Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Mighty Falls of Laos

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

We could feel the water before we could see it. The deep bass rumbling of the expansive Khone falls was experienced not so much as a sound, but rather a pervasive sensation in the stomach that was both subtle and impossible to ignore at the same time.

We had crossed the border from Cambodia into Laos without incident. In fact, the customs checkpoint was so lightly used and understaffed that we probably could have walked into the country without showing our passports. Extravagant Khmer-style administrative buildings stood empty and unused, left to quietly rot in the humidity of the jungle. A pack of friendly stray dogs lazed in the no man’s land between the two nations, significantly outnumbering the immigration personnel.

Less than 20km away was Nakasang, a small riverside town that served as the main jumping off point for travellers visiting the Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) chain, as well as the main point of access to the Khone falls. We had come to explore the waterfalls and surrounding area partially because of their obvious visual appeal, but more importantly because of what they represented in terms of the Mekong’s past and future.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

When the team of French explorers led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée left Cambodia in 1866 with the mission of surveying the length of the Mekong – which was at that point a mostly blank and unknown space on the map for Europeans – their primary aim was to establish whether or not the river could be used as a trade artery to connect the French colonies in Indochina to the silks and riches of China. The journey was fuelled purely by imperial economic ambitions, as evidenced (in comically stereotypical French style) by the fact that the small team carried just six boxes of scientific instruments with them compared to more than 700 litres of wine and several hundred litres of brandy.

Though the team would go on to be the first Europeans to navigate the entirety of the Mekong, their goal of establishing a trade route to China was thwarted early on by the Khone falls, a mighty chain of rapids that stretch along nearly 10km of the river. While even today, a century and a half later, the Khone falls hamper the Mekong’s utility as an international trade highway, the area is once again in the crosshairs of economic development.

Untamed, For Now

Though the Khone falls dominated the landscape immediately south of the 4000 Islands, actually getting to them was somewhat problematic. An official tourist observation platform provided a lovely panoramic view, but was far removed from the fisherman we could see casting his net into the churning water below.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

After slipping around a set of heavy wooden guardrails, we were able to scramble down a narrow dirt path and onto the wet rocks that defined the eastern periphery of the Khnone Falls. In the wet season, with river levels at their peak, it would not have been possible to stand where we were. I had seen photographs of the area taken by colleagues shortly after the monsoon rains that showed the area as an uninterrupted mass of churning water, but at the tail end of an unusually dry summer, the rapids – while still impressively wild – were more subdued.

Though it would have been ideal to see the cascading water in its most dramatic state, the reduced flow allowed us to pick our way along the stony lip of the falls towards the fishermen. Had the falls been moving at full force, the only means of navigating across would have been a pair of rusted steel cables suspended limply between wooden posts that had been driven into the rocky banks at some unknown point in the past. Considering Gareth was nursing severely bruised ribs and I was wearing a pair of extremely cheap rubber sports sandals, walking on solid stone was the far safer option.

The single fisherman working this section of the falls dipped in and out of sight as he descended and reemerged from craggy valleys carved by millennia of fast flowing water. Well built and sure footed on the slippery rocks, he looked like consummate professional river fisherman. For nearly an hour we followed him as he cast, checked, and recast his hand net into the deep pools that pockmarked the area. He seemed completely unconcerned with our presence, and other than a polite smile, barely acknowledged we were there. Once the soft dawn light began to transition into the harsher glare of mid morning we asked our translator, Noy, to join us and facilitate conversation.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

As Noy made his way towards I began to mentally formulate a list of questions I wanted to ask about the current state of fish stocks in the area, how concerned he was about the multitude of hydropower dams slated for construction along the Mekong in Laos, and what he thought about his children’s futures as Khone fishermen. But these ideas of a deep conversation on the ecological state of the river were brushed aside almost at once by the realities of the modern world.

“He isn’t actually a fisherman,” Noy translated for us, “he only does this to get some extra food when he has a break from work.”

When asked what his real job was, Noy and the bemused young man went back and forth for a few minutes before Noy turned to us with an embarrassed grin.

“He is a photographer. He takes pictures of the tourists who visit the waterfalls.”

Low Season, High Effort

After laughing off our own naivety, we left the tourist viewpoint and headed back towards Nakasang where we chartered a small boat to take us to the opposite bank of the Mekong, hoping to find a more authentic glimpse at life next to the Khone falls. Several locals warned us that it was low season for fishermen and it would be nearly impossible to reach the area where they worked at this time of the year laden with camera gear as we were, but we decided to try anyways.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

Predictably, the locals were right. It took several hours of fording chest-deep streams and bushwhacking along overgrown jungle paths before we found a single fisherman. Thin yet incredibly strong looking, Vong was in his 40’s and was followed by two young sons who watched him cast his net with keen interest.

Vong confirmed what we had been told earlier – this was low season, and his catches were small. For a few minutes we tried to press him on big-picture issues such as dam projects, but he seemed either unwilling or simply unable to comment, and so we let him be and joined his sons on a large boulder to watch their father expertly working in the churning water.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on.

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.]

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

After coming up empty on a few casts of his hand net from the river bank, Vong lowered himself into the swift currents and began hauling himself hand over hand along a lone wire that stretched from the Mekong’s western bank to a rocky island that stood in the middle of the river. It would have been impossible for Gareth or I to follow him while keeping our cameras dry, and truth be told I’m not sure if we possessed the brute strength, despite each being at least 20kg heavier and a foot taller than the wiry fisherman.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

His sons quickly lost interest in us and so for most of the next hour our motley group sat in silence, watching Vong’s distant form cast and recast his net. When he returned with the last of the day’s light, he had a caught just three small fish, the biggest of which was smaller than the average sized computer mouse. Considering how much physical effort it had taken for him to get this tiny catch, it seemed impossible that they would provide a surplus of calories. But Vong seemed satisfied with the days work and led his sons away over the rocks before melting into the dense jungle beyond.

Though we had learned virtually nothing about the state of the Mekong in Laos in terms of literal facts or eyewitness accounts, we had nevertheless gained a fleeting impression of a country far less developed than what we had seen in Vietnam and even Cambodia – though as we would find out over the coming weeks, the health of the Mekong and the greater natural environment was far from perfect in this land locked nation.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , |

Culture, Infighting, and an Uncertain Future

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

Since visiting Koh Sralay, a community located downstream of the dam that faced reduced fishing prospects which would quite possibly derail their family livelihoods, we wanted to learn about the challenges ahead for people living upstream, on the site of the dam’s future reservoir. With the addition of Meach Mean, our crew size had grown to six (including a driver and translator), and we packed ourselves into the back seat of an aging Toyota Camry for a two hour drive to the remote village of Kbal Romeas.

As we neared the village, the roads became increasingly treacherous and were dotted with deep mud holes from recent rains. Eventually the two-wheel drive car could go no further with such a heavy load of passengers and the driver ordered us out. Meach called ahead to the village and arranged for a small fleet of motorcycles to drive out and shuttle us the last few kilometres.

Kbal Romeas was home to 136 families of Bunong, an ethnic minority tribe who have inhabited the area northeast of Steung Treng for around 2000 years. Though Buddhism was making inroads in Bunong communities, they were predominately animists who believed in living in harmony with nature, and who fed themselves almost entirely from natural resources. The only road leading to the village was unpaved, and the locals owned no cars. Bunong do not believe in fencing in their domesticated animals, instead trusting that their herds will make their way home each night. Piglets ran openly through the community, competing with chickens for mangos that fall from the trees above. Some Bunong do not speak fluent Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. These were the people who had the most to lose if Sesan II was built.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden.

“This whole area will be 10 metres underwater,” Meach told us upon entering the village. “36 000 hectares will disappear during the first rainy season after the dam is finished.” As the proposed date of completion for Sesan II is 2017, there was not much time left.

The Red-Blue Divide

“There are three reasons I am against the dam,” 29-year-old Dam Samnang told us (he spoke no English and so was thankfully spared from the unfortunate irony presented by his name). “It provides no direct benefits to people in this community, it will destroy all our houses, and it will ruin the river system so that we can never come back.” Though he spoke simply, his words were loaded with emotion.

Samnang went on to describe his feelings of frustration over the community’s lack of power to protect their own lands, something he attributed partially to a national ambivalence towards minority tribes like the Bunong. “Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” he explained. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

A Bunong family in Kbla Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in Kbal Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia.

With so much history and culture at stake, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the Bunong  would unanimously oppose the dam. But as we learned over the course of our visit, the community had been the target of a systematic divide-and-conquer campaign. Samnang told us how even his most basic attempts at mobilizing his community had been met with fierce opposition, culminating with a visit from the local authorities who formally banned them from signing petitions or hosting environmentally related gatherings. What legal basis they had for doing so were unclear to Samnang, and he suspected that they had no way of enforcing what they said. More likely, he thought, it was a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the villagers and sew divisions within the community.

Perhaps the most important factor in splitting the community was the resettlement package on offer from the company that owned Sesan II – Sinohydro Resources. A wide variety of factors decided the amount on offer for those willing to relocate, but the basic premise was simple: go away and receive money, land, or a new house – in some cases all three.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The blue paint indicates that the family has rejected the resettlement package offered by the Chinese dam builders. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

For many, including Samnang and his family, no amount of money would cause them to peaceably abandon their home, but for those in the village whose economic situation was desperate, the package was harder to turn down.

Widows and the extremely impoverished were some the most susceptible to Sinohydro’s offers, Meach Mean told us, and more than a third of the community had already agreed to be relocated. “A few years ago everyone rejected the deal,” Meach explained, “but when [the authorities and company representatives] kept coming back, more and more accepted. Poverty forces them to accept.”

Once a family had accepted, a sign was spray painted in red on the front of their house, proclaiming their decision publicly. In response, those who remained adamantly opposed painted “NOLS2DAM” (No Lower Sesan II Dam) on their own homes, making it possible to walk along the village’s central road and know at a glance who was staying and who was going. A handful of families, including Samnang’s, had gone one step further, using green paint to write “we will fight until we die, we will not leave” in Khmer script.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro - the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam - and will vacate their property. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro – the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam – and will vacate their property.

Progress at What Cost?

As we prepared to leave Kbal Romeas, our last destination on the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, we couldn’t help but fear the worst. Despite strong voices of opposition from people like Samnang and Meach Mean, the wheels of development seemed to be inexorably turning in Cambodia, regardless of the impacts on those living from nature in traditional ways.

Being outsiders, it was not our place to decide what developmental policies are best suited to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, but it was difficult to stomach the thought that a cheaper electricity bill was worth destroying a two thousand-year-old culture.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river.

“I’m worried for my parents and I’m worried for my kids,” Samnang had said in one of our last conversations. “This dam will be a disaster for us; our destiny is in trouble. They say they want to develop Cambodia, so why do they destroy our homes?”

Our time with the Bunong brought the realities of modern progress to the forefront of our consciousness. Most people living in modern urban environments have come to expect a certain level of comfort, and life in major cities would indeed be difficult without the conveniences electricity brings – air conditioning, refrigeration, and cell phones, for example. In all but the most extreme cases, even those living below the poverty line make use of power in one way or the other, and you would be hard pressed to find a city-dweller anywhere on earth who would not gladly welcome a cheaper electricity bill. But the sources of those luxuries often remain out of sight, far away from the bright lights of the cities in places like the one we had just come from; someone or something, whether an entire Bunong village or an uncommon species of fish, would usually suffer to keep those lights running affordably.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas.

When would the cost become too high, we wondered? At what point would the social or environmental costs become too great to justify the benefits? And who would be responsible for making those decisions?

These were the questions in our minds as we prepared to say goodby to Cambodia for the time being and head towards the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to begin the third leg of A River’s Tail.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , |

Behind the Scenes: The Mekong in Cambodia

All three members of our team have called Cambodia home for the past few years, and so following the Mekong and its tributaries through the southeast Asian kingdom was a return to the familiar in many ways. Over the course of more than a month we traced the river from the border of Vietnam, along the Tonle Sap to the region’s largest freshwater lake, and north to the controversial Sesan II dam and the Laos border.

This short film is a behind the scenes look at how we worked in the field while following the Mekong through the Kingdom of Cambodia. Enjoy!

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Tagged , , , , , , |

Blocking the Flow: The Sesan II Dam

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

We heard the phone ring in the darkness (Nokia’s ubiquitous descending cadence adapted from Francisco Tárrega’s 1902 classical guitar composition) well before we could see the boat driver who answered it.

Allo?” came the groggy voice. Though most Cambodians are notorious early risers, clearly 4 a.m. was not a time the man enjoyed.

We had met him the previous afternoon while walking along Steung Treng’s riverfront promenade and chartered his boat on the spot to take us to the nearby island of Koh Sralay, where we hoped to gain insight into how the human-river interactions in sparsely populated northern Cambodia differed from those further south along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

After we were settled onto the boat’s wooden benches, the driver stood in the shallow water along the river’s edge and spun the bow towards open water, clucking his concern about the lack of visibility around the high powered flashlight clenched between his teeth.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. Residents of Koh Sralay are entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. 

An hour later, the sun still not yet risen, the tip of the island appeared out of the gloom. The outlines of numerous fishing boats visible only for being slightly blacker than the water they floated upon. We were searching for one fisherman in particular, whose wife we had spoken to the day before as she sold catfish in Steung Treng’s market, but in the grey darkness it was nearly impossible to distinguish individual faces – let alone identify a man we had been told to seek out based solely on a name and a loose physical description that could have applied to nearly every fisherman on the river.

“Thon Min?” As our translator called out the man’s name to each boat we passed, invariably they waved us further downriver while offering few specifics. When we eventually found him it was nearly 6 a.m. and his morning’s fishing was all but finished. Not long after, he headed for home.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. The Chinese owned Sesan II dam will heavily affect Thon's ability to fish from the Mekong.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. 

“Only one fish today,” Thon told us as he tied his boat up to a thicket of mangrove trees. “People from upriver came last night and used electric fishing nets. Whenever they do this we catch nothing the next day. But this is still enough.”

The Last Bastions of Sustainability

“Here we can feed the whole family without buying anything, other than spices and oil.” Thon told us as we sat cross legged on the floor of his large stilted home. “When we catch more fish than we can eat, we sell them at the market, and we produce enough rice and vegetables to feed our family.” Considering that Thon’s family counted 10 members, this was no small feat.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay.  His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay. 

From crop watering to protein intake to drinking water, virtually every aspect of Thon’s life was connected to the health of the Mekong and it’s nearby tributaries – and it was the first time in the 3 months since we began the project that we had talked to someone who didn’t report a drastic decrease in water quality. Compared to the dwindling resources and environmental degradation we had witnessed on the Tonle Sap Lake, or the extreme poverty we encountered in Phnom Penh’s Cham village, Koh Sralay seemed like a positive example of how the river had supported life in Southeast Asia for millennia.

“On the Tonle Sap there are too many people and too many fishermen,” Thon explained when we asked him why Koh Sralay was flourishing in comparison to the Tonle Sap. “This is bringing down the quality of the water and the numbers of fish. There they fish every day of the year, but here we follow the seasons.”

Kuch Hen, 45, recieves a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt Mekong fish populations and sediment flow.

Thon Min’s wife Kuch Hen, 45, receives a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam.

Following the seasons, Thon explained, meant that they fished only when the river was in the process of rising or falling with the coming and going of the monsoon rains – the times when fish were moving to or from their spawning grounds. During the rest of the year, they hung up their nets and turned to inland farming instead, giving fish stocks a period of respite. By contrast, fishermen on the Tonle Sap often set their nets multiple times a day, every day of the year.

Though there were almost certainly examples of irresponsible river stewardship taking place (the clandestine raiding by upstream fishermen toting electrified nets Thon had mentioned, for example), in general this was a prosperous symbiotic relationship between civilization and the environment. But a threat loomed on the horizon, one with the potential to completely and irrevocably derail the lives of people like Thon.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. Thon and his family are self sustaining, supporting themselves entirely from river fishing and agriculture. The Sesan II dam, when completed, will heavily impact fish populations and river sediment, heavily affecting families like Thon's.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. 

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia. The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng. 

 

Stopping the Flow

“We worry about the dam,” Thon told us before we left Koh Sralay. “If it breaks, a big wave will come and destroy this island, and I don’t know how it will affect our fishing.”

The Sesan II hydropower dam is arguably Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. When completed, the Chinese-owned dam will block two of the nation’s most important Mekong tributaries – the Sesan and Sekong rivers. The ensuing damages would be varied and devastating. Migrating fish would be unable to reach their breeding grounds; reduced sediment flow would disrupt the fertility of downriver farmland as well as increase erosion; a vast reservoir would displace thousands and inundate huge swaths of forest. An entire way of life could be lost, very possibly forever.

“The river is for life, for Cambodia, and for community identity,” Meach Mean told us over a bowl of fish soup. An independent environmental activist and the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (a grassroots organization that mobilizes disparate villages to rally against the project), Meach is one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. “Rivers create a lot of our culture [in Cambodia], including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet. If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just fish.”

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

Wanting to see the physical manifestation of the controversy, we asked Meach to take us the to the dam. With security checkpoints stationed along the roads leading to the construction site, we had to hire two small wooden fishing boats to circumvent the road blocks. It was more than an hour’s journey against the river’s current, during which time we saw little evidence of development, save a few small fishing hamlets scattered amongst the tree lined banks. It was hard to imagine that something so destructive could be lurking in such an idyllic and remote place.

“There,” Meach said as we rounded a bend. At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but gradually the shapes of industrial cranes emerged on the skyline, towering over a wall of concrete. Initially it seemed like the river was completely blocked, but as we drew nearer we could see that a small channel remained open. As our boats made for this gap, I asked Meach what would happen if we were confronted by security: “What do you think? We leave very quickly,” was his simple response.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. Mean is an environmental activist and founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an organization that works to mobilize affected communities against the construction of the Chinese-owned dam that will displace thousands, innundate 36 000 hectares of land, and heavily impact local fishing and farming practices.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. 

The boats dropped us behind the dam in order to minimize the chances of being spotted by construction personnel before we had a chance to see the site. After a sweaty scramble up a loose stone slope, we found ourselves standing on a gravel road, the entire building site in front of us. The immensity of the project was hard to process, stretching beyond what our peripheral vision could take in. For a moment we just stood and stared, but Meach quietly urged us to get our pictures as quickly as possible as a security patrol could be along any minute. Not wanting a confrontation we heeded his advice, snapping pictures furiously. When a dump truck rumbled past a few minutes later and the driver immediately began speaking into his radio, we knew it was time to leave.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. 

We skidded back down the rocky embankment and boarded our boats for the drive back. “How did that make you feel?” Meach asked. Overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried were all words that entered our minds. Having read a great deal about the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong and its tributaries had prepared us intellectually, but the reality of seeing such a massive structure nearly blocking an entire waterway was another matter.

We were mostly quiet and reflective on the hour long boat back towards Steung Treng. The following day we were headed to a village of indigenous Bunong people, whose homes sat directly in the path of the dam’s proposed reservoir and we wondered if we had just seen the future destroyer of people we hadn’t yet met.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Cambodia’s Beating Heart

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol.

“Turn your lights off soon or people will see us.” The fisherman spoke in a muted voice that barely carried over the few metres between our boats. The night was moonless and it was pitch black at 3:30 a.m. on the Tonle Sap lake. We needed to use our headlamps to check the focus of our cameras and were at first confused by the fisherman’s apprehension. When we asked if he was worried the LED beams would scare the fish away, he replied calmly: “No, it’s because we are in the conservation zone. If they catch us we will be in trouble.”

Two hours later, in the shallow water surrounding the floating village of Akol, the fishing boats gathered in the blue pre-dawn light to check their catch. Their mood was cheerful as they picked through the nets, pulling healthy (if smallish) looking fish from the nylon mesh and tossing them into large metal bowls. There was no sign of their former nervousness, the danger apparently passed.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. The Tonle Sap provides the vast majority of Cambodia's protein and fatty acids, and is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. 

Considering that the lake was known to be one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, as well as one of the main sources of protein for the country’s 15 million people, the fact that fishermen were resorting to sneaking into protected areas spoke of an alarming truth: the Tonle Sap, often referred to as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, was struggling.

“Outside the conservation area there are no fish, so what should I do?” Chan Savoeun asked us rhetorically. A 28-year-old fisherman (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), Savoeun had been fishing in the Tonle Sap for more than a decade, and was well aware of the lake’s ailing health. “I am catching around 30-50% less fish than I did [10 years ago], so we have no choice but to fish in the protected zone. We know this is not good, and we are all worried about what will happen if there are no fish left [in the conservation area], but how else can we survive?”

The Great Lake

A floating community of roughly 30 families, we had come to Akol to try and learn how the Tonle Sap (commonly translated as “The Great Lake”) influenced those who lived from its floods. Though it was the peak of the dry season and the village’s pontooned houses were tethered to an exposed sandbar, their temporary attachment to land did not lessen their dependence on the water. “There is not one family here who does not earn their income from the lake,” Savoeun told us.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol, Cambodia to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks.

Fishermen pull fish from their nets at sunrise near the village of Akol. 

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Virtually every family in Akol is engaged in fishing in one way or the other. Often the men will set the nets at night, and the women and children will assist them in checking the nets the next morning. 

Looking around, it was easy to see the truth of what Savoeun said. Apart from a makeshift volleyball court erected on the coarse red sand and a few wells (which, full of lake water as they were, were meant for convenient showering and dishwashing rather than as a source of clean potable water), it was apparent that very few, if any, aspects of life in Akol were dictated by access to dry land. There was only one permanent structure, still under construction, and it was destined to serve as an office for an international conservation organization. When the monsoon rains returned later in the year and the lake’s level rose by up to 8 additional metres, the village could lift anchor and drift away, leaving the office to stand alone.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families. During the dry season, the receding Tonle Sap  lake reveals a small sandbar, turning the floating community into an island village.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community.

But the Tonle Sap, whose once bountiful waters support dozens of communities like Akol, was not well. Generations of overfishing, combined with a rapidly growing population had stretched the lake’s already diminishing fish population to its breaking point, as evidenced by the morning’s trip into the protected zone. The widespread use of illegal fishing equipment – from nets so fine that even the smallest and youngest fish were trapped to battery powered electric nets that killed every living creature in its shock radius – had further decimated stocks and deforestation and human-induced bush fires had ravaged the aquatic trees amongst whose submerged root systems young fish were hatched before migrating into deeper waters.

“I noticed that animals were being reduced by hunting and fishing, and that the forests were burning – so I asked for this job,” Horm Sok, a field researcher employed by Conservation International told us.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Though he had only held the job for 6 years, Horm Sok had been living in Akol since 1979 and has borne witness to the dramatic changes afflicting the Tonle Sap. “The population has grown so much and the fish are disappearing,” he told us as we followed him through the sweltering jungle to see some of the conservation initiatives he oversaw. “There didn’t used to be so many fishermen or illegal fishing.”

Horm’s responsibilities ranged from monitoring forest fires to photographing otter dung as a means of monitoring species numbers, but two projects in particular he hoped would be effective in slowing the loss of marine life.

Destruction of the coastal forests that acted as nurseries for infant fish was caused by multiple factors, he told us, almost all of which involved human activity or negligence. Carelessly tended cooking fires had sparked blazes that ravaged 30 hectares of land in the last year alone. “The loss of 30 hectares represents up to 3% of the future fish population,” Horm said, adding perspective. And while the loss of 20 football fields worth of forest might not seem like a dramatic number on a global scale, in a country with the third highest rate of deforestation in the world, Cambodia was a place with few trees to spare.

Additionally, Horm supervised the protection of several fish nurseries that played an even larger role in repopulating the Tonle Sap’s fish. “There are thousands of fish in each pond,” he told us, gesturing to a muddy pool 4 km inland from the lake, protected from exploitation only by the permanent presence of a paid security guard. So far from the water it was difficult to see a connection between the stagnant ponds and the Great Lake, but when the water level rose in several months the entire area would be inundated, absorbing the young fish into its vastness. “Ponds like these can contribute up to 20% of all fish [in the lake],” Horm told us, contextualizing what we were looking at.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population.

“It’s not about the money,” Horm said when we asked about his motivations for undertaking such a monumentally difficult task as keeping the Tonle Sap healthy. “I asked for this job because I want to conserve the animals and the forest. When I see the fish [vanishing] and the forests burning I feel a lot of regret.”

A Lake Like No Other

“There is nothing else like the Tonle Sap. It’s like an inland ocean, a fish soup,” Taber Hand, founder of the water-focused social enterprise group Wetlands Work! told us in his Phnom Penh apartment. Though we were physically distant from the lake, his passion for its health was plain, and his knowledge vast.

“There are more fish by tonnage in the Tonle Sap than in both the commercial and recreational freshwater sectors of the United States and Canada combined,” he continued, surprising us with the staggering statistic. “But the lake is a poster child for tragedy.”

During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, turning Akol into an island community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Boys walk across the stilted path that connects their home to the small sandbar the village of Akol is anchored to for the dry season.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager's houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager’s houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. 

Paradoxically, one of the most devastating environmental blows to Cambodia’s waterways was the government mandated closing of industrial fishing corporations in the early 2000’s. In an attempt to garner political support, the incumbent government ordered that all large scale commercial operations be disbanded and the fishing grounds returned to the people. While the idea might seem harmless on paper, the real world results were devastating. Despite the huge numbers of fish caught by industrial fishing, the international corporations involved understood that they needed to protect the ecosystem in order to secure a financial future for their companies. When these companies withdrew, taking with them the armed guards who protected their fisheries, a resource free-for-all ensued. In the mad dash to claim land for rice farming, harvest valuable tree species, and fish the abundant waters, the populist policy brought about widespread destruction.

“The industrial fisheries protected the lots by force, which angered the population. But by playing to the people, [Prime Minister Hun Sen] doomed the waterscape. The former lots have become habitat wastelands, totally destroyed by deforestation. They’re probably getting 0.5% of what those areas produced before,” Hand explained.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home.

Additional factors such as government corruption (bribed fisheries officials selectively ignoring illegal fishing practices), agricultural pollution, and population growth, have further exacerbated the problem.

Though he emphatically told us that there a variety of actions that could be undertaken to restore the Tonle Sap, Hand was pragmatic when we spoke about the likelihood of these steps being taken in time.

“The biodiversity is there to provide more than enough,” Hand told us, “but its the human side of the equation, the human priorities, that don’t fit. We could have our cake and eat it too, [the solution] is right there for us to act on, but people want to work for themselves instead of together.”

In an impoverished country like Cambodia where millions battle on a daily basis to feed their families, it is perhaps not surprising that environmental cooperation is not a top priority. But without such a mass movement, Cambodia’s most important waterway was headed for disaster.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol.

As our meeting with drew to a close, Hand reflected on a telling fact: “‘The Tonle Sap is the heart and soul of Cambodia’ used to be an extremely popular saying. Everyone said it, including the Prime Minister. But you know, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that in at least 10 years.”

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , |