Low Mekong Levels Hurt Cambodia’s Farmers, Prompting Call For Talks Between River Nations

Riparian communities say they can’t grow certain crops, while fish stocks have been decimated.
Low Mekong Levels Hurt Cambodia’s Farmers, Prompting Call For Talks Between River Nations A fisherman stands next to docked scattered boats on a dried up tributary that connects to the Tonle Sap Lake in Kampong Khleang, Cambodia, July 6, 2020.

Years of low water levels on the Mekong River are causing riparian communities in Cambodia to lose their livelihoods, prompting experts to call on nations that share the waterway to find a common solution on water usage.

Farmers in Cambodia recently told RFA’s Khmer Service that they can no longer grow rice during the dry season, while fishermen said the size of their daily catches has plummeted, due to the lack of water. Fish farmers have also been severely affected by the low river.

In Kandal province, residents of Prek Dong village, in Kien Svay district’s Kampong Svay commune, rely on Bassac Lake—which is fed by the Mekong—to earn a living. But after two years of shallow water levels, one farmer said that she had given up on dry season rice and that even her other crops have been hampered by water shortages.

“I’ve lost a lot of income due to not being able to farm,” she said. “I rely on farming, but there is no water—we’ve had too much drought and barely any rain. Additionally, I’ve had to buy fish and rice [rather than farming them].”

The farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are few fish to be had from the river and that not even the Cambodian staple of fish paste, known as prahok, is available. She said that she and other villagers have been forced to buy fish imported from Vietnam instead.

“Every year there is water in the river, there are fish, we can make prahok, but now there is nothing,” she said. “My brother grows bananas and he’s been forced to pump water from a nearby lake to fill his well.”

A fish farmer in Kampong Cham province named Eang Nam told RFA that the shallow river has affected the regular flows of water in and out of nearby lakes and streams, affecting how fish spawn.

The head of the Boeung Be 6 fishing community along the Mekong River in Kang Meas district said area lakes previously had plenty of water, but now he cannot raise fish or farm crops.

“This year the water shortage is severe, and farmers are running out of water for dry season crops,” he said. “When we don’t have water [in the river], the lakes dry out.”

A resident of Stung Prek Tnaot, in the capital Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, said there have been “no fish” to catch this year.

“I have no words to describe how badly this has affected us,” he said.

At least four of Cambodia's main sources of water that are fed by the Mekong have been severely impacted, sources said.

Calls to Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra, Ministry of Water Resources spokesman Chan Yutha, and government spokesman Phay Siphan went unanswered at the time of publishing.

However, Chan Yutha recently told a press conference that the problems affecting the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River, which connects the Mekong to Cambodia’s largest lake, was due to “natural phenomena” including less rainfall.

Call for joint resolution

Hem Odom, an independent consultant on river resources and the environment, told RFA that the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which is supposed to review major changes in the flow of the Mekong, must do more to resolve issues with the river’s level, rather than simply issuing statements.

The intergovernmental organization that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—but not Mekong nations China and Myanmar—can issue non-binding recommendations to jointly manage shared water resources.

But Hem Odom called on MRC nations to use the forum as a way to “find common issues” to discuss with China, where the Mekong’s headwaters are located, and which has more than 10 giant dams on the river that observers say regularly impacts its flow downstream.

“So, the question goes back to the Mekong River Commission—the intergovernmental commission: What can it do among the four [member] countries first so that we can bring a joint message to China and pursue talks,” he said.

Dams on the Mekong, which originates in western China, have a particularly adverse impact on downriver countries Vietnam and Cambodia, while their upriver neighbors reap the benefits of hydropower projects, experts say. Laos has been particularly aggressive in building dams under an ambitious goal of becoming the “Battery of Southeast Asia.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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