Women fishers voice concerns about the Tonle Sap in Cambodia

The people of the Kampong Phluk community, a seasonally-flooded wetlands on the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, are facing impacts on their culture and livelihood especially from planned dams, such as the Lower Sesan 2 and the Mekong mainstream dams, and due to recent changes in fisheries management around Tonle Sap Lake. In this article, women in the community who depend on the fisheries in the lake for maintaining their families’ food source and livelihoods voice their perspectives and concerns.

Anxiety from changing fisheries access and hydropower construction

The Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, located in the Lower Mekong Basin, is home to one of the world’s most productive wild capture fisheries. For Kampong Phluk village, in Siem Reap province, the Lake’s fisheries are crucial for livelihoods and food security since the community does not cultivate rice. Women especially have a vital role in the capture, storage, and the preparation of fish and preserved fish products.

Behind these home-made meals is the work of women. (Photo by Syna Chea.)

Behind these home-made meals is the work of women. (Photo by Syna Chea.)

Recent changes such as establishment of fish conservation zones have affected the fishing livelihoods of Tonle Sap Lake’s communities by transferring the control over fishing areas from private companies to the government. As a result, now only 30 of the 50 fish conservation zones in Cambodia are under the shared control of the government and fishing communities, the latter of who have been conserving and using these areas for many generations. Fishing in the government-controlled areas requires the fishers to register their names with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, but even this is restricted to only 2 of the government areas.

Conservation area number 2 is a large area controlled by two government ministries: The Ministry of Environment; and the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries. The conservation area is located close to the Kampong Phluk community border, which causes difficulties because communities cannot cross this area to fish in their own area. Furthermore, there is suspicion that illegal fishing is undertaken in this area, and some community representatives from other villages have submitted a complaint letter to the Anti-corruption Unit. However, following this legal procedure is a slow process to address the issues, and as a result the communities have reservations about whether the process can attain justice for them.

Another source of anxiety for Kampong Phluk village is the planned hydropower dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream and major tributaries. The women in Kampong Phluk voice concern that these dams would affect the fisheries in the Tonle Sap Lake which are already declining every year due to various factors including chemical pollution and blockage of fish migrations by upstream dams. One woman fisher told me:

“The height of water has changed and is getting lower so that I could not catch the fish near by the village in the dry season nowadays. Moreover, some species of fishes have disappeared such as catfish and whitefish, so my husband has to go far to fish with other men and I could not assist him. Our daily income was not enough to support our living. Finally my husband decided to leave me and our children at home, and he has gone to the city to earn money.”

The main street of Kampong Phluk during the dry season. (Photo by Syna Chea.)

The main street of Kampong Phluk during the dry season. (Photo by Syna Chea.)

Two large dams are being considered in Cambodia on the Mekong River’s mainstream at Sambor (465MW) and Stung Treng (980MW). However, there is considerable controversy related to the development of these mainstream dams, together with dams further upstream in Laos, as it will affect the Mekong River’s ecosystems and the livelihoods of riverside communities. Meanwhile, in Siem Reap province, the Government of Cambodia is planning to build three hydropower dams in the province; the projects are Stung Chi Kreng, Stung Siem Reap, and Stung Tanat. Whilst these dams are of a smaller scale, they will still affect the Tonle Sap Lake because they will block local rivers and impact the fisheries.

Some of the community members are trying to find more information about these impacts on fisheries and especially about the planned dams for the mainstream Mekong River and the Sesan River. The concerned authorities, meanwhile, have been reluctant to fully share information about these planned developments. Moreover, it is an almost impossible logistical challenge for communities to travel to urban or provincial centres where the information is kept or where meetings are held, when the commune members have to spend most of their time and energy on fishing in the streams and the Lake to maintain their livelihoods.

This situation has left the communities afraid for their future and the future of their children if they need to continue living and depending upon the Tonle Sap Lake.

In the rainy season, the village road is submerged by Tonle Sap Lake and people in the community travel by boat (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

In the rainy season, the village road is submerged by Tonle Sap Lake and people in the community travel by boat (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

Women’s group acts to protect the community’s interests

A savings group with women members has taken on the responsibility of finding and sharing the information about the impacts on fisheries and the hydropower plans that may affect the Tonle Sap Lake. They receive information from NGO newsletters and other sources and they discuss it amongst themselves, and also share the information with others in the community. The group is also using the savings from their members as a budget to protect the local fishery conservation areas and to prevent illegal fishing activities by outsiders. One women fisher said:

“My group members decided to allocate some budget to contribute to natural resource management activities, such as raising awareness about the importance of fish, planting the trees in the flooded area, and conservation activities in our fishing area.”

The women’s group in the fishing community of Kampong Phluk in Siem Reap province are calling on the government to provide more information about the dams and potential impacts on their fisheries livelihoods in the Tonle Sap Lake. The women’s group is also urging the government to consider the community’s concerns and provide a variety of assistance including land titles to protect the food security and livelihoods of the fishing communities.


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