Gone: Fishing

How will a population so dependent on rivers and lakes stay afloat when faced with a series of mega-dam projects?

Alison Smith
January 24, 2014
Gone: Fishing
Fish out of water: the Mekong River Basin supports one of the most diverse fish faunas on Earth. Dam construction could soon change all that. Photo: Suthep Kritsanavarin/Angkor Photo Festival

“Community livelihoods depend on fish. The villagers fish every day for their income – they really worry about dams,” said Youk Senglong, program manager at the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT).

Millions of people fish Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake and 3S (Sesan, Srepok and Sekong) rivers every day to feed their families and the nation, but mooted dam projects along the Mekong River could devastate livelihoods and threaten food security in Cambodia. The country’s next major hydropower project will be the Lower Sesan 2 dam, which will be located near the confluence of the 3S rivers and the Mekong.

The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) Strategic Environmental Assessment of the 12 largest planned dams concluded that more than half of the Lower Mekong Basin – the sections of the river located in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – would become stagnant if the projects were completed.

FACT, an alliance between local and international NGOs, has focused on fish-dependent districts since 2000 when the Vietnam-based Yali Falls dam began affecting the downstream population. “Yali Falls caused a serious disaster – not only with flooding but also with drought,” said Senglong.

In a worst-case scenario reported by the MRC, construction of the 12 dams would put at least 41 species under threat from a severe alteration of their habitat.

“Plans for more than 200 dams will most likely turn off the huge pulse of productivity that occurs, so there is a trade-off – do you want clean energy or do you want food security?” asked Dr Leslie Kaufman, professor of biology at Boston University, in Hydropower Impacts and Alternatives, a recent film by ardent conservationist and filmmaker Allan Michaud.

Indeed, of 200 dams planned for the Mekong and its surrounds, many are on minor branches and will not affect the river. It is construction on the Mekong’s main tributaries that is a concern.

A November 2012 joint report by the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, the Fisheries Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – all of them Cambodia-based – examined the connection between two Cambodian dams and nutrition vulnerability. The research revealed that only 25% of Cambodians consume enough calories every day and just 19% have the recommended level of iron. Of those with enough iron, 37% comes from fish. Furthermore, with yearly fish consumption of 63kg per person — a figure that includes 40kg of inland fish — versus the world average of 16kg, Cambodia is heavily reliant on fish for protein.

Tides of change: the 240-megawatt Don Sahong dam, which will be located in Si Phan Don (below), Laos, will have a massive impact on the economies, food security and natural landscapes of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam
Tides of change: the 240-megawatt Don Sahong dam, which will be located in Si Phan Don (below), Laos, will have a massive impact on the economies, food security and natural landscapes of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam

“This is one of the most intensely fished freshwater areas in the world,” said Eric Baran, a scientist at World Fish, an international fisheries research institute. “The 2.6m tonnes of fish caught annually in the Lower Mekong Basin represent seven times more than the catches of the North American inland fisheries sector and more than ten times the inland catch in Australia.”

Cambodia’s Ministry of Health is aware of the low levels of iron, high malnutrition rates and micro-nutrient deficiencies that are widespread throughout the Kingdom. In a 2008 survey, the ministry found that anaemia in pregnant women was particularly high at 57% and set a goal of reducing it to 33% by next year. A similar study by the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2010 found that more than half of the children tested were anaemic.

Figures from the Ministry of Health also show that 37% of children aged under five have stunted growth due to malnutrition. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that schoolchildren will be the biggest at-risk age group if fish stocks reduce, stressing that diversifying diets is key to improving health, but that success also depends on effective technologies and behavioural changes.

Cambodia’s reliance on fish as a source of protein makes it acutely vulnerable, according to Baran. “Cambodia is a country where fish production is three times higher than pig production and 20 times higher than chicken production. If Cambodia loses fisheries, it will take decades for the livestock or aquaculture sectors to catch up,” he said.

Research is needed about the distinctive bionetwork of the region, including how crops will be affected by changes to the river and siltation, especially as the Tonle Sap’s unique hydrology makes it particularly susceptible to change. Flooding at the wrong times and in the wrong places would destroy riverbank farmland, while a lack of nutrient-rich sediment flowing to the soil will obliterate crop yields. The Upper Mekong dams in China are predicted to have already reduced sediment by 50% in Laos, and Michaud estimates that the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 and Sekong dams in Cambodia would reduce sediment flow by 90%.

A buildup of sediment causes the lifespan of dams to be shortened by decades, and lack of planning for silt distribution has caused problems in other developing countries. Poor research prior to building dams in Guatemala and Honduras has left governments with increasing debts and useless infrastructure.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites numerous examples of how dams across the world have led to the spread of malaria, schistosomiasis, filariasis and Japanese encephalitis – parasitic diseases that thrive in and around stagnant water. The Diama dam on the Senegal River caused the biggest outbreak of schistosomiasis ever recorded in Africa and academics credit the first cases of malaria in northern Africa to Egypt’s High Aswan dam.

The Yali Falls dam in Vietnam’s central highlands, 80km from the Cambodian border, has had a serious impact on downstream villagers in Cambodia where the Sesan river’s flow has reduced dramatically. “People don’t normally boil the water. They drink straight from the river and it has caused skin problems, especially in children,” said FACT’s Senglong. “Sanitation is really bad.”

Community-based research in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province in 2002 reported that locals using the river for bathing and drinking experienced an increase in eye irritation, stomach problems and skin rashes after Yali Falls was constructed.

Researchers also found that displaced residents, no longer able to fish, were forced to supplement their income through means such as wildlife trading and clearing forest to relocate their rice fields to higher ground. FACT predicts that more than 38,500 people will lose access to migratory fish if the Lower Sesan 2 project goes ahead.

Simon Funge-Smith, senior fisheries officer at the FAO, said the difficulty in obtaining accurate statistics on the actual volume of fish harvested causes Environmental Impact Assessment reports to favour construction companies. “Dam projects typically undervalue fish and their role in nutrition and food security,” Funge-Smith said. “It’s hard to attribute dollar values to a healthy child or normal development – until you lose it.”

Dam it: Three key dams slated for completion in Cambodia in coming years

Stung Treng (Stung Treng province)

With a 980-megawatt capacity and a 211-square-kilometre reservoir, construction of the Stung Treng dam will result in an estimated 21 villages being displaced.

Sambor (Kratie province)

At 18km long and 56m tall, with a 2,600-megawatt capacity, the Sambor dam would be the largest in Cambodia with a reservoir of 620 square-kilometres and extend across the Mekong mainstream and the mouth of the 3S rivers. Seventy percent of the power will be routed to Vietnam.

Lower Sesan 2 (Stung Treng province, 25km east of the confluence with the Mekong)

A 45m-tall dam with a reservoir covering 355 square-kilometres and 400-megawatt capacity. Generated power will be routed to Vietnam and sold back to Cambodia.

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