On its own, the phrase “integrated watershed management” may not sound particularly exciting. But in Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains, as well as in other sites around the world, it could be an important opportunity to protect people and natural landscapes in the face of ever-growing human need.
Conservation International (CI) is working both with hydroelectric companies and the Cambodian government to ensure that a number of proposed dams are both environmentally sustainable and economically smart, and will protect drinking water resources for years to come.
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Without proper planning and care, however, dams can cause serious environmental damage to forests, wetlands and downstream water supplies. That’s where “integrated watershed management” comes in.
Water and the Cardamoms
The Cardamom Mountains, in the southwestern corner of Cambodia, contain a remarkable combination of teeming humanity, pristine landscapes and incredible biodiversity.
Threatened Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris ssp. corbetti), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and siamese crocodiles (Crocodylus siamensis) all make their home here, alongside hundreds of thousands of people in the greater Cardamoms. The fresh water flowing through the Cardamoms also provide a range of forest and water-related benefits to the people who live there, spread across thousands of villages and hundreds of miles.
Those benefits, however, are under significant threat from mining, deforestation and hydropower development.
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The network of rivers flowing through the Cardamoms is expected to supply up to 50 percent of Cambodia’s energy needs by 2020, and billions of dollars of investments – which are already underway. This new energy source is intended to power rural communities in the Cardamoms as well as cities downstream.
Along with potential energy benefits – which bring with them their own costs, including the potential migration of more people into the area – the region’s rivers already provide drinking water to approximately 3,500 villages and towns located on the agricultural plains. Tens of thousands of small farmers rely on surface water to irrigate crops.
CI and Freshwater
CI is acting fast to demonstrate the link between forest conservation, sedimentation rates in rivers, and the economic lifespan of these multi-billion dollar dam investments. In effect, we are working to show both the positive and potentially damaging effects of these dams, and seeking to demonstrate how smart watershed management is vital if we are to protect local livelihoods and biological diversity.
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In short, the long-term capacity of these hydroelectric projects, as currently planned, is likely to be severely impacted by upstream deforestation and the related sedimentation, or muddying of the waters.
Dam reservoirs, which depend on free-flowing "feeder" rivers, can be useful from as little as 50 years to – potentially – hundreds of years. The dams proposed for the Cardamoms are likely to be economically viable for less than 60 years if deforestation occurs in the upstream watershed, yet they could last for up to 100 years if the watershed is properly managed.
Working With the Khmer Daeum
In the O’Som hill community, CI is putting this concept to the test. The unique high altitude wetland ecosystem in this area is a rich watershed of vibrant species. It is also home to one of only two Khmer Daeum communities, an ethnic group that roughly translates as Ancestral Khmer.
CI’s relationship with the Khmer Daeum is strong: In recent years, we helped them establish community-directed efforts to restore traditional forest livelihoods – including hunting and fishing – in ways that indirectly benefit crocodile conservation and other efforts to preserve their land. CI is also helping the Khmer Daeum reconstruct their traditional livelihoods based on paddy rice and the sustainable use of forest products.
READ MORE: Communities in the Cardamom Forest are protecting threatened dragon fish and Siamese crocodiles.
Scientific and cultural data detailing the area’s irreplaceable biodiversity, as well as its importance as a watershed for downstream freshwater needs like rice farming, influenced the Chinese hydropower company that is building a dam near this site.
They have committed to providing annual compensation for ecosystem management for a period of at least 30 years.
CI is now working to develop a framework policy to ensure that all dam development schemes in the Cardamom mountains provide payments for maintenance of the watershed and ensure longevity of the dams, freshwater services and forests rich with biodiversity.
With forethought, rigorous science and community engagement, freshwater resources, stunning biodiversity and human well-being can all be integrated into national and regional development plans.
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