelihoods depend on its rich natural resources. The seasonal flooding provides spawning grounds for fish in the flooded forests. During rainy season, communities could fish and cultivate rice at the same time in the flooded areas.

With its diverse natural resources, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the government of Cambodia identified the Tonle Sap region as a biosphere region in 1997 and was designated by a Royal Decree in 2001.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has established itself as the leading funding agency in the Tonle Sap Basin. The Bank’s involvement in the Tonle Sap Basin started in 1998 as part of a technical assistance (TA) for the Mekong Region amounting to US$1.65 million. With the goal of pro-poor sustainable growth and equitable access to natural resources, the Bank launched the Tonle Sap initiative in 2002.

The initiative has four major projects:
1. Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project (TSEMP) with a total cost of US$19.4 million
2. Tonle Sap Sustainable Livelihoods Project (TSSLP), US$19.7 million
3. Lowland stabilization Project, US$1 million
4. Watershed Management Project, which is still in the pipeline.

The ADB’s holistic approach to the Tonle Sap is commendable. It uses a basin-wide integrated approach in managing the Tonle Sap River Basin. Tonle Sap is part of the Bank’s Regional Cooperation Strategy and Program (RCSP) for the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) which aims to facilitate growth and development in the region. However, there are projects under the GMS that would hinder the attainment of the goals of the Tonle Sap Initiative. Specifically, the development of hydropower infrastructure in the upstream Mekong River will eventually have significant negative environmental and social impacts on the Tonle Sap Basin.

Environmental and Social Impacts

According to the ADB, built structures such as dams, weirs, and flood control works could alter water quantity, quality, and timing. Such infrastructures have negative environmental and social impacts on the downstream communities, in particular the Tonle Sap Basin.

The Tonle Sap Lake is a tributary of the Mekong River. Built infrastructures in the upstream Mekong River could modify flooding patterns. The disruption of flooding patterns in the Tonle Sap will lead to loss of habitat and will affect the fishery resources. This in turn will have major impact to the lives of the communities that depend on the natural resources of the Tonle Sap for their livelihood. With the disruption of the flooding pattern in the Tonle Sap, the villagers’ practice of simultaneous fishing and rice cultivation in the flooded areas will be severely affected. This will in turn lead to possible loss of income and change in the way of life of the people living around the Tonle Sap Lake.

A Mekong River Commission report stated that the construction of dams would reduce the wet season flow of the Tonle Sap River by 20 percent. Around 240,000 hectares of regularly submerged land would no longer be flooded. The implementation of the proposed Mekong Power Grid program of the ADB, which includes the construction of upstream dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, will have significant negative impacts on the Tonle Sap Basin and its surrounding communities.

The Tonle Sap Initiative paved the way for the establishment of community fisheries (CF) to promote participatory natural resources management. However, CF members complain about the absence of authority for CFs to enforce regulations. The bureaucracy in reporting illegal activities provides a wide space for the illegal fishers to escape captivity.

CF members also complain about the non-exclusiveness of CFs. Outsiders could easily enter CFs that could pave the way for illegal activities and unsustainable practices. In the end, efforts on sustainable natural resources management will only be wasted.

Safeguard Policy Violations

Environmental Policy
Based on the Report and Recommendations (RRP) of the ADB President, the cumulative impact of built structures on the Mekong is a main concern of the Bank among the external factors affecting the Tonle Sap. (RRP, November 2005) However, according to a report by Oxfam Australia, the ADB’s view on the impacts of the upstream Mekong on the Tonle Sap is not consistent to the RRP statement. Based on the Final TA Report for the Tonle Sap Sustainable Livelihoods Project, the Bank claims that the works in the Upper Mekong Basin have no substantial negative impacts on the hydrology of Tonle Sap. This clearly shows that the Bank has not undertaken cumulative environmental impact assessment to determine the effects of upstream development on the Tonle Sap Basin. The Bank failed to holistically assess the impacts of the transboundary issues of ADB’s project plans. (Rosien, 2006)

The implementation of the Mekong Power Grid will have substantial negative impacts on the Tonle Sap Basin and the lives of the millions of Cambodians who depend on it. The ADB should not push through with its hydropower developments if it is truly adopting an integrated approach to the Tonle Sap River Basin, it

The failure of the ADB to conduct a cumulative and integrated environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the entire GMS shows the shortcoming of the Bank in factoring the environmental, social and economic impacts of large-scale infrastructures, such as dams, to the Tonle Sap River Basin and surrounding communities.

Based on the independent analysis conducted by the Mekong Watch on the EIA of the Chong Kneas Environmental Improvement Project (CKEIP), the EIA was lacking and significant environmental impacts were omitted.

Resettlement Policy
According to the same report by Oxfam Australia, the ADB came up with a Land Acquisition and Resettlement Framework (LARF) to safeguard communities against negative resettlement impacts caused by infrastructure projects. However, there are certain provisions which are ambiguous.
 
The ADB conducted consultations only on some of its projects at a very limited extent. Majority of the villagers have little knowledge about the Bank’s projects. Villagers are unlikely to agree with their relocation if the compensation given them will improve their previous situation.

Other Issues and Concerns
With the present hierarchical and political setup in the communities, there is a great risk that women will not be heard during discussions.

There is a risk of organizational congestion due to the overlaps among the different line agencies of the government. Poor communication and coordination among these line agencies could hinder the attainment of the goal of sustainable natural resource management.

There is also a lack of participation in the project design. It is not even sure if the recommendations from the different communities on some of the Bank’s projects were even incorporated and adopted.

Additional Reading
The Questionable Tonle Sap Initiative, Development Debacles, NGO Forum on ADB, 2006.

Rosien, Jessica. “Can the Asian Development Bank Save the Tonle Sap from Poverty?: An Analysis of the Asian Development Bank’s Operations in the Tonle Sap.” Australia: Oxfam Australia, April 2006.

Lead Organizations
Fisheries Action Coalition Team
NGO Forum on Cambodia
Oxfam Australia

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