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The Environmental Web Tool

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A map detailing the land cover of Cambodia from 2000-2013. Supplied

Cambodia suffers from one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with an average of one percent of the country’s forest lost each year.
 
But in an initiative funded by USAID Supporting Forests and Biodiversity (SFB), Winrock International hopes to help solve the problem by launching a free web-based tool aimed at informing environmental policymakers and citizens about the estimated impact of land use policies to the environment.
 
The Watershed Environmental Services Tool (WESTool) is an interactive mapping instrument that compiles published scientific data and water models to estimate how historic and future land usage impacts the environment – from its effects on carbon emissions and soil to people and economies.
 
The tool is designed to help policymakers better understand and measure the costs associated with land development and the long-term effects those decisions will have, not only on surrounding ecosystems, but throughout the country.
 
Michael Netzer, a program officer and ecosystem services analyst at Winrock, highlighted the importance of maintaining a balance between ecosystems and the people and processes which alter them.
 
Explaining that sustainable development was entirely possible with responsible development practices, he said progress would require commitment from the government and the Cambodian people, noting that the goal of the new technology was to put the power of knowledge in everyone’s hands.
 
“A balance between ecosystems and people, the ability to develop, provide a better economy, provide food supply, clean water – to continue that for your children and children’s children, that is sustainable development … the ability to develop your country without destroying it,” said Mr. Netzer.
 
He added that industries, such as construction and water authorities, also had a personal stake in sustainable development to ensure the success of their businesses, which are negatively impacted by erosion, polluted water sources and infrastructural damage. As Cambodia boiled through its worst drought in decades, the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which have been proven to affect climate change, is poignant.
 
Sisovann Ouk, a senior project advisor to SFB, encouraged citizens to use WESTool, not only as a learning tool, but as proof of the damaging effects of deforestation, warning that countries like the United States and China were spending billions now to mitigate the effects of irresponsible development choices made generations ago.
 
“That change will impact people and the economy in the long run if we are not careful about the decisions of the current decision-makers,” said Mr. Ouk.
 
“[It] is important information that you need to bring to the attention of the government…without the tools maybe it’s difficult to tell decision-makers about what’s going on scientifically and the impacts from developing.
 
“That is the potential of people to tell and to work with decision-makers to refrain them from rapid development perhaps, or trying to say ‘this part can be developed but no, this part keep for conservation.’ That is the intention of having this tool. For typical people and decision-makers to work together for sustainable development.”  
 
Mr. Netzer cited Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary – which after a many years of campaigning became a protected area last month – as an accomplishment and model of conservation. The sanctuary’s streams and groundwater supply nourishment to four provinces, contributing to flood control at the peak of the rainy season and groundwater regulation during the country’s dry spell.
 
Utilizing the mapping tool, he demonstrated the potentially destructive effects of the sanctuary’s removal, showing that if the land was razed, 300 million tons of CO2 would be lost, which in turn would negatively impact the water supply, nitrogen levels and soil levels.
 
Winrock has piloted WESTool with government agencies and NGOs, among them, the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development. Joel Jurgens, the deputy chief of the SFB, said responses to the training workshops were positive.
 
“The feedback that we’re getting as well, whether government officials or NGO partners, is ‘Wow, this is incredible, this is a tremendous amount of information that can be captured in a few minutes.’ With a couple of clicks you have a tremendous quantity of information, and that’s powerful,” Dr. Jurgens said.
 
However, despite positive feedback and robust scientific research, government officials have been absent in lending support. While WESTool displays land use changes by year with data analyzed from the period of 2000-2013, Dr. Jurgens noted that a more recent map diagramming land usage in Cambodia was in existence, but had not been made available for their use.  
 
“One of the primary concerns was the land cover which is the base layer for the tool. It’s the heart of it. MAFF [Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries] and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] produced a map in 2014. This is a map layer that we would really like to have and have been requesting since the completion of this [WESTool], however the government has not released that information,” Dr. Jurgens said.
 
Mr. Ouk added that although government officials who participated in the training program acknowledged the tool was beneficial, they were wary of accepting data that was not reported by the government. But Mr. Ouk contended that Winrock was open to working in cooperation with the administration for the benefit of the country and the future generations who would be saddled with the costs of repairing the damage.
 
“Make no mistake that unchecked development is not development, it’s the opposite,” Mr. Netzer warned.  
 
“You go to other countries, like Haiti or the Philippines, countries that do not have ecosystem services anymore – they are the least developed. This [WESTool] is supporting development because the development today that’s destroyed everything in 10 years is not development.
 
“It’s anti-development,” Mr. Netzer said. “Nobody knows at what point this could impact the Tonle Sap. But when it does, it’s decades of lost fishing industry.”

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