The Tonle Sap Lake is such a valuable resource it was nominated in October 1997 as a "Biosphere Reserve" under the Man and Biosphere Program of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (www.tsbr-ed.org). The Tonle Sap Lake supports a "huge population" because of its fisheries, the productivity of those fisheries, and the fresh water supply provided, the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve project (TSBR) explains. Indeed, Tonle Sap Lake provides "the last refuge for some of Asia's most globally significant biodiversity" (TSBR).
The management and funding, along with the conservation of Tonle Sap Lake is handled in large part by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), but also helping with funding: The United Nations Development Programme; the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the Capacity 21 Program.
The Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve has as a goal the fulfillment of three important functions: a) conservation of landscapes, ecosystems and species diversity; b) culturally, socially, and ecologically sustainable development; and c) research, monitoring, and education (www.mekonginfo.org).
The Tonle Sap Lake is connected to "streams, lakes, streams, flooded plain, and wetland vegetation" (www.mekonginfo.org); it is also a unique hydrological lake and supports "a rich biological diversity…aquatic plants, fish, waterfowl, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and microorganisms" (www.mekonginfo.org).
Tonle Sap Lake's Floating Villages
There are five villages that actually float on Tonle Sap Lake. "Classrooms sit on floating platforms and children row themselves to school on small sampans," according to Ker Munthit, writing in The America's Intelligence Wire. Vendors go "door-to-door" in small boats (sampans) and life is built around the flow of water in the lake. The floating village called Chong Kneas has about 5,800 people living in it and every year during the dry season their houseboats become anchored in the mud as the lake retreats. About seventy percent of the residents of Chong Kneas live on about seventy cents a day. "Every year, they have to move and buy clothes and kitchenware that blown away by the storms of the monsoon," said one of the villagers that Munthit interviewed.
Life would have been better for the floating community, the man said, if the government of Cambodia had not abandoned a plan that was originally conceived by the Asian Development Bank. That plan would have allowed Chong Kneas to move to higher ground and become a permanent settlement instead of a floating one with radical changes every year due to the change in water level in the lake. The higher ground settlement would have meant "a clean water supply, sanitation, roads, schools and medical clinics" (Munthit, 2006).
That having been said, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen was quoted as saying the lake "functions as part of the cultural heritage and history" (Xinhua News Agency). And despite its importance as a cultural place, the Prime Minister also said there should be oil drilling in the middle of the lake; he also promised to "develop the lake with sustainability, conserve the environment, develop tourism areas" and "promote hydroelectricity" (Xinhua News Agency). On the subject of ecotourism and tour companies, the community leader of Chong Kneas, Em Mann, said there was some resistance to the floating community's desire to move onto dry land, on higher ground. The touring companies lobbied the Cambodian government to not go through with the move. After all, tourists "like to visit the floating community," Mann said. "They must really thinking we are animals in a zoo here," he stated.
Serious Environmental Issues Associated with Tonle Sap Lake
The Tonle Sap Lake -- according to the Biosphere Reserve data -- is currently being exploited to the point of harmfulness. This threatens fish biodiversity "and long-term productivity" (www.tsbr-ed.org). The actually fish caught in the lake has remained fairly table, the TSBR data shows; however, "there is a decrease in numbers of key species and relative sizes of fish being caught," the TSBR information reveals. The pressure on fishing has increased due to "increasing number of fisher-men and fishing gear, and more intensive fishing," the TSBR goes on. Meanwhile clearing of the forests that surround the huge lake, called the "flooded forests," has impacted in a negative way the important fish habitats. Exacerbating the problem of fewer fish species and a reduction in the size of fish are the upstream dams and water resource projects on the Mekong River, which dump excess sedimentation into the Tonle Sap Lake (www.tsbr-ed.org).
Moreover, the TSBR research shows that there are a number of issues associated with the deterioration of the Tonle Sap Lake as a natural resource for Cambodia. Those issues include: a) illegal fishing practices; b) conflicts between commercial fishing lot owners and local fishers; c) "over exploitation of resources and loss of biodiversity (decrease in number of key species and relative size)"; d) destruction of fish habitats because of the chopping down of flooded forests; e) "family scale" fishing upon which community fisheries members depend "is too restrictive to provide sufficient income generation for families and community"; f) weak legal, institutional framework and insufficient law enforcement for violation of fishing rules; and g) dams upstream prevent fish from moving down into the lake through the Mekong River; irrigation projects (to provide water for rice growing) also have a negative impact on fish migration (www.tsbr-ed.org).
The CIA Factbook states that desertification (clear-cutting of trees) around the lake and elsewhere is having a serious negative affect; there are endangered species around the lake and the wetlands and the lake are being polluted with industrial wastes and pesticides (some put in the ground for growing produce upstream of the lake).
The other main problem that needs to be dealt with is pollution in Tonle Sap Lake. There is no public sewage system, and so they use the lake -- "their traditional water supply" -- as a toilet and garbage dump as well (Munthit). The cost of buying clean safe drinking water is about 28 U.S. cents for 8 gallons. Imagine earning about 70 cents a day fishing for snakes and shelling out 28 of those 70 cents just to have drinking water.
Cambodia National Mekong Committee. (2007). Policy and Strategy for The Tonle Sap
Biosphere Reserve. Retrieved Nov. 28, 2009, from http://www.adb.org/Projects/tonle_sap/Speeches/environ-management-proj.pdf.
Fitzherbert, Virginia. (2007). Tipping the Scales: At Least Four Million Water Snakes
Are Caught from Tonle Sap Lake Every Year. Geographical, 79.1, 42-48.
Ibbertson, Mike. (2008). Tonle Sap -- Cambodia's Great Lake. Retrieved Nov. 29,