Hun Sen warns that Mekong development could dry up vital Tonle Sap lake

Associated Press 12 February 2003

By Ker Munthit, Associated Press

PHNOM PENH -- Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday warned that Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake -- a vital source of fish in the impoverished country -- could dry up if development projects are handled carelessly on the MekongRiver upstream from the lake.

Environmentalists have said dams, canals, and other Mekong development in China threaten the river.

China is a close ally of Cambodia as well as one of its major foreign investors and aid donors, and Hun Sen didn't name any countries in his remarks.

The 4,880-kilometer (3,030-mile) Mekong starts in China and runs through Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It feeds Tonle Sap and other waterways along its course.

Hun Sen said the construction of hydroelectric power dams and navigation canals on the upper MekongRiver poses "great concerns" in downstream countries such as Cambodia. "The consequence ... is that the Tonle Sap can dry up, (eventually) bringing an end to the freshwater fishing industry," Hun Sen said at an international conference on river management.

Tonle Sap, meaning "GreatLake," is Southeast Asia's biggest freshwater lake. Area residents have relied upon its fish for centuries. The lake has an area of about 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles) in the wet season but shrinks considerably in the dry months.

In recent years Cambodian officials have noted a drop in the lake's fish population, which they attribute to upstream development. 

"Believe me, the drying up of Tonle Sap will not just affect Cambodia but the entire region," Hun Sen said. "The change in the level of water flow is an important factor ... relevant to sustainability of the
livelihood and biodiversity in the region."

During the annual rainy season, the swollen Mekong River dumps extra water into Tonle Sap, flooding surrounding areas and providing spawning grounds for fish.