The number of hydropower dams in the Mekong Basin is expected to increase from 16 in 2000, to between 77 and 88 by 2030.1 This surge in hydropower is blocking inland fish migrations and leading to decline in capture fisheries, resulting in hardship for thousands of fishers in the Mekong region.
A fisher in the Mekong Delta, Mr. Tran Van A expressed his concern over the impacts of dams: “Even about six years ago, there were lots of fish in the inland rivers. I could catch around 50 kilograms of fish per day. During the flood season, my catch increased to about 70 to 80 kilograms per day. However, since 2010, I noticed that there is less fish in the river. I am barely able to catch even 20 kilograms per day. Sometimes, there are only a few kilograms per day. The water level is low as well.”
A 38-year-old fisher with more than 20 years of fishing in An Phu district, An Giang province, Vietnam, Mr. Tran Van A married when he was 20 years old and has a 15-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. His daily work is catching fish by net at the Hau River twice a day, once in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. His wife takes the fish for sale at the local market. Fishing is their main income as they do not own any land or other assets.
In the past, income from fishing was enough for their family livelihoods including investment in education for their children and also to put aside some savings. However, as fisheries continues to decline, Tran is now concerned if he should continue his fishing livelihood or look for another job. Also, as his children have now grown up, he needs money to support their schooling.
But how can he get more money while the number of fish is declining gradually? He can never forget the year 2015, when the water level sank very low even in the flood season. He could get no fish, hence there was no income. He took a loan from the local bank to pay his daughter’s school fees. He also borrowed money from his neighbors to buy food and pay for other costs like gas, electricity and tap water. He is still struggling to get enough money to repay these loans.
Many of the delta’s fishers are facing similar problems. The proportion of people who were fishers in Tran’s village was seven-tenths in the past. Now, it is just two-tenths. The key reason for this decline that people point to is the hydropower dam constructions in the Mekong Basin which is blocking fish migrations and sediment as well as leading to fluctuations in the flood season flows.
“I do not know why people continue to build more dams on Mekong River. I can only hope that we can bring back more water and fish in the Mekong River as it was in the past,” said Mr. Tran.
Many fishers and their families have already moved to the big cities like Ho Chi Minh, and Binh Duong to work in factories. A few others have stayed at the village continuing to work as agricultural labor or find other jobs during the dry season while they catch fish in the flood season.
Mr. Truong Thanh B, a 65-year-old fisher said: “My son and my daughter-in-law did not want to leave their children here and go to become factory workers in the city. They felt very sad when they could not stay here to take care of their children. Their children really miss them. Moreover, my wife and I have to look after their kids. It is very difficult for us because we are both old.”
As fisheries decline, local authorities in the Mekong Delta have made efforts to support the fishing households. There are vocational training classes such for weaving water hyacinth baskets and knitting plastic chairs for women, and bricklayer classes for men. However, these are just secondary jobs. The fishers can do them when they cannot catch fish, especially during the dry season, to earn some income for their families. The local government is also providing fishers loans from the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies with low interest rates.
Those solutions cannot help them in the long-term. The thing that fishers need most is the recovery of the Mekong River and its abundant fisheries as in the past. Otherwise, it will be difficult to find inland fishers in the next generation.