CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Tonle Sap Lake has been at the heart of Cambodian civilization since ancient times, but this extraordinary ecosystem, and the millions of people who depend on it, are at a critical time, threatened by a “trifecta win” of local and regional resources. and global destructive forces.

A new book by American journalist Abby Seiff describes the natural wonder of the lake’s connection to the Mekong River and the historical significance of its natural wealth to the Khmer people. But he warns that over the past decade a multi-layered environmental crisis has pushed Asia’s most productive inland fishery to the brink of collapse.

During a recent discussion of the book, Seiff said a local failure to stop overfishing, the unbridled development of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong region, and global climate change were putting enormous pressure on the lake. “All of these things work in concert … it’s a trifecta of problems,” she told Brian Eyler of the Stimson Center, an American policy and research institute that hosts the virtual conference.

Seiff described visiting various fishing communities – who live on the shore, in wooden and bamboo stilt houses in the lake or in floating houses – and found that most could no longer survive on the catches of fish. once abundant fresh water from the lake. Many villagers were in debt and heading to urban areas in search of jobs, Seiff learned through news reports and research.

“Many fishermen I have spoken to want social support,” she said, explaining that they want alternative sources of income to supplement their fishing income.

Eyler said the book, titled “Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and A Vanishing World in Cambodia”, stood out for its poignant personal stories of life on the lake, which were “a unique contribution to literature and discussion underway on the future of the Mekong.

FILE: The view of fishermen’s floating houses on Tonle Sap Lake in Phnom Penh, May 2, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

Droughts and government failures

A series of dams built upstream in Laos and China in recent years, and erratic rainfall due to climate change, have caused extremely low water levels in the Mekong. This, in turn, weakens the unique hydrological process that occurs during the rainy season, when the swollen Mekong empties into the lake through a tributary and increases its size sevenfold.

This feature supports a huge and highly diverse fish stock. These range from the critically endangered giant Mekong catfish to the tiny Trey Rielwhich is captured in large volumes and processed into prahoka fermented fish paste that is an essential source of protein in Cambodian cuisine.

“Two years ago, the lake was only a quarter of its usual volume” in the rainy season, Seiff said, noting that such alarming situations had become commonplace in recent years. “In 2016 there was a horrible drought, wildfires and the fish catches were very low, so everyone was deeply in debt.”

Despite the lake’s status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Cambodian government has long failed to stem illegal fishing by small-scale fishermen and, more destructively, large-scale operators. Meanwhile, flooded forests that serve as fish habitat have been cleared by well-connected local businessmen and officials, who then lease them out for rice cultivation.

Department of Agriculture spokesman Ung Try said he could not comment on the book’s claim of government failures as he had not read it, but added that “illegal fishing decreased a lot” after the recent measurements. Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a crackdown on illegal fishing, encouraging local authorities to step up law enforcement.

In the first week of April, 29 people were arrested and 20 others were summoned to court in six provinces, while 59 fishing boats were seized along with prohibited fishing gear, including 1,200 meters of fillets, according to Ministry of Agriculture data provided to VOA Khmer.

Small boats float near the shore in Chong Kneas, Siem Reap December 4, 2015. Chong Kneas is known as the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake where most of the people of this village earn their living by fishing.  (Nov. Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Small boats float near the shore in Chong Kneas, Siem Reap December 4, 2015. Chong Kneas is known as the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake where most of the people of this village earn their living by fishing. (Nov. Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Seiff, who worked for years with the local Phnom Penh Post and now closed Cambodia Dailysaid Hun Sen’s order followed a familiar pattern of public announcements and government actions that led to few results that significantly protected the lake.

“We don’t really hear about it afterwards and we don’t know who the people who are arrested are.” she said during the discussion. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the local and mid-level people, they’re the easiest to catch… But you have to look at the bigger people behind this systemic problem.”

Seiff, however, remains “hopeful in some ways because the government recognizes the importance of the lake and the Mekong”, although he seems politically unwilling to tackle the causes on the ground. Cambodia also has little influence on upstream dam development or international efforts to reduce climate change.

FILE: Cambodian workers collect fish to be processed into traditional pickled fish, locally known as Prahok, at the Tonle Sap river bank in Chrang Chamreh during the fish harvesting season, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday, January 9.  2014. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

FILE: Cambodian workers collect fish to be processed into traditional pickled fish, locally known as Prahok, at the Tonle Sap river bank in Chrang Chamreh during the fish harvesting season, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday, January 9. 2014. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

General decline in catches, but lack of data

The book, like many stories in the local media, details the number of fishermen who have witnessed the disappearance of many species, while their catches have declined greatly in recent years and represent only a fraction of what the generation previous was able to fish. Seiff also pointed to rising prices of prahok fish in recent years, a sign of a decline in catches of Trey Riel.

However, Seiff and Eyler noted that the lack of reliable scientific data on current fish stocks and the volume of catches has made it difficult to determine the precise extent of the problem.

“We really don’t know, that’s the key issue. There is no good science or good data on the state of the Tonle Sap fisheries. And the data that comes out of the Cambodian government is often altered for political purposes, so there’s reason not to necessarily believe that wholesale,” said Eyler, author of a 2019 book called “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong”.

A 2021 VOA Khmer survey also raised questions about the accuracy of government data, which claimed a continued high annual catch that does not match widespread local accounts of plummeting volumes.

The latest government fisheries report is from 2020 and says some 413,000 tonnes were caught. This is significantly lower than the 524,000 tonnes of the previous year, but still above the roughly 400,000 tonnes in 2010 that the government reported to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In Cambodian society, however, few doubt that their fabled “great” lake and its fisheries face an existential threat.

“We have seen for some time that we import fish from Vietnam and Thailand to Cambodia. It’s farmed fish. Where is the world famous fish of the Tonlé Sap basin? said Yong Kim Eng, president of an NGO called People Center for Development and Peace.

“If we can’t control [the Tonle Sap crisis] and if we don’t take clear action, it will cause huge problems to people’s standard of living,” he said.


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