Who Is Waterkeeper: Bunleap Leang, Lower Sesan River Waterkeeper - Waterkeeper

Who Is Waterkeeper: Bunleap Leang, Lower Sesan River Waterkeeper

By: Thomas Hynes

Bunleap Leang is the Lower Sesan River Waterkeeper in Cambodia. The Lower Sesan River runs for roughly 225 kilometers, or about 140 miles, and is a sanctuary for diverse aquatic life, featuring numerous deep pools that serve as crucial spawning grounds for fish. Moreover, the river is adorned with many picturesque islands that add to its already abundant natural beauty.

The river eventually feeds into both the lower Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Great Lake. Nearly 100,000 people, including more than 10 indigenous and ethnic groups, depend on the Sesan river basin for its fisheries, traditional agriculture like rice farming, and non-timber forest products.

This sacred watershed, however, is under significant threat from a number of existing and proposed hydro dams, including in Vietnam. Approximately 10 percent of the river basin’s forests have already been lost to logging for timber, industrial plantations, expansion of agriculture, and the creation of reservoirs for hydropower, and irrigation purposes. Part of the problem is that the government provided too many licenses to hydropower dam companies, including the existing Dam Lower Sesan 2, which poses a major risk to the health of the river and its surrounding communities. The trouble these dams pose is why Bunleap got involved in this work.

“As a Waterkeeper, I see this as a great opportunity to protect and preserve the river. With the support of our parent organization, 3S Rivers Protection Network and their budgetary assistance, we can work together to safeguard the Lower Sesan River against hydropower dam development,” says Bunleap. “Through monitoring, community engagement, and advocacy, we can ensure the river’s sustainability for future generations.” 

Bunleap has been leading the organization’s general management, fundraising, institutional capacity building, strategic planning, and policy reform efforts since 2016. He obtained a Master of Educational Management Science and Master of Development Study from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, as well as a Master of Public Policy and Management from the Combined University of Brunei Darussalam in Brunei and University of Maryland College Park in the U.S.

Bunleap previously worked as a Mathematics teacher for 10 years and then with Civil Society locally and internationally for more than 20 years. As Lower Sesan River Waterkeeper, Bunleap is able to raise awareness about the importance of restoring the natural flow of the river through collaboration and engagement with local communities. By promoting sustainable practices and advocating for the removal or modification of dams, they collaboratively work towards revitalizing the river’s ecological system.

“Given the severe impact of upstream dams on the Sesan River over the past years, I am compelled to join hands in protecting this vital waterway,” says Bunleap. “To address these challenges, I believe it is crucial to establish a community network focused on restoring the river to its natural flow. By doing so, we can ensure the safety and harmony of both the river and the surrounding ecology.”

If Bunleap could change one thing about his watershed, it would be to actively involve people in the adoption of micro hydropower projects and solar energy options. He believes that the public’s endorsement of these advancements can send a powerful message to the Cambodian government and other decision makers about the importance of more eco-friendly alternatives to proposed hydropower projects and new dams. It may also encourage the existing Lower Sesan 2 dam to accommodate fish passage and implement floating solar panels. According to Bunleap, these measures can mitigate the environmental impact and promote sustainable energy practices.

Bunleap encourages any initiatives that get the community more involved in the wellbeing of the river and the surrounding environment.

“We invite individuals passionate about nature and the environment, especially those who have been seriously affected by the change to the river to join us in protecting the Lower Sesan River and our Indigenous People’s culture,” says Bunleap. “By uniting in this cause, we can work towards preserving the river’s ecosystem and ensuring the well-being of the local communities. Join us to create a future where the river flourishes and the rights of the Indigenous People are respected and protected.”