The importance of Tonlé Sap for Cambodia’s wellbeing

Tonle Sap is not only one of Cambodia’s most famous lakes, it is also the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and an important source of income and food for the surrounding communities. Discover why the Tonle Sap’s protection and conservation is necessary for these communities and for the whole country.

The “Great Lake of Cambodia”

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 Cambodian’s food supply as well as for 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 it expands up to 15 times its size in comparison to the dry season. After the water subsides, fishing becomes easy. The water is also useful for farming, and as such, 90% of the million people living around the lake are either dependent on fishing or agriculture. A healthy and well-functioning ecosystem is therefore needed for the economic and social good of the five provinces surrounding the lake and of the country (Hays, 2008).

Environmental issues

However, the population boom over the last few decades, which has doubled in the last 30 years, has had an immense impact on the lake. Overfishing 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.

A need for more sustainability

So, what is the solution if 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.

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