Fishing communities along two of Cambodia’s principle rivers say their livelihoods are threatened by droughts that have reduced water levels and devastated fish numbers.
“The Tonle Sap is 3 metres lower than last year,” Long Sochhet, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Fishing Communities, said yesterday. “Less water means less fish, so it is a dark year for us.”
According to Sochhet, the low water level meant the Tonle Sap could not flood the surrounding high ground and forests, which is vital if fish are to spawn.
“Usually in August and September, the water in the Tonle Sap rises and fills the lake, creeks and streams, flooding the forest where the fish breed and grow,” he said. “But in the past few years, the drought has lasted too long, and in the rainy season it rarely rains, making the water level too low for the river to flood.”
Many fishing communities, like the 400 families in Pursat province’s Raingtoel commune, where Sochhet lives, are entirely dependent on their catch, because they live in floating houses and have no land to cultivate, he added.
Kampong Chhnang provincial fishing communities representative Phat Phalla told a similar story.
“The Tonle Sap is at the lowest level I have seen it for 30 years,” she said. “Drought has combined with hydroelectric dams in the upper Mekong River to reduce the flow of water, which, along with illegal fishing, is slashing fish numbers.”
Phalla added that as many as 60 per cent of local families had turned to breeding fish in cages to make up for lost catches, but said the investment needed was landing many in debt.
On the Mekong, Chav Chantha, head of Stung Treng’s provincial fishing community, also blamed a lack of rainfall for falling fish stocks.
“What we see when there is no flood is that fish production is less,” she said.
Fishery Administration deputy director Kaing Khim confirmed the bleak picture painted by the fishing communities.
“Our concern is about the low level of water this year, and it is not favourable for the breeding and growing of fish,” she said. “So we can predict that fish production this year will decrease compared to previous years.”
News of the plight of fishing families comes as a report released by the Ministry of Agriculture on Sunday says rice farmers have also been hit hard by unusually dry conditions.
“A lack of rain has affected a total area of 234,695 hectares of rice seedlings, of which 15,954 hectares have been completely damaged,” the report says.
In a Facebook posting on Saturday, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged river levels were low and called for rice farmers to conserve water.
“I want to take this occasion to call for farmers to put more effort in reserving the water in the field, reservoirs and canals in order to guarantee the growth of the rainy season rice,” he wrote.
Weather experts have warned that due to the continuing impact of the El Niño climate event, unseasonably dry weather could continue well into next year.