Mekong livelihoods punished by floods, droughts and dirty water

Unpredictable times have led to a disruption of food supplies along the mighty river
Mekong livelihoods punished by floods, droughts and dirty water

Po Ly, a 68-year-old advocate for farmers and fisherfolk in Cambodia, says climate change and dams have resulted in unpredictable wet and dry seasons and upset fish spawning patterns on the Mekong River. (Photo by Ah Ny)

Cambodia and much of Indochina have been deluged by monsoonal rains in recent weeks, with widespread flooding bringing an end to a nasty drought that resulted in electricity blackouts and water shortages.

Yet up and down the Mekong River and across the delta farmers and fishermen still harbor bitter complaints.

Their river was drying up at unprecedented levels and then was quickly in flood. Too quick. The seasons that dictate the course of the world’s 12th longest river are no longer reliable and it’s those that live hand to mouth that are paying the price.

Initially, drought forced people to move, in search of water and fish.

As Som Nane, a 33-year-old fisherman from Takhmao in central Cambodia, said: “Because of the dams we lost a lot of fish. The water was at a very low level and dirty — that’s why many people are migrating and looking for work. It is going to be really difficult, more and more.”

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Then a rapid rise in water levels followed, ahead of the rains. Farmers and fisherfolk blamed the rise on sudden dam releases. Within the space of a few weeks, they were forced to relocate again.

They were right. Dozens of dams controlled by authorities in China and Laos unleashed torrents of water, which again damaged fish stocks. Then the rains came.

“Compared with last month, the river is up by 45 percent because of the rain and because they opened the dams up,” Som Nane said, adding this was preventing fish from heading upstream to spawn.

His sentiments were echoed by Hong Heng, a 51-year-old village chief near Kampot, southwest of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, who also said water levels were up 50 percent and still rising.

“The dams have created more crises than profits,” he said. “Hydropower has killed too many fish.”

Annual flooding of the Mekong River and its downstream delta is routine. But droughts — blamed on climate change and ill-advised attempts to control the flow of the river through dam construction — have further damaged fish stocks.

Fish need clean water to thrive. Before the dams were built, the Mekong in its natural state would rise at a steady level — the steadier the rise, the clearer the water — providing unimpeded access to upstream spawning grounds.

Drought results in muddy, low water levels. A sudden release of water creates turbulence, which also dirties the river and, combined with a torrent, upsets the breeding patterns in fish stocks already depleted by overfishing.

“The fish are still not going upstream because the water is moving too fast and is still not clear. Perhaps it will improve once the river slows and clears,” Som Nane added.

Som Nane, a 33-year-old fisherman from Takhmao, has been forced to relocate after the Mekong River dried up and then flooded rapidly. (Photo by Ah Ny)

Clarity and other factors

The potential for disaster remains great. About 70 million people depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods and many of the 850 marine species that once thrived, including the Irrawaddy dolphin and the giant catfish, are endangered.

In Cambodia water levels are measured at festivals. At Pchum Ben, a three-day religious event at the end of September or early October, Khmers return to their villages where they size up nature’s bounty: fish stocks, crops and water levels are all measured.

It’s a point not lost on the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which said its latest edition of Catch and Culture that the river had initially dropped to its record low in July, breaking a previous record set in 1992, amid “very deficient rainfall.”

“Although the relatively rapid and sustained decrease in water levels and discharge from June to mid-July was unprecedented, it did not reflect the natural recession of the seasonal flows when during this period the water should be slowly increasing,” it added.

That means the river was falling when it should have been rising.

It also noted that increased water fluctuations have also been evident in central Cambodia and the Tonle Sap, a Mekong tributary, since the early 1990s when the first large dam was built across the Mekong in China.

Other factors have also punished the Mekong, with the MRC citing sand mining, deforestation, a lack of sediment and an abolition of fishing lots in 2012, enabling unfettered access to stocks.

Adding to the mix is the irrigation canals, drainage channels and flood protection dykes that have also led to “drastic and rapid changes” in the amount of water and sediment reaching agriculture.

The irony is that the less predictable the seasons become, the more the canals, channels and dykes are needed.

Unheeded complaints

In trying to tame the Mekong, governments have ignored the science, environmentalists and those who rely on the river system. Meanwhile, a crackdown on independent media has muted debate on a subject that deserves to be aired.

Dara, a farmer in Kosdack commune in Cambodia, grows zucchini on the banks of the Mekong between the dry and wet seasons. But unpredictable seasons led to falls in crop yields and quality. Now he has trouble competing with cheaper and more reliable imports from Vietnam.

Along the river in southern Vietnam, 40-year-old Ah Hane Hoy says that “rice fields and crops are dying little by little” and she is anxious when speaking about next month and next year.

“We will move on in the future and there will be a shortage of people; many will be displaced or have to migrate and find alternative work,” she said.

Sot, a fisherman in Areyksat commune in Cambodia, said dams were blocking fish migration and preventing them from spawning, something he blames on China and the “impact of Sinification that transformed the upstream of the Mekong,” adding “there is a lot more to this story.”

The next page of this story will turn as the Water Festival nears. Normally the Tonle Sap, a lake, fills and reverses course back into the Mekong by the first week in October. As the water recedes from overly deep and swift levels, conditions become ripe for the festival and the all-important boat races.

Only rarely has a lack of water, or too much, forced the abandonment of the races. But this year, despite monsoonal floods and the rapid rise in water levels, the Mekong remains a long way from its peak.

Po Ly, a 68-year-old advocate for farmers and fisherfolk, says dams and climate change have made predictions difficult. That’s highly relevant now as planning begins for the Water Festival. Still, Po did hazard a guess that: “Next, we will need water to celebrate the Water Festival.”

That’s about a month away.

Ah Ny contributed to this report.

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