Fishermen without fish as Cambodia's river reversal runs late

by Reuters
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 13:21 GMT

A Buddha statue overlooks docked scattered boats on a dried up tributary that connects to the Tonle Sap lake in Kampong Khleang, Cambodia July 6, 2020. REUTERS/Prak Chan Thul

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The river reversal which fills the Tonle Sap Lake with fish has been delayed by droughts and dams, with those who depend on it struggling to get by

By Prak Chan Thul

KAMPONG KHLEANG, Cambodia, July 21 (Reuters) - Crucial water flows to the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest lake, have been delayed for a second consecutive year according to river experts, severely disrupting fishing and threatening the food supply of more than a million people.

The river reversal vital for Tonle Sap Lake may not happen until next month, officials said, owing to drought conditions and more than a dozen hydropower dams in China and Laos which are blamed for disrupting the natural flow of the Mekong River.

The Mekong typically swells in rainy season where it converges with Cambodia's Tonle Sap River, causing an unusual reversed flow into the Tonle Sap Lake, filling it up and providing bountiful fish stocks.

But that hasn't happened yet and people who depend on the lake are struggling to get by.

"I went out fishing for two nights and couldn't catch enough," said 37-year-old Khon Kheak, repairing a fishing net under his stilt house at Kampong Khleang, a floating village with little water to float in.

That trip earned him 12,000 riels, or about $3, compared to $12-$25 a day last year, enough to support his family of six.

His wife Reth Thary worries those days may be over.

"If it continues like this we would be finished, we also owe people money," she said, referring to a $1,000 loan.

Water typically flows into the Tonle Sap lake for 120 days, swelling it six-fold before running back into the Mekong as the monsoon season ends, usually in late September.

Based on rain forecasts and rainfall data, the river's unique reverse flow should happen in August, said Long Saravuth, a Deputy Secretary General of Cambodia's National Mekong Committee.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) attributes the delay to lower 2019 rainfall and operations of upstream Mekong hydropower dams, two of which are in Laos and 11 in China.

"From now on, the reversed flow timing will likely not be the same as it used to be," the MRC said.

Laos and China say the dams bring vital economic benefits and regulate water flow, helping to prevent severe floods and droughts.

But fisherman San Savuth, 25, wants Cambodia's government to negotiate the release of water from those dams to help Kampong Khleang's 2,000 families.

Savuth may go to Siem Reap, a city 55km (34 miles) away, to find construction work.

"We can't catch anything. There is no water, there is no fish," he said.

Even without the coronavirus squeezing international travel, there is no hope of attracting local tourists for boat trips from Kampong Khleang, which would normally handle 600 passengers a day.

There is a padlock on the abandoned tourism office surrounded by overgrown grass and about 130 tour boats are lying idle.

"People in Kampong Khleang are fishermen without fish," said tour boat owner Ly Sam Ath. "There is no farming for them to do."

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Writing by Panu Wongcha-um and Martin Petty, editing by Ed Osmond)