Officials to meet on Mekong crisis as fishing communities suffer

Mekong River Commission will meet in Phnom Penh as dams and drought take toll on the once-mighty waterway.

Cambodia Tonle Sap
People congregate outside a local shop in a floating village in Mechrey. Villagers are preparing to move out to the lake sooner than in previous years because water levels are unseasonally low [Nicolas Axelrod/Al Jazeera]

Siem Reap, Cambodia – On Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, record low water levels have plunged fishing communities into crisis but with warnings of “severe drought”, there are concerns the situation will get even worse.

“Every day we can only find about one or two kilogrammes (two or four pounds) of fish, and you can see there are many people in the family,” fisherman Lay Non said, explaining that just last year their catch was still coming in at about 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds). “How can we feed everyone?”

While the catches have steadily declined over the past years, the 63-year old said, this year was worse than any year since he started as a fisherman when he was a teenager.

“It’s because the water level is lower than in the other years, and the fish only lay egg in the deep water – so the fish doesn’t get eggs here any more,” he said.

At their floating home in Chong Kneas village, Lay Non’s wife Seng Vun pulled out a small bag of rice to feed the seven people in her family.

“You see, this is all we have,” she said. “We are fishermen, but now we don’t even have fish and have almost nothing to eat,” she said.

Cambodia Tonle Sap
A boat passes a spirit house on the Tonle Sap, which is fed by the Mekong River. Water levels have fallen to historic levels and drought has been forecast [Nicolas Axelrod/Al Jazeera]

Every family Al Jazeera spoke to had seen their catch fall to an all-time low this year.

But things are likely to get worse in the coming months. The Mekong River Commission, the inter-governmental agency that oversees the river and its connected waterways, has warned of a “severe drought” between now and January.

“The 2019 drought has brought the Mekong water levels to their lowest points in at least 60 years. Most parts of the basin have been experiencing an exceptionally regionally low flow since June,” the MRC, which holds its annual ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, said in a statement.

Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia programme and author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, said the Tonle Sap provided Cambodians with between 60 and 70 percent of their annual protein intake.

“This year, the amount of water flooding into the Tonle Sap was extremely low and fishing communities are already reporting up to 70 percent lower fish catches than this time last year,” he said in an email, noting that despite it being monsoon season, which usually turns the Mekong basin into one of the wettest parts of the world, the region had been afflicted by drought conditions over the last six months.

Dam problem

Eyler said that a combination of weather conditions and newly-built dams were the problem.

“Waters from the Mekong mainstream flow backwards up the Tonle Sap River and cause the lake to expand five times its size every year,” he said. But this year, he said, the amount of water flowing back was “extremely low”.

According to the Stimson Center, there are now 13 active dams along the Mekong, which flows for 4,500 kilometres (2,796 miles) from China through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The latest, the Don Sahong Dam in Laos, started operations just last week.

Environment and water ministers from all countries except China and Myanmar will join the MRC meeting where discussions will include hydrological conditions and the agency’s Drought Management Strategy for the next five years.

Cambodia Tonle Sap
A family sorts their daily catch as their house is towed further out onto the Tonle Sap lake. Villagers are moving sooner than in previous years because water levels are unseasonally low [Nicolas Axelrod/Al Jazeera]

“Climate change impacts are predicted to shorten the monsoon season, so periods of extended drought are expected into the coming years,” Eyler said. “It is very likely that 2019 revealed a new normal for the Mekong Basin.”

Siem Reap is expected to be one of the Cambodian provinces hardest hit by drought, alongside Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

For those who rely on fishing to support themselves, this means a loss of income with sometimes drastic consequences.

Chhun Bopha, 43, was hauling in catches of at least 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) five years ago. Sometimes even double that.

“Right now, sometimes one day we only have caught only two fish,” she said.

With no income from fishing, Bopha was forced to take out a loan to pay for medicine for her son who has mental health issues.

She has also had to find another job and, because there are no facilities there to care for her son, Bopha says she feels compelled to chain him to a pole in the house while she is away.

“It’s hard to afford the medicine, so I have no choice but to borrow some money,” Bopha told Al Jazeera, requesting to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of a backlash.

She said she would not be able to pay back her $400 loan if she could not find fish to catch.

‘We have nothing’

Further east in Mechrey village, villagers tell a similar story. Water is low, there are no fish, and they are struggling to make ends meet.

Cambodia Tonle Sap
Communities on the Tonle Sap have long made their living from fishing but it has become increasingly hard to survive. The last fishing season was the worst they can remember [Nicolas Axelrod/Al Jazeera]

Every year, the villagers who live in floating houses move around the lake as the water level rises and falls. Under normal conditions, several villagers told Al Jazeera, they move between the end of December and February.

But this year, the water level dropped so low they were forced to move in November when strong winds threatened to push the floating houses into the middle of the lake, a resident told Al Jazeera.

“It’s very dangerous,” 38-year old Mech Saroeun told Al Jazeera a few days after she and her family had moved.

The family is struggling with a smaller catch – down from between 10 and 20 kilogrammes (22 to 44 pounds) a day to just five – and her son was forced to drop out of school to support the family when he was 13.

According to a teacher at the nearby floating school, who asked to remain anonymous as she was not permitted to speak to the media, between five and seven students drop out of school each year because their families need the additional income.

Saroeun would have liked to see her son attend university.

“I feel so sorry for my son. He cannot continue his school. My son is very smart, but he has no opportunity to continue studying,” she said.

“This doesn’t only happen in my family but also with other villagers. We have no choice because of the poverty. It all depends on the fish. Aside from fishing, we have nothing.”

Source: Al Jazeera