Anlung Reang floating village on Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap Lake: Conserving Cambodia’s Fish Factory

Home to more than 3 million people, the Tonle Sap floodplain supports one of the world’s most productive freshwater fisheries.

© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg

Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap more than quadruples in size during monsoon season, flushing the region with water and life.

Many residents of the Tonle Sap floodplain live in floating villages on the lake, and more than 90% directly rely on the seasonally flooded forests for fresh water, food, fuelwood and other essential resources.

The Tonle Sap and the inland waters system in Cambodia support some 500,000 tons of fish each year, and the flooded forests purify water and buffer communities from storms — an increasingly important benefit as climate change makes extreme weather more frequent.

But Cambodia’s flooded forests are being destroyed by unsustainable human activities.

Our role

Since 2008, Conservation International has been working to ensure that Tonle Sap Lake and its floodplain remain a healthy freshwater ecosystem able to support Cambodia’s people, wildlife and economy. Together with partners, we offer alternative means of income that put less strain on natural resources, improve access to clean drinking water and expand scientific knowledge about the economic value of the Tonle Sap and the importance of protecting it.

Our plan

Improving lives

In Tonle Sap’s floating villages, Conservation International is improving incomes and livelihoods for some of Cambodia’s poorest people. We are working directly with communities to promote sustainable use of resources through fuel-efficient cookstoves, to provide access to clean water and to support sustainable fishing and fish processing practices.

Restoring essential ecosystems

Conservation International and partners continue to replant and protect flooded forests in key areas in order to increase wildlife habitat and improve fishery productivity. We also work with government and community ranger patrols to prevent illegal fishing and have installed artificial reefs in critically threatened habitats.

Sharing knowledge

We are providing key technical support to the Cambodian government on a variety of conservation issues. We continue to work with the Fisheries Administration to protect conservation and community fish access areas. We also host education evenings with the local communities to raise awareness about climate change impacts and possible ways to mitigate these threats.

Woman rowing boat 
© Olivier Langrand

By the numbers

$2 billion fish industry

Tonle Sap and Cambodia’s inland fisheries account for more than two-thirds of Cambodia’s protein consumption and are worth an estimated US$ 2 billion annually.

Programs

Two women process fish
© CI/Sophak Sett

Women’s Fish Processing Project

Conservation International is working to improve the economic well-being of women involved in fish processing in Pursat province — while also ensuring their sustainable use of the natural resources needed in their work.

The main source of income for floating households on Tonle Sap Lake is the sale of fish and processed fish, which is typically smoked or converted into a paste. However, the traditional method used is inefficient and unhygienic; and the practice of open-air fish smoking can lead to serious respiratory illness and overuse of fuelwood, contributing to deforestation of the lake’s flooded forests.

By June 2016, our women’s fish processing project had trained almost 200 women in more hygienic, efficient fish processing methods. After completing the training, the women produce a higher quality product and can charge more for it. We are also focusing on improving year-round access to fish through better fish storage options, which will improve food security for these families.

Tonle Sap floating village
© CI/Tracy Farrell

Supporting alternative businesses

Another challenge faced by households on the lake is insufficient funds to start new enterprises. At the village level, Conservation International is facilitating the use of savings groups in which community members pool their money and provide each other with loans that enable members to invest in new business ventures. These low-interest loans serve as financial insurance for women in the event of financial or natural shocks, such as the flooding that took place in 2012 or the drought of 2016.