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Mekong Mother Gives Short Resources to Her Child

By Chheang Sopheng, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), Cambodia

Pawan Seangmaney spent more than 30 years as a fisherman on the Mekong River, feeding his family of eight and selling the surplus fish.
 
Now he has become a farmer.

"There are no fish in the river now,"  said the 48-year-old man from Kok Padek village in Champassak province, southern Laos.
 
Pawan grows rice and other crops just 50 meters from the river where he used to fish for a living. Other villagers have changed their jobs or switched to more farming, so that only five of the village’s 75 families permanently rely on fishing.
 
Pawan is one of thousands of fishermen throughout the Mekong River basin affected by the fish decline in recent years.
 
Exact numbers are difficult to determine, but environmental scientists and fishermen say there is anecdotal evidence that the numbers have been steadily declining.

" Everybody says that the fish along the Mekong are going down, there is not enough fish now, " said David Hubbel, who works with the environmental groups, Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) in Thailand.

Wild freshwater fish are the single most important source of animal protein for people in the Mekong region, providing 80% of the protein needs for an estimated 60 million people.
 
" My life depends on fishing. If the fish in the Mekong River disappear, my life and my family’s life will disappear, too,"  said a 40-year-old fisherman, Bunchay Thongnia, who lives near the controversial Pak Moon Dam in northeastern Thailand. “Ten years ago there were a lot of fish along the Mekong and Moon rivers, but after the dam was built, the number of fish started going down.”
 
The dam produced a bad smell, and its huge flow of water prevented fish from migrating to their spawning grounds, he claimed.
 
Several fishermen along the Mekong and Moon rivers said they could catch only enough fish to eat but not enough to sell.
 
They said that before the dam was built in 1994, they could catch up to 50 kilograms per day, but now their hauls are only 5 to 10 kilograms.
 
As a result of the fish crisis, some fishermen have changed their jobs. Some have sought work in Bangkok or other countries, while others toil in construction, factories or restaurants and hotels. Some women work as housemaids.
 
The 4,880 kilometer-long Mekong is the largest river in Southeast Asia and the twelfth largest in the world. From its source in the Tibetan Himalayas, it flows through six countries – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
 
An estimated 1,245 species of fish are believed to inhabit its waters. Fish experts believe some species of fish disappeared, but there is no scientific evidence.
 
Chavalit Witayanon, a biologist at the Department of Fisheries in Thailand, said that more than 40 species are in danger of extinction, including one of the world’s biggest freshwater fishes, the giant catfish.
 
" Not so many species of fish have disappeared, but the giant catfish now are very few. The dam building in the upstream Mekong is the main factor, but the over-catch from the people is another factor," said Ian Baird, director of Global Association for People and Environment (GAPE), a non-governmental organisation in Pakse city, Laos.
 
" I am very concerned. I think we all have to work very hard. It’s very important that all people and the governments belonging to the Mekong countries work together to protect fish."
 
Other factors contributing to the decline in fish are logging and deforestation, increasing population, the discharge of agricultural and industrial chemicals, and large dams that radically alter the flow of the river and prevent fish migration.
 
The loss of tress has several impacts. Flooded forests provide fertile breeding and feeding grounds for fish, while soil run-off builds up sediment that makes it more difficult for fish to spawn.
 
David Hubbel, a Canadian environmental expert, said that forest cover in northeastern Thailand has dropped from 80 percent to about 12 percent. In Cambodia, forests around the Great Lake (Tonle Sap Lake) are cut every day.
 
Hubbel warned that Cambodia could look like northeast Thailand in 10 years unless logging stops now.
 
Increasing population had led to over-fishing. Bunchay Thongnia said the number of new fishermen increased after the economic crisis in 1997.
 
Population of the basin is expected to grow to 100 million people by the year 2025.
 
In Cambodia, the annual population grows at 2.2 percent, meaning an estimated 300,000 new jobs need to be created each year.
 
"All the countries along the Mekong River have to think about the population increase because the resources are not enough to support everybody,"  Baird said.
 
Fish experts are just beginning to put together research about the vast number of fish in the Mekong. Every year, scientists discover an average of 5 to 10 new species, Chavalit said.
 
The fish have lived in the basin for a long time but the scientists just found them, he told journalists recently.
 
Scientists are also learning about fish migration from local people who have intimate knowledge about the fish in their area. They have learned that fish travel far and wide on the Mekong and its many branches.
 
Fish migrate to the Mekong from the Tonle Sap Lake and the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers but also from other rivers in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.
 
During the dry season, fish take 25 days to migrate from the Great Lake to the Mekong and its tributaries, where they eat algae and vegetables. The fish return during the rainy season.
 Some fishermen are beginning to protect fish through conservation areas. They make certain areas – such as deep pools in the river – off-limits to fishing to give fish a safe place to rest and spawn.
 
A new and emerging threat to fish is plan by China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar to blast rapids to make the Mekong more navigable for larger ships.
 The rapids are seen as a barrier to trade and tourism, but they are also prime breeding grounds for certain fish.

" Blasting these rapids means destruction of the fish house by threatening the bio-diversity of Mekong fish. If you destroy the rapids, you will not get it back even if you are rich man," said Chainarong Sretthachau, Director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network in Thailand. " For the local people, rapids are not a problem. It provides them food. We want the four countries to halt the project."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.