Fishermen and fishery conservationists are concerned about low Mekong River water levels which have prevented the annual reversal of the Tonle Sap River’s water flow, an important event which eventually fills the Tone Sap Lake with water and fish.

Some parts of the lake are drier than they’ve ever been during the rainy season.

Chak Choeun, a fisherman in Stoung district’s Peam Bang commune in Kampong Thom province, has been fishing in the area for years. But now, he is facing a severe lack of fish.

In the past, he used to catch around 6kg of fish per day and sold them for about $7. Now he catches only one or 2kg.

“This year, it is dried up. I cannot catch anything. There was water here last year, but there is nothing now. Some fishermen have left to work in construction and some have gone searching for fish deeper in Tonle Sap Lake.

“We still can catch a little fish and sell it for up to 10,000 riel [$2.50]. It is not enough even to buy rice,” he said.

He said Peam Bang commune used to be filled with fish, and people from Stoung district would often travel to fish there. Although the area is now dry, there are still people along the dock, waiting for their fortunes to change. He said they may disappear soon due to the dry spell.

“Some people left to work in garment factories or construction in Phnom Penh. No one will force us to leave Tonle Sap Lake. We will leave by ourselves if the situation remains like this,” Choeun said.

Fisheries Action Coalition Team (Fact) executive director Om Savath told The Post on Wednesday that fish products can’t be evaluated yet as high-volume fishing is currently banned for the breeding season.

“The water levels of the Mekong should be higher than they are now. Tonle Sap wetland areas should be filled with water, enabling fish to breed and move to the Mekong River,” he said.

Savath said this is the second consecutive year the water flow reversal of the Tonle Sap River has been late. When less water flows into Tonle Sap Lake, it increases poison levels and affects fish species.

He attributed the problem to the dams constructed along the Mekong and climate change.

“When there are many dams along the river, it reduces the water level in the lower parts [of the river] and makes the water flow slower,” he said.

Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology spokesman Chan Yutha said on Wednesday that the indicator which signifies the reversal of the Tonle Sap River’s flow is when the water level of the Chaktomuk River reaches 7m, which usually occurs from June to October.

He said the lower water levels in the Mekong River this year were caused by last year’s El Nino effects and this year’s infrequent rainfall.

Yutha said typhoons play a role in the water levels as well, and their scarcity in Asia this year has contributed to prolonging the dry season. However, frequent rains are expected in mid-August.

Savath said many governments blame climate change for low water levels. But the hydro dams along the Mekong River cannot be ignored, he said.

“We accept that climate [change] is one of the factors. But if the dams had not been constructed along the Mekong River, the water flow should be naturally normal,” he said, adding that the low water levels would affect the government’s rice export plan and increase fishery crimes.