Changing streams on the Mekong River

Changing streams on the Mekong River

Luke Hunt

Luke Hunt Journalist & Asian corresponden

Published

The use of the Mekong River is changing rapidly. Aquaculture and fish farming are now among the high growth industries, offering employment and better standards of living, but at the expense of traditional fishermen who have plied these waters for centuries.

It's a significant shift which fishermen say has resulted primarily from a sharp decline of natural fish stocks in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) – a change welcomed by many who relish the prospect of an end to the back breaking work of fishing from rickety samphans under a harsh tropical sun.

Fish farms are growing in popularity with demand rising and traditional stocks in decline. The work is also easier, as one worker here takes a break in a hammock. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

Fishermen routinely caught between 100 to 300 kilograms of fish a day when casting their nets 10 to 15 years ago.

Then, fish stocks were near their highest levels as three decades of war came to an end. Today, they say their daily catches have been reduced to between five and 15 kilograms.

Overfishing, illegal fishing with electric nets, drought, increased demand and higher salinisation levels blamed on climate change have all played a part. Many fishermen however believe it is the upstream dams in Laos and China responsible for the disappearing catch.

A fish farm by the side of the road from Phnom Penh to Battambang. This sight is becoming far more common as business looks for alternative and more cost effective means of fish production. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

“Fish are getting rarer, day by day, especially over the last two years and I think it is because of the changing weather, heavier rains plus the dam construction,” said No Isa, a 37 year-old fisherman, and spokesman for the local fishing community here.

Not all agree but his view is common in the fishing community.

Opportunity costs

About 70 million people in the LMB depend on the Mekong River for their food security, 10 million more than two decades ago, amid a wealth of development ranging from petrochemicals and tourism to dam construction and sand dredging.

Dredging too can be controversial if there is flouting of local environmental laws or the forced removal of too many people from their traditional lands.

But sand is still eagerly sought by countries such as Singapore for construction and Cambodia sits in an alluvial plain. The island-state has spent millions since exports from Cambodia resumed with the arrival of post-war reconstruction, a substantial contribution to government coffers.

David Totten, Director of Emerging Markets Consulting (EMC) said measuring the value of the Mekong River “in the strict sense” had to be achieved through “opportunity costs” -what it costs to replace what it currently provides. It's a measurement complicated by traditional values.

Fish are caught with nets, gutted and stretched out on bamboo work benches to enable them to dry. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

“That’s the issue facing Cambodia,” he said. “Basically a lot of poor people fishing in it, watering livestock in it, and growing crops in the land it fertilises.”

Totten said the Mekong River was also the source of much needed irrigation water and provided transportation for rice, cassava and other foodstuffs, including fish, even sturgeon breeding for the harvesting of caviar in the upper Mekong tributaries in Vietnam.

But within the LMB – the size of France and Germany during the wet season – increased demand for fish is resulting in a phenomenon scientists call fishing down: when large fish are depleted to the point they are replaced by once-discarded smaller fish.

With supply incapable of keeping up with post-war growth, aquaculture is emerging as a key industry, helping to offset losses among fishing families.

According to the fisheries newsletter, Catch and Culture, growth rates for aquaculture in the LMB are three times faster than the global total.

It valued the Mekong River fish catch in 2015 at $US5.8 billion, up from $US4.8 billion in 2010 and less than $US1 billion in 2003. The total fish harvest from the Mekong River and LMB was valued at $US11 billion in 2015.

Comparative figures for previous years and 2016 were not available.

Chinese firms are prominent here due to a lack of clean rivers in China. China Ocean Fishing Holding Ltd is negotiating a $US100 million aquaculture project in Cambodia that would include fish farms, a feed mill and a processing plant.

The lives of Cambodian children who live by the river is changing. With less fish their parents are leaving their traditional way of life and are hoping to be resettled in villages or the suburbs of the capital where their children can go to school. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

Norwegian group Vitamar wants to build a $US23 million dollar fish farm in the southern port town Sihanoukville while the Japanese International Cooperation Agency has its own plans for a fish breeding program and a research centre in Phnom Penh.

But business can also be fickle.

“Some months are good, some months are not so good,” said Sok Chanty, 40, who turned to fish farming as traditional fish stocks fell. He provides baby fish reared in ponds for restaurants.

“Still it's much better than the alternative. Fishing in the Mekong is physically tough and it hurts as you get older,” he said. “Why would you do that when the returns are so small?”

For those reasons world aquaculture production is expected to surpass the production of traditional fish catches by 2023 and that should help re-orientate food security and improve the lives of millions in the LMB, who still live a traditional hand-to-mouth existence.

Money, dams and power

Further upstream in Laos the high mountains and steep canyons dictate river flows and this is also changing rapidly with the government in Vientiane relentless in its push for hydro-power development.

Damming the main stream of the region's longest river is a contentious point. Environmentalists are bitterly opposed to dam construction, a key plank in the Lao government's plan to turn their impoverished, landlocked country into "the battery of Asia".

It wants to sell hydro-electricity into neighbouring countries through construction of 11 dams across the mainstream of the Mekong River with another 123 dams to be built along the river's tributaries. 

Laos has just announced the go ahead of its third mainstream dam, at Pak Beng in the north and has tried to allay concerns over traditional fish breeding patterns, arguing fish by-passes would enable fish migration to continue upstream for spawning. Scientists, however, are not convinced.

Sos Nob, a 44 year-old mother with six children says her community, which essentially lives out of sampans, is finding life a struggle amid disappearing fish stocks blamed widely on dam construction upstream in Laos and China. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

Anna Green, Chief Executive Officer for ANZ Bank in Laos said infrastructure investment, manufacturing and tourism would figure prominently in driving economic growth in the region over the coming years but countries located along the Mekong would rely on hydro-power to maintain their growth numbers.

“Whilst there are good reasons why NGOs have taken issue with hydro-power development on the Mekong, the political reality is that governments of the region continue to see hydro-power as a clean and sustainable way to develop their natural resources,” she said.

“For that reason we can expect to see more development activity in this space in the near term.”

Green said the involvement of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was heavily restructured in 2016 after years of mismanagement, could assist in ensuring development is undertaken in compliance with international best practice standards.

“Increasingly governments of the region are recognizing the need to manage their natural resources responsibly and there is a growing understanding of the impact that their immediate decisions about damming will have on the life of their resources and their availability for future generations,she said.

New era

Among the thousands of fishing villages which dot the LMB emotions are mixed when talk turns to disappearing lifestyles. In Chroy Changvar some argue it is wrong to deny their children access to fishing traditions.

The fishing boats moored at Chroy Changvar offer a stark contrast against the rapidly developing skyline of Phnom Penh. PHOTO: Luke Hunt

But some, like Sos Nob, a 44 year-old mother with six children under her care, are pragmatic and long for an end to a harsh life spent huddled on tiny samphans while fishing in the middle of the Mekong River or Tonle Sap.

“You live on the land so farming is your life. I live on the water so fishing is my life. When there is no more fish how can I survive?” she said, adding her community of about 50 families need help in making the transition from river to urban or village life.

“Months ago people from the government came to talk to us about relocation, loans, housing and schools but we haven’t heard anything since then and we are now getting anxious.”

The challenges of development are widespread in the Mekong, traditional lifestyles and even where people live can inevitably conflict with plans to grow economies and improve the lot of the majority of citizens. That’s complex enough but trust in the process is not always high with no shortage of examples of less than satisfactory treatment in the past. Sustainable development however is at least recognised as the desirable goal.

If the days of casting their nets for a living are over, No Isa says it's time to move on and create a better life somewhere else.

“We have neither capital nor education and we have no idea about what to do next,” he said. He expects more from the government: “The government should find us a new location, provide loans and if possible find us jobs, and especially a place for our children’s education.”

It is a delicate balance. But there are positive trends: the poverty rate in the region has dropped from 34 per cent in 2008 to 13.5 per cent in 2016, according to the World Development Bank.

Luke Hunt has worked as a journalist out of Southeast Asia for many years for mastheads ranging from The Economist and The New York Times to The Age. Molyny Pann contributed to this article.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
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