PHNOM PENH – People in Cambodia are grappling with dramatic changes to the country’s ecosystem as China chokes the life out of the Mekong. Meanwhile Prime Minster Hun Sen continues to Cozies up to China and its Money.
The United Nations, which partners with the Cambodian government on climate, says the country one of most vulnerable areas in Asia. “Agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and most infrastructures are not yet climate-resilient” UN representative Nick Beresford said.
Warning that many Cambodia households would probably be unable to withstand “climate-related shocks” like droughts or floods.
In July, the Mekong River Commission reported water levels below any on record for the Mekong River. China Dams held back water creating drought like conditions for the lower Mekong communities.
The Lack of Water from China Dams Unprecedented
The commission, cited “insufficient rainfall” and China dams for the lack of water, a situation it described as “unprecedented”.
Brian Eyler, author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, has been following the water levels closely.
With more than 100 china dams now operational on either the mainstream Mekong or its tributaries. Eyler warns that the dams are preventing fish migration and sediment flow that is vital for agriculture.
Eyler said the dams also reduce the intensity and duration of the Tonle Sap reversal. Many fish died because of the shallow water, hot temperature, and toxic water resulting from lack of oxygen.
Around 2.5 million people who depend on the lake’s once-abundant fisheries have been directly affected.”
Eyler warned that should the Tonle Sap not reverse, the ecosystem would be “irrevocably damaged.”
He praised the Cambodian government for exploring a shift towards solar power. However, he said the government should immediately be preparing alternative protein access through aquaculture and agriculture.
But Cambodian environmental activist Sun Mala, doubts the government’s commitment to the environment.
Politicians and politically-connected businessmen have frequently been linked to environmentally-damaging activities. Like sand-dredging and illegal logging. Sun Mala was arrested in 2015 for protesting against sand-dredging.
“We can’t expect Cambodia to take action to stop deforestation or anything harmful to nature.” Mala said, explaining that powerful people benefit too much from the exploitation of resources.
Lower Mekong Fishermen and Farmers Effected by Chinese Dams
Mala said Cambodia is also in an unfortunate position as a downstream country on the Mekong River.
China and Thailand build a lot of dams, so in the dry season they keep the water in the reservoirs. In Cambodia we don’t have enough water to generate electricity,” Mala explained. Cambodia suffered to countrywide blackouts earlier this year.
Mala also said the government has not come up with an effective plan to replace lost jobs or protein sources.
“So far they just say when you cannot catch fish any more or grow agriculture on the river. Just change and have a chicken or pig farm,” he said. Buying a farm is simply not an option for many of the poorest people.
Many are ethnic Vietnamese who had their documents revoked during a government purge in 2017. Leaving them stateless and unable to legally acquire land in Cambodia.
“When the water is high, when the water is low, they always fish,” said Mao, a resident a floating village in Kampong Chhnang. Many villagers as a whole are primarily dependent on fishing.
Dams in China and Drought Effecting Tonle Sap in Cambodia
He said water levels were unusually low earlier this year, and the rain came much later than normal.
Although the water has risen substantially as of late, Mao said it was still lower than the same time last year.
“It used to go up to the top,” he said pointing to the riverbank which still had approximately five meters exposed.
Mala worries about future droughts on the Tonle Sap and the risk of starvation.”In the future, it could be very dangerous,” he said.
Despite the bleakness of the situation, Mala tries to stay positive, taking solace in how many young people are becoming environmentally active.
“It’s hard to imagine but I hope that because of the peoples’ environmental movement we can stop the destruction of natural resources,” he said.