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Fishermen drowning under threats to livelihood

Cambodians hold their breath against dam waters, China, overfishing

CHONG KHNEAS, Cambodia — The crowd waits on the muddy banks of the lake in a throng of motorbikes, trucks, bicycles and people. When the colorful fishing boats slide onto shore, the fish buyers clamber onto the decks of the boast and scramble to unpack the fish within the hulls.

The importance of the Tonle Sap Lake in the Mekong Basin cannot be overstated. It provides a major source of protein for Cambodians, including the more than 1 million people who live around the lake.

Fishing is also the sole source of income for most lake residents, though a number of small business enterprises have also sprouted up — including vegetable gardens, fruit and flower tree plantations and hydroponic farming. For most, fishing is all they have, and it keeps them poor.

In recent years, things have gotten even worse. A multitude of issues currently affects the Tonle Sap Lake — among them dams upstream, deforestation, pesticides and overfishing.


An economic boom in Cambodia has increased the country's need for electricity, which in turn is bringing foreign investment in dams. Electricity is projected to grow at a rate of 20 percent per year over the next several years. China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand have planned and already begun construction on hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries.  Many of these dams are being supported by funds from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The dams will begin to have an impact in one to two years, threatening the lake's ecology. Since China is responsible for many of the dams and is the largest international investor in the country in general, Cambodia is reluctant to challenge its neighbor to the north.

Access to power will likely improve as a result of the dams, but marine life will perish: Eighty-seven percent of fish species in the Mekong migrate annually to feed and breed. Upstream dams are expected to raise water levels that would widen the lake and destroy up to one-third of the flooded forests where fish spawn.


While deforestation has abated in Cambodia, it continues around the lake. People seeking to develop areas of the flooded forests around the lake clear trees en masse and without thought to the environment. David Thomson, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Cambodia repeats an old Khmer proverb: “No forests, no fish, no Cambodia.”


Chong Kneas is located in Siem Reap province, which is home to famed Angkor Wat and draws millions of tourists every year. According to Thomson, there is a demand for local produce among the growing number of foreign tourists in the area, but he says the tourists don't want food grown with pesticides, which most of the farmers use. Local farmers and fishermen have resisted farming without pesticides, mainly due the fact that many think they will suffer a loss in profit.

Illegal fishing

Illegal fishing — often for family consumption rather than commercial profit — is particularly destructive to the lake's ecosystem since it circumvents fishing limits. Illegal techniques include poison and electric fishing gear, which is used to electrocute fish. Some fishermen bribe their way into restricted areas, and encroach upon fishing sanctuaries.