Ian G. Baird, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on dams in Southeast Asia, tells of meeting a farmer and his five-year-old son from a village in rural Laos in 2009.
The two were sitting in a canoe as the sun rose over the Mekong, Baird wrote in 2011.
The farmer removed a carp from his net and tossed it into a bamboo basket that his son was holding.
The farmer had caught four fish, not as many as when fishing with his father when he was a child, but more than enough to feed his family of seven.
“We’re not sure if my son’s children will be able to go fishing in the future,” the farmer said. “The dams planned for the Mekong River scare us.”
Baird noted that this father-and-son scene could easily be replicated hundreds of thousands of times in rural villages situated along the Mekong and its tributaries.
Fish are a vital source of protein for the villagers, but the many dams already being constructed on the Mekong River have been disrupting the migration of more than a hundred species of fish.
For children this loss of protein means slower mental development, poorer performance at school, and less chance to improve their lives as adults.
Early warnings of the impact on children
Researchers have warned in recent years that a loss of fish resources caused by dam building in the region could devastate the health of rural children.
And signs of malnutrition in some rural villages in the region, possibly for a variety of reasons, were already being documented more than a decade ago.
Professor Baird addressed the issue in mid-2011 when he published an article dealing with the potential impact of a dam being built in Laos less than one kilometer north of the Laos-Cambodia border.
Writing for the journal Critical Asian Studies, Baird noted that in Stung Treng Province in northeastern Cambodia, the provincial government’s Department of Planning had already reported in 2003 that 45 percent of children there under the age of five were underweight.
In Laos, the situation was “even more worrying,” according to Baird.
Research by the World Food Program (WFP) found at one point that Laos’ rural population was experiencing “serious nutritional problems, with 50 percent of children chronically malnourished.
Dam construction in Laos
In Laos, construction around one major dam, the Don Sahong, has already blocked many migrating fish and forced fishermen in the area to give up fishing altogether.
Some Lao fishermen have been offered basic construction jobs at the dam sites, but they find it difficult to adjust to losing a way of life that depended on fishing.
Fourteen Lao families are reported to have been given construction jobs after receiving training. Some are learning to drive trucks and will earn around $200 a month.
“But it’s not easy to adjust to the new jobs,” one fisherman from the village of Houa Sadam told RFA several weeks ago.
“We’ve relied on fishing for a long time,” he said. “But we’re not allowed to catch fish near the construction site.”
Another villager said last spring that “we’re okay with working for the company to get paid salaries, but we’re not highly educated like the others. So all we can do is low-skill labor.”
The Don Sahong Dam has been controversial ever since October 2013, when the government of Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its intent to construct the dam.
That was only one month ahead of the start date for construction.
Three of the other MRC members—Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—argued that construction of a dam on the Mekong’s mainstream required prior consultation under MRC procedures.
But Laos left no time for consultation, and might have ignored any recommendation made by the MRC.
In Cambodia, a study of “Food and Nutrition Security Vulnerability to Mainstream Hydropower Dam Development” gives an idea of how bad things could get if negative trends continue into the next decade.
That report, issued by the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute in Phnom Penh, concludes that losses to the supply of fish due to Cambodian mainstream dams could cause consumption of inland fish to “dramatically decline” by 2030.
The report explains that dams and their reservoirs constitute a “double obstacle” to fish.
“The dam is a physical obstacle to adults trying to migrate upstream, and the reservoir is an environmental obstacle to larvae and juveniles trying to migrate downstream,” the report says.
Fish passes, it says, can help mitigate the impact of dams, “but they are not a magic bullet. …On the mainstream and in the lower part of the Mekong, the intensity of migrations is such that no fish pass can provide a realistic mitigation measure.”
One thing that everyone in Cambodia seems to agree on is the difficulty of replacing fish in the Cambodian diet.
Simon Funge-Smith, a senior fisheries resources officer at the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says that “the data from household surveys and numerous nutrition studies clearly shows the importance of fish in the Cambodian diet.”
In an email in answer to a query from RFA, Funge-Smith said that there are no immediate replacements for fish in the form of other sources of animal and plant protein, and “certainly none with the same nutritional quality as fish.”
Until now, the Mekong River has been able to support the largest inland fishery region in the world.
Radio Free Asia, meanwhile, reported a year ago that the fish population in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake had declined significantly from the year before.
Fishermen in the country’s Kampong Chhnang Province cited the construction of dams in the region and climate change, among other factors, as causes of the decline of fish stocks in Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.
The shortages then led to an increased price for fish in the region, making it harder for residents to make prahok, the fermented fish paste that is a staple of the Cambodian diet, according to Sim Sophana, a member of the provincial Fishing Network nongovernmental organization.
Vietnam pays a heavy price
In Vietnam’s heavily populated Mekong Delta, home to some 18 million people, one can see most vividly the impact on vulnerable people brought on by a combination of El Nino-induced drought, climate change, bad rice farming practices, the impact of upstream dams, rising sea levels, and the intrusion of salt water.
Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta complain that upstream dams have greatly reduced the amount of silt, or sediment, that once reached the Delta.
Rising sea levels as well as the loss of silt that is needed to maintain riverbanks and riverbeds have now resulted in salt water reaching nearly 40 miles into the Delta.
According to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in the 18 Vietnamese provinces most affected by the drought and salt intrusion, two million people, including 520,000 children, are in need of humanitarian assistance.
An estimated 1.5 million of those two million live in the Mekong Delta, where “water shortages have been exacerbated by the saltwater intrusion,” UNICEF said in situation report on June 10.
The Delta is the source of 50 percent of Vietnam’s staple food crops and 60 percent of its fish production.
The first of those to pay the price for its diminishing productivity are the most vulnerable members of Vietnamese society—women and children.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.