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New ways to live sustainably on the Tonle Sap lake

Most people at Tonle Sap make their living from the waters and floating forests. (P. Harris/UNV)Most people at Tonle Sap make their living from the waters and floating forests. (P. Harris/UNV)The UNV project at Tonle Sap involves distributing water filters such as this one.. (P. Harris/UNV)The UNV project at Tonle Sap involves distributing water filters such as this one.. (P. Harris/UNV)Most of the Tonle Sap Self Help Group members are women. (P. Harris/UNV)Most of the Tonle Sap Self Help Group members are women. (P. Harris/UNV)Growing mushrooms as an alternative income source. (P. Harris/UNV)Growing mushrooms as an alternative income source. (P. Harris/UNV)
06 August 2008

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Tonle Sap, South-East Asia's largest freshwater lake - is under pressure from its human population. UNV volunteers are working alongside local people to help reduce their impact on its complex ecosystem.

Among the problems facing Tonle Sap in north-west Cambodia are slash-and-burn agriculture and the encroachment of farming onto habitats in the flooded forest areas; excess firewood collection; poaching; and overfishing. The programme 'Sustainable Livelihoods Support to the Core Areas of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve' aims to give people alternatives, and involves small-scale sustainable living demonstration sites in three core areas.

Six Cambodian national UNV volunteers are involved, two in each core area: Prek Toal, Boeung Tonle Chhmar and Stung Sen. Supervised by a UNV National Sustainable Livelihoods Specialist, the UNV volunteers are introducing affordable technologies to enable more efficient use of natural resources, and also supporting residents in developing new sources of income.

The programme is jointly funded by UNV and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the UNDP Tonle Sap Conservation Project (itself financed by the Government of Japan Trust Fund). A key aspect is organizing Self Help Groups to enable people to take more control of their livelihoods.

The Self Help Groups started with a handful of families who were given access to savings and credit schemes. More than 500 families are now involved in 22 savings groups, each facilitated by a UNV volunteer. About 85 percent of the Self Help Groups' members are women, who are often the keepers of the family finances.

Through the scheme more than 100 families have received water filters, which are otherwise unaffordable on typical incomes in the area. The cooking stoves distributed via the Self Help Groups use 40 percent less wood than the traditional variety, last longer and are safer.

As well as the stoves, in conjunction with local NGOs and companies the UNV volunteers have given also out stoves for preserving fish. Again these use less fuel but make good-quality smoked fish which the Tonle Sap residents can sell.

The Self Help Groups are also useful starting-points for spreading awareness of eco-friendly practices. Fishing and fish-farming have been the mainstay of life on Tonle Sap for centuries, but local shops had been selling unsuitable chemicals to treat fish diseases. Not only did the toxins remain in the lake after use, harming biodiversity, but they were also harmful to human health. People from the Self Help Groups were informed of the dangers and also given classes to enhance their existing fishing knowledge.

Villagers are also being shown efficient techniques for mushroom farming, and 36 families have also set up floating vegetable gardens. Both initiatives, which run with technical advice from the UNV volunteers and local agricultural schools, should help lessen the impact of overfishing on the local environment.

Finally, the Sustainable Livelihoods programme seeks to open up novel avenues for people to make a living. In conjunction with Osmose, a local NGO, the village of Peak Kantel was chosen for an ecotourism pilot scheme. Local families were given extra bedding and boat equipment and were taught some hospitality skills: around 100 paying visitors subsequently came to the ecotourism site, greatly boosting the village's income.

See also this video (click here) on one volunteer's work encouraging people to use water filters and try new methods of generating income.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)