The importance of Tonle Sap for Cambodia’s well being
The “Great Lake” of Cambodia, Tonle Sap, is located in the lower Mekong basin and is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. With its diverse mini-ecosystems, it is of great importance to not only the Cambodian’s food supply, but also other countries. Up to 60% of Southeast Asia’s protein comes from the fishes caught at the Tonle Sap lake. Especially during the monsoon season, the lake becomes a great breeding ground for fishes as the lake expands up to 15 times its size in comparison to the dry season. After the water subsides, fishing becomes easy. But it is also used for trade, water for farming, or nutrition for fertile land, this great ecosystem is crucial to life in the country.
Five provinces surround Tonle Sap with more than three million people living around the lake. 9 out of 10 people are either dependent on fishing or agriculture, which in turn requires a healthy and well-functioning ecosystem (Hays, 2008).
However, the population boom over the last few decades with the population doubling over the last 30 years after the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, has had an immense impact on the lake as more and more people depend on the lake and its fisheries. Overfishing of the lake has led to a decline of the number of fish available and threatens the livelihood of not only the fishermen, but also those who receive their daily protein of fishes from the “Great Lake”. The problem of overfishing, uncertain fishing rights and illegal fishing together with pollution and environmental degradation has earned the lake the title of “Most Threatened Lake 2016”. And nothing much changed since then. Models predict that sedimentation, where most of the fish get their nutrition from, will decline by 70% until the year 2040 (Sassoon, 2017) and consequently will result in further declining of the fish stock.
So, what is the solution if there is any? The government has to step up and introduce clear fishing rights while also refusing the building of huge dam-projects (for example the Sambor dam) in order to build sustainable fisheries within Cambodia. The importance of Tonle Sap concerning livelihood, food supply and environmental benefits should not go unnoticed. Because if there are no fishes in Tonle Sap in the future, not only the 3 million people living nearby will suffer, but the whole of southeast Asia will be negatively impacted.