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Trial by Fire in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia

The Great Lake Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and contains an exceptional variety of interconnected eco-regions and biodiversity.

Project Details

The University of Adelaide is collaborating in a project with Conservation International to investigate fire risk mitigation strategies through the construction of fire breaks. The project welcomes Marina Spindel from the International Master in Applied Ecology (IMAE) program at the University de Poitiers, France, to head the 6 month project.

Funded by the Toyota Environmental Activities Grant program the project team embarked on a field assessment trip to Cambodia late April, 2019 to gather information, build relationships and consult with local communities and governments on effective fire management techniques. The outputs from this research project will feed into Conservation Internationals planning for protection of their revegetation program.

Project Goal

Identify Conservation International's revegetation sites that are amenable to managing fire risk, increase understanding to the potential fire risks and identify potential barriers to improve fire risk mitigation and finally to recommend measures that aid fire risk mitigation.

The burnt landscape on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. 
Image credit: Dong Tangkor


In the past few years, fire has become an increasing risk for the region of Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Fires have been getting out of control due to severe droughts. An El Niño event in 2016 exacerbated devastating fires between the months of March and June that reached one third, nearly 250,000 hectares, of the flooded forests. The local community reports that the main causes of the fires are anthropogenic, when fires are not put out properly or left unattended. During the dry season, the conditions exasperate the ability for fires to spread.

Other than the major environmental impacts, these fires have great repercussions on the livelihood of the local people. The flooded forests are breeding grounds for the freshwater fish. A loss of the forest means a decrease in Tonle Sap’s fish population, the main source of income to the surrounding communities and of great national economic importance.

Conservation International and partner organisations are revegetating lost areas of forest. An important concern is to try to mitigate the risk and damage of future fires in these and previous replanting sites.

Revegetation growth a year after planting in a burnt area of the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. 
Image credit: Nick Souter, Conservation International

Research about fire management in this area is very scarce. Studies about fire management in flooded forests in general are quite limited. Fire management in the Tonle Sap faces many other constraints. There are very few firefighting resources available, people still do not have the proper training and the local authorities do not have the resources to provide proper assistance. For the local communities, training and firefighting tools are lacking.

The Trial by Fire team consulted with local communities and governments to discuss responsible fire management techniques in the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. 
Image credit: Ramesh Raja Segaran

Any recommended actions to mitigate fire risk should be sensitive to existing limitations and to the local context and customs. To plan fire risk mitigation measures it is necessary to take into account the characteristics of the area. In this case, access is restricted due to very dense vegetation and the clear-cutting of vegetation is not permitted. This results in an integrated community-based fire management approach for the villages of Along Raing, Akol and kampong Prak.

If you would like further information on this project please contact the Centre.

Learn More about the Tonle Sap Lake

Centre for Applied Conservation Science

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