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Fisheries Research and Development in the Mekong Region
Volume 14, No.3, December 2008

Tonle Sap Basin Authority takes shape

By Peter Starr*

In response to growing political recognition of the Tonle Sap's importance, a new Cambodian government agency has taken charge of coordinating the management, conservation and development of the river basins that form Southeast Asia's biggest lake

Dr Tao Seng Hour, Senior Minister and Chairman of the Tonle Sap Basin Authority
Photo: Lem Chamnap

The large floodplain around the Tonle Sap Lake is a crucial nursery habitat for the fisheries of the Lower Mekong Basin. A single hectare can produce as much as 230 kg of fish a year, making it the world's most productive inland fishery. Moreover, Tonle Sap fisheries account for about two thirds of Cambodia's total inland fisheries production which is conservatively estimated at 400,000 tonnes a year - the highest freshwater fish yield in the world after China, India and Bangladesh. What drives this exceptional productivity is the huge amount of water that flows into the lake every year, pushing water levels from as low as 1.4 metres above sea level in the dry season to more than 10 metres above sea level in the wet season. As a result, the surface area of the lake can expand from as little as 2,500 km2 to as much as 15,000 km2 while the volume of water can swell from less than 2 km3 in the dry season to 75 km3 in the wet season. According to a recent study by the Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC) and the WorldFish Center, 52 percent of this water comes directly from the Mekong River in an average year. Another 30 percent comes from various rivers that flow into the lake from hills and mountains in the surrounding provinces. About 13 percent comes from rainfall over the lake itself with the remaining 5 percent coming from rising Mekong floodwaters flowing across the floodplain. In an average year, 60 percent of the lake's water comes from Cambodia and almost 20 percent from Lao PDR.

China and Thailand account for about 10 percent each. Such vast quantities of water give fish access to enormous amounts of food, especially in flooded forest areas around the lake. Many species spawn before or during the flood, widely dispersing eggs across the floodplain.

Population and development pressures are the major threats to the lake's ecosystem. Despite the lake's inherent richness of natural resources and numerous development projects have been mobilised for the Tonle Sap, most indicators of poverty in the Tonle Sap area are more negative than other rural areas of Cambodia. 

Until recently, most development assistance for the Tonle Sap has largely focused on the five provinces surrounding the lake - Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap and Kompong Thom. However, a new body established by the Cambodian government is now taking a broader basinwide approach that includes five more provinces as well as the municipality of Phnom Penh. The five additional provinces - Banteay Meanchey, Oudor Meanchey, Preah Vihear, Kompong Cham and Kandal - extend the jurisdiction of the Tonle Sap Basin Authority (TSBA) to the entire catchment area of 11 different river basins. Together with Phnom Penh, these basins make up 42 percent of Cambodia's territory and are home to 4.4 million people, about a third of the country's population. "The Tonle Sap Basin is the heart of our culture and heritage which is why we must conserve, manage and develop it properly," says Senior Minister Dr Tao Seng Hour, the former minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries who chairs the new authority in his capacity as deputy chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development and chairman of the National Committee for Population and Development. Despite millions of dollars in aid to Tonle Sap projects in recent years, the chairman notes that there has been little to show in terms of concrete results. "Since there are so many projects being implemented, I've asked my colleagues to compile a project list in order for us to coordinate and monitor these investments," he says. "A lot of money has been spent but we have not seen satisfactory results so far. Coordination must be improved. We are responsible for coordinating and evaluating these projects and reporting directly to the prime minister."

'The Tonle Sap Basin is the heart of our culture and heritage which is why we must conserve, manage and develop it properly'

According to the Ministry of Interior, loans and grant for Tonle Sap projects exceeded $50 million between 2002 and 2006. Most of this money has come from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) including a loan of almost $11 million for the Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project which has been executed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (see Catch and Culture, Vol 11, No 3). Responsibility for implementing and monitoring this project, has, however, been scattered among several agencies such as the Ministry of Environment, the United Nations Development Programme and the CNMC. The project has also been geographically limited to the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, a protected area established by royal decree in 2001. Project activities have therefore focussed on areas within the reserve's boundary, which is formed by two national highways, and not areas further inland. The reserve itself covers about 20 percent of the basin area and accounts for about a third of its population. The ADB has meanwhile approved grants of almost US$20 million for a Tonle Sap "sustainable livelihoods" project under the Ministry of Interior and US$18 million for a Tonle Sap rural water supply and sanitation project under the Ministry of Rural Development. "We've had so many projects and programmes. But the people's living conditions around the Tonle Sap are not yet well improved," says Hou Taing Eng, the former secretarygeneral of the CNMC who is secretary-general of the new authority. "The ADB recognised this was caused by a misunderstanding of cooperation among the people operating there. What we are trying to do is to coordinate the economic, social and natural resources of the Tonle Sap Basin to have a direct impact on people's livelihoods." For the time being, the activities of the authority's 40 staff are constrained by an annual budget of 300 million riel (US$75,000). In the future, however, it is expected that development assistance to Tonle Sap projects will fall under the coordination umbrella of the basin authority. 

The move to set up the TSBA followed a national forum on the Tonle Sap Initiative, a collection of ADB programmes and projects aiming to reduce poverty while managing natural resources and the environment in a sustainable manner. In his opening address to the forum held in Phnom Penh in March last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that Cambodia could face a "serious environmental disaster" from excessive exploitation of the Tonle Sap, notably from the clearing of flooded forest for large-scale rice farming. To develop the area around the lake, Samdech Hun Sen called for an "integrated basinwide approach" extending beyond Cambodia's borders. He also urged the forum to consider a new agency for the Tonle Sap to mobilise and galvanise support from all ministries and a wide range of development partners (see Catch and Culture, Vol 13, No 1).

'A lot of money has been spent but we have not seen satisfactory results so far. Coordination must be improved'

Legal instruments
Six months after the national forum, King Norodom Sihamoni promulgated a royal decree to establish the new authority. The decree specifically refers to the Law on Fisheries passed in 2006 (see Catch and Culture Vol 12, No 3) and other recent legislation related to natural resource management and the environment. The authority's primary role is "coordinating the management, conservation and development of the Tonle Sap Basin." It reports to the Council of Ministers and has the right to send representatives to cabinet meetings. The decree provides for the authority to be chaired by the vice chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, another body under the Council of Ministers. The other members are secretaries of state from 16 ministries, senior officials from seven other agencies and 11 provincial and municipal governors. The ministries represented in the authority include nine of the ten ministries that are also members of the CNMC plus seven others including the Ministry of Economy and Finance, which is responsible for relations with development partners such as the ADB and the World Bank. The authority's responsibilities include preparing policies, strategic plans, programmes and projects in collaboration with institutions, local authorities and development partners. The TSBA is also responsible for coordinating "all ongoing and planned activities in the Tonle Sap Basin" as well as monitoring and evaluating projects to ensure that they consistently follow government strategies and plans. The royal decree provides for coordination to be extended to both national and international organisations, non-governmental organisations and other members of civil society.

Towards the end of last year, the king promulgated a second royal decree appointing nine advisors to the authority including Fisheries Administration Director General Nao Thuok. Other advisors include Ly Thuch - the former chairman of the National Assembly Commission on the Economy, Planning, Investment, Agriculture, Rural Development, Environment and Water Resources - and Hang Chuon Naron, the secretary general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The decree also named Mr Hou Taing Eng as secretary-general of the authority with the rank of secretary of state along with seven deputies responsible for day to day operations with the rank of under-secretary of state. The deputies include Long Cheang, one of four deputy directors at the Fisheries Administration. The other deputies have expertise in various areas ranging from planning and coordination, water resources and agronomy to health and education.

Prime Minister Hun Sen later confirmed Dr Tao Seng Huor as chairman and appointed six vice chairmen including Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Secretary of State Teng Lao. Others include Ministry of Environment Secretary of State Yin Kim Sean, Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology Secretary of State Phang Sareth and Professor Sin Mengsrun, a forestry expert who is also an advisor to the Office of the Council of Ministers. The 29 other senior officials appointed as members include Ministry of Economy and Finance Secretary of State Ouk Rabun, CNMC Secretary-General Pich Dun and Council for Agricultural and Rural Development Secretary-General Rath Virak.

Under a government sub-decree signed by the prime minister in May this year, the general secretariat of the authority has five departments. These are responsible for administration and finance, planning and cooperation, economic project coordination, social project coordination, and research and information dissemination. The duties of the latter include analysing information and making predictions on the state of the basin and changing trends as a basis for policies, strategies, development plans and overall decision making. The sub-decree also provides for "focal teams" at the provincial and municipal level. These are headed by 11 deputy governors with technical officers from various provincial or municipal departments serving as assistants. In accordance with the first royal decree promulgated in September last year, a 15-member executive committee oversees the operations of the authority and reports directly Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the minister in charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers. The executive committee meets every month and comprises Dr Tao Seng Huor and the six deputy chairmen along with Mr Hou Taing Eng and the seven deputy secretaries general at the secretariat.

The structure of the authority is considerably simpler than the Tonle Sap Basin Management Organization envisaged by the ADB. It also has a broader membership and carries significantly more political weight. After two rounds of technical assistance totalling close to $0.5 million between 2003 and 2005, ADB consultants recommended the establishment of an organisation comprising a coordination committee with two secretariats-one for the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve and the other for basinwide planning for water and related resources. These two secretariats would have been located within the CNMC and overseen by a new deputy secretary general with sole responsibility for the Tonle Sap. Under the ADB proposal, the coordination committee would have been complemented by sub-committees for catchment areas that straddle two or more provinces such as the Mongkol Borei, Boribo, Chinit and Seng river basins. These would have been further supplemented by provincial committees and district task forces with secretariats attached to the provincial departments and district offices of water resources and meteorology. Membership of the organization would have been restricted to 10 ministries and only eight provinces.

* Mr Starr is the editor of Catch and Culture. In 2006 and 2007, he also worked as media consultant for an environmental education and awareness campaign that was part of the Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project.

Further reading

Baran, E., Starr, P. and Y. Kura (2007). Influence of built structures on Tonle Sap fisheries, Cambodian National Mekong Committee and the World Fish Center, Phnom Penh, 44 pp.

Kingdom of Cambodia (2007). Royal Decree of the Establishment of the Tonle Sap Authority, September 8, Phnom Penh, 4 pp.

Kingdom of Cambodia (2007). Royal Decree, November 19, Phnom Penh, 2 pp.

Kingdom of Cambodia (2007). Decision on the Nomination of Composition of Royal of the Tonle Sap Basin Authority, November 29, Phnom Penh, 3 pp.

Kingdom of Cambodia (2008). Sub-Decree in the Organization and Functioning of the General Secretariat of the Tonle Sap Basin Authority, May 9, Phnom Penh, 7 pp.

Milner, H., Carson, S. Tes, S. and U. Sokco (2005). Cambodia: Establishment of the Tonle Sap Management Organization II (Final Report). Asian Development Bank and Cambodian National Mekong Committee.

Milner, H., Carson, S. Tes, S. and U. Sokco (2005). Cambodia: Establishment of the Tonle Sap Management Organization II (Final Report Appendices). Asian Development Bank and Cambodian National Mekong Committee.

MRC (2003). State of the Basin Report: 2003,.Mekong River Commission, Phnom Penh, Camodia. 300 pp.




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