Troubled Waters

Each spring the waters of Tonle Sap lake rise and inundate the Cambodian village of Chhnok Trou, covering roads and fields and all but the tops of trees. The villagers don't mind. They build their houses on stilts. And besides, the flooding brings with it a bounty. When the rainy season subsides in November and the lake contracts, its burgeoning population of fish become easy prey for fishermen with handmade nets.

Hoy Ho, 45, has spent his entire life plying the waters of Chhnok Trou in his dilapidated fishing boat. His biggest worry has always been the authorities. Local policemen demand bribes as high as 10 times his daily profit of a few dollars, and fisheries inspectors "fine" him because he hasn't registered his boat (he can't afford to). But these days the fishing is also problematic: Hoy and his colleagues seem to pull in fewer and fewer each year. Now they worry that if the trend continues, they won't be able to feed their families. "There are less fish than last year, and less than the year before," he says. "I don't understand why."

Neither do many of the other 4 million people who depend on Tonle Sap for their living. Each year fishermen haul in about 230,000 tons of fish from its waters--half Cambodia's annual production. The lake's abundance, ecologists say, is showing signs of waning. Many species are no longer attaining their full size, a sign of pressure due to overfishing. The problem is most acute for the larger migratory species, such as the Mekong great catfish, formerly among the lake's most plentiful. A depletion of the fish stock, now a distinct possibility, would devastate the country. A staggering 60 percent of the population of 11 million get their daily protein from Tonle Sap. "If Tonle Sap dies, Cambodia will die, too," says May Sam Oeun, an official in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, is Southeast Asia's biggest freshwater lake, and it is something of a natural wonder. In spring, when snow melts in the Himalayan mountains and the rains fall in the lowlands, the waters of the Mekong River, Asia's longest, rise. The river gathers strength as it wends through China, Burma, Laos and Thailand, then back through Laos and down the Cambodian border. Near Phnom Penh, the current accumulates enough force to change the direction of Tonle Sap River, pushing water into the Great Lake and expanding its boundaries to more than 16,000 square kilometers--five times its original area. By storing water, the lake saves the Mekong Delta from flooding, and then releases the water downstream in the fall. "It is so crucial because it helps Cambodian areas for dry-season cropping, and in Vietnam for dry-season irrigation," says Sok Saing Im, a hydrologist at the Mekong River Commission, a group that promotes regional cooperation in development and conservation.

Tonle Sap's unique contribution to the Mekong River system also leaves it open to other countries' problems. The construction of hydroelectric dams in Laos and China block the natural migration of fish and disrupt the seasonal ebb and flow that is vital to mating and reproductive cycles. But development in the Tonle Sap region is a big factor in the lake's woes. Illegal logging has made many hills bare, causing silt to run off into the lake. Pesticides from neighboring farms seep into the lake, poisoning the fish and other wildlife. Logging and agriculture are already drying up surrounding wetlands, removing spawning ground for the lake's 1,300 species of fish and threatening rice crops. In short, too many people are clamoring for a piece of the lake. Cambodia's population doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to double again by 2020.

Drastic action is needed to save the lake, environmentalists say. Although the Cambodian government has worked with the Mekong River Commission to address some of the problems upstream, aid organizations say it has failed to stop the current plunder. "That would call for a totally different set of laws and regulations than they have now," says Joern Kristensen, chief executive of the Mekong River Commission, "and require the government to be very farsighted."

The government's track record in managing Tonle Sap has been abysmal. Laws and regulations exist on paper only. On the lake, corruption, lawlessness and rule by force carry the day. Protection rackets for illegal fishing boats are common. The competition between illegal operators and local fishermen trying to survive often leads to violent confrontations. Even the local police, fisheries inspectors, military police and the navy compete for turf. "Everybody's fighting for control," says Sao Vannsereyvuth, a government ecologist. "We may end up destroying the lake and ourselves."

In many ways, what is happening on Tonle Sap mirrors the problems of Cambodia in general. The country is democratic in theory, but feudal in fact. Authoritarian rulers in Phnom Penh and regional warlords in the provinces rule the country like affluent power brokers from centuries past: with violence and intimidation.

That's apparent in Chhnok Trou. Recently, officers from the fisheries department sat in their office at lunchtime, apparently oblivious to illegal fishermen anchored a few kilometers away, using metal poles and car batteries to electrocute schools of fish. "It's difficult to find the illegal fishers," says the deputy commander. "The big fishing boats can easily outrun our department boats." Later the talk gets looser, and the officers explain their reluctance to confront the poachers: fear of reprisal. "If we arrest anyone, maybe they'll complain and it'll get back to the government in Phnom Penh," says one. "We could get in trouble--or worse."

Last year Hun Sen, the former communist ruler who took power in a coup in 1997, removed all fisheries inspectors from Tonle Sap for five months, claiming incompetence and corruption. That left law enforcement to local and military police, who are widely suspected of protecting illegal fishing operations in exchange for kickbacks. Recently, inspectors were told they couldn't make arrests without first asking police to participate; that makes arrests rare indeed.

Development of the lake region proceeds without apparent concern for the environment. The Cambodian firm Pheapimex, whose owner is an associate of Hun Sen's, recently won a 300,000-hectare concession for a eucalyptus plantation in Pursat province, on the southwest corner of Tonle Sap. Environmentalists are outraged. "Eucalyptus will drain water and nutrients from the soil," says an official with Global Witness. "The plantation will dramatically lower the water table." The government is also laying plans to drill for oil and natural gas in the region. Unless environmental regulations are enforced, that will introduce a new batch of problems.

The government is making some moves in the right direction. In August, Hun Sen ordered that 56 percent of government-controlled fishing lots--prime fishing grounds on which taxes are collected--be returned to local communities for open use. Environmentalists praise the idea of giving local communities along the lake more control, which could ensure a fairer distribution of fishing areas. But Phnom Penh doesn't seem to be serious about implementing the plan. It hasn't passed regulations or issued instructions to local commune leaders and police and military commanders.

Recently the government established a committee of 10 ministers to address the lake's environmental problems. "People always complain that we have too many committees," says May Sam Oeun, of the Agriculture Ministry, "but in our society it's a fact of life." The government may simply be doing its best with the system it has. But until it produces at least a long-term plan for developing and managing Tonle Sap, all its efforts will amount to so much fiddling.