A fisherman (L) checks his nets on a small tributary just a short distance from the Mekong River in Kratie province. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post
Fishermen bring their boats to shore, pack away their traps and hand over the day’s catch to their awaiting families on the banks of the Mekong River in Kratie province’s Chitra Borei district.
“When my husband arrives home each day, we eat some of what he has caught, but the rest we have to sell at the market,” Ry Srey On says from one of the many houses that comprise the Thmar Kre Lue fishing community in Thmar Kre commune.
Like many other Cambodians who depend on the Mekong for their livelihood, the river has been the 35-year-old mother of five’s lifeblood since she was a child.
In recent times, however, Srey On has noticed things changing.
A drop in the number of fish being caught has corresponded with increased chatter about something that might diminish stocks even further: the arrival of hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong.
“At the moment, there is less fish, and I am worried that if they build a hydro dam it’s going to block fish even more,” she says.
Although far from Kratie province, the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos is one of 11 proposed hydro dams on the Lower Mekong that has sent both environmental groups and neighbouring governments into a spin over the damage it could cause.
The potential trans-boundary effects of the $3.5 billion 1,285-megawatt dam – which would send 95 per cent of its power to Thailand – have not been studied, and environmental groups say fish migration and sediment flow will be blocked.
And if reports are accurate, construction of the dam, though denied by the Lao government, has already begun.
A few doors down from Srey On, the fishing community’s chief, Chhim Sokea, says villagers are also concerned that proposed dams such as Xayaburi and the much closer – and potentially bigger – Sambor dam could damage their way of life.
“Each day, I take my boat out on the Mekong and set fishing traps and nets. Once I’ve caught something, I bring it back to my wife to sell,” Sokea says.
“We rely on fish for our livelihood, certainly,” he adds, referring to the 100 families who live in the village.
“We have no alternative to fishing,” he says. “If we cannot fish, we cannot live. I hope the government does not build Sambor, though I’m less concerned about Xayaburi, because it’s far away.”
Fish from the Mekong makes up more than 80 per cent of Cambodia’s protein intake and generates about $1 billion in produce each year.
According to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, these numbers could be seriously diminished if hydro dams are approved.
“Migratory fish make up a dominant proportion of annual fish production,” she says, adding that as many as 100 species could be blocked by the dams.
“Effects will be felt by millions of people who live along the river . . . because so many people fish and rely on agriculture. And if Xayaburi is approved, it is likely the others will also be approved,” she says.
On Phdao island, in nearby Sambor district’s Kampong Cham commune, about 2,000 families farm to supplement their fishing.
According to 42-year-old Sous Vy, a fisherman’s wife, they can’t survive on one without the other.
What’s more, she believes construction of dams along the Mekong will affect both agriculture and fishing.
“Construction across the river blocks the flow of water and fish and even causes flood during rainy season,” she says. “I’ve seen this coming. I’ve attended workshops and done research into the living standards of residents living near hydro dams in Thailand. From what I see, they have health problems and food shortages.”
The four member states of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – are bound by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, under which they must work together to preserve the river from environmental damage.
In 2010, the MRC conducted a strategic environmental assessment on the proposed dams and concluded that the dams would transform more than half of the Lower Mekong into a series of stagnant reservoirs and sections of rapidly fluctuating water.
According to Gordon Congdon, freshwater conservation manager for WWF-Cambodia, in Xayaburi’s case, such breaks in connection would affect fish migration into Cambodia.
“The proposed fish passages at Xayaburi have been deemed inadequate by scientists and will reduce fish passage up and down the Mekong,” he says.
“This will reduce the quantity of fish available throughout the Mekong system, including in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.”
The MRC’s findings estimated Cambodia would be the worst hit – with fisheries losing more than 40 per cent of stock or $500 million per year, affecting the livelihoods and food security of millions, and sediment being blocked, which would increase the need for farmers to use fertiliser, thus increasing their costs.
The MRC recommended a regional moratorium on all proposed Mekong mainstream dams for at least 10 years while further studies were carried out, and has urged Xayaburi to be postponed two times since.
Members agreed that a joint study on the trans-boundary impacts of the project was needed before construction could be carried out.
Two reports on the dam have been carried out – one by a Swiss arm of Finnish consulting and engineering firm Pöyry and the other by French dam-building company Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) – both were commissioned by Laos and both were criticised for not meeting the requests of the other MRC countries.
Laos has yet to agree to another one, but has agreed to a different study, partly funded by Japan, that will assess the impacts of all the dams.
More controversy has plagued the Xayaburi project since the developer behind the project, Thai firm Ch. Karnchang, announced in April it had signed the construction deal for the project – replete with a starting date a month earlier.
NGOs have since threatened to sue the Thailand for allowing the project, protesters have marched in the streets, Cambodia and Vietnam have written letters to Laos demanding it suspend the project and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has vowed to intervene and halt construction.
Laos maintains that construction never began, but environmental groups including International Rivers, which claims an entire Lao village has been relocated to make way for construction, says things are quite the opposite.
According to Trandem, another structure is being built near Xayaburi to stop water from reaching the main dam site.
“This will be finished by May 2013,” she says. “That is construction. You would only build it to build a hydroelectric dam. There are already plans to build the spillway [by October next year].”
The Lao government and Ch. Karnchang could not be reached for comment.