ecological threat in Cambodia

The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, comprising a rich, biodiverse environment that supports huge numbers of plants, reptiles, mammals and birds, including the largest colonies of freshwater birds in the region. In 1997 the area was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

There are 170 floating villages on and around the lake. This lake is incredibly important for the welfare of the Cambodian people because it supplies 70% of the protein in the form of fish.

Cambodia is a very poor country and consumption of the lake’s resources is intense. Habitat destruction of the lake’s flooded forests, poaching, pollution and illegal fishing practices decimate fish stocks and degrade the environment. This in turn impacts upon people’s capacity to earn a living, sustaining themselves and their families.

Enter Osmose.

Osmose is an organization working in the area since 1999. Realizing that you can’t conserve the environment without helping people, Osmose’s goal is to support both the conservation of the Tonle Sap environment and the sustainable livelihoods of the floating village communities.

The Osmose project has been remarkably successful in its community education program and its ecotourism program.

Bird numbers had declined because poverty forced people to collect the eggs before they could hatch. Now those same people are employed as rangers committed to protecting the eggs they once collected. Consequently the birds have returned in great numbers. One example is the Oriental Darter, on the brink of extinction but now a common sight.

However there is a new threat to the ecological balance and the welfare of the people who live on and around the lake.

The Chinese have built a number of dams upstream on the Mekong River. The Cambodian, Thai and Laos governments – that all share the Mekong - are also planning dams in their efforts to modernize their countries and create hydroelectricity.

The fish in Tonle Sap are migratory. They spawn upriver in the Mekong then swim downstream and grow to maturity on the lake. Dams on the Mekong prevent this and people who depend on the lake are rightly worried. I was there at the start of the rainy season and the lake water level was unusually low.

You can have lots of fish and birds on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia or you can have dams on the Mekong River to produce hydroelectricity. You can’t have both.


  1. In Malaysia once the goverment plan to built a dam that will effect a place where fireflies are many that you think the tree light up as Christmas tree during the night when the fireflies surround them. Because many environmentalist were against the dam and it such a popular tourist spot they have abandon the plan.

  2. Great post Catmint! Thank you for sharing this information. Dams the world over can harm so many peoples.

  3. Dear Catmint, This really appears to be a case of one step forward and two back. Not only is it very alarming, another example of man's greed and misuse of natural resources, but it is also very depressing.

  4. Wonderful information Catmint :-D Love the first pic very much. That's a good view of the place. Glad that the pond produce the much desired fish/protein but those illegal fishing practices hmm... Hope that this important project can go on forever ;-)

  5. Wonderful post - obviously more people need to know this.

  6. Thanks so much for this article Catmint. My word verification is 'ovation.' Malay-Kadazan girl's news that the proposed dam plan has been abandoned is ovation-worthy! Our world needs many more of these victories of environment over so-called progress.

  7. Interesting information about the plight of the people and environment. I particularly love that photo of the fishing village.

  8. Thank you, Catmint. All in the name of progress?

  9. Thank you MKG, for your inspirational comment. We have to believe in people power to change things, otherwise there is only despair.

    Hi Carol, thanks for your comment.

    Hi Edith, it is alarming but let's be heartened by Malay-Kadazan girl's experience.

    Hi Stephanie, thanks for your comment. You're quite right to question the description of 'illegal fishing practices'. I didn't question it enough - in whose interests is the law?

    Hi Hermes, thanks for your comment.

    Hi Garden Girl, there are successes and good things going on in the world. One of my favourite reads is New Internationalist to remind me that there are lots of things happening worthy of ovation!

    Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment.

    Dear SG, interesting comment - I wonder if the idea of progress is being abandoned slowly and painfully in favour of sustainability?????????????

    cheers, catmint

  10. I have just read Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry. This was one of his chapters. That whole book makes my hair stand on end!!


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