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Island-hopping in the Mekong River

Ishan Thakore is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storyteller, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State/U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh. He is creating a series of short films to capture the human benefits and costs of large-scale water development in South Africa and Cambodia. Follow him here on the Voices blog, on Twitter and on Instagram

Sokha plucked his fishing net, a heavy tangle of plastic mesh with rocks tied to the bottom, off a hook near the dock and threw it onto his wooden boat. It was another evening on Koh Tnaoth island in the Mekong River, which meant Sokha was taking us fishing. As we pushed off from the shore using a long bamboo rod, Sokha stood up and began wrapping a small string, attached to the fishing net, around his left hand. He tied it firm and then began coiling the remaining string loosely like a lasso. Lifting his left arm straight in the air, he used his right hand to drape a portion of the net across his left shoulder, like a cape. He then began pinching sections of the remaining net with his right hand, until he had the entire mess firmly in his grasp and wrapped around his body.

Sokha prepares the net for fishing
Sokha prepares the net for fishing

Sokha climbed to the front of the boat and waited, eyes hunting and scanning the placid water around us. He was steady on his feet and seemed to become part of the boat, like a human Mercedes-Benz emblem. The boat slowed now and Somnang, his companion, killed the engine. Finally, Sokha turned his torso sideways, swung his right arm back to gain momentum and flung the net forwards over the boat. The small string snapped taut against his left hand, tethering his body to the net, and slowly the net sank, rocks pulling it toward the bottom of the Mekong. He dived underwater to collect it and threw it onboard. We checked the haul, which we would later eat as part of our dinner. Four small fish.

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The 4800km long Mekong River is the 12th-longest river in the world. It snakes through China, straddles Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, cuts through Cambodia and then splits into a delta in Vietnam. Dozens of small islands like Koh Tnaoth fracture the Mekong into small blue veins in Cambodia, near the provincial capital of Kratie.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Mekong River to Southeast Asia. It supports one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries — the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, which provides most of the protein consumed in the country. Lower Mekong nations produced over 100 million tons of rice in 2014 (roughly 15% of the world’s total rice output).  The river supports ecological biodiversity exceeded only by the Amazon, and it is home to the world’s largest freshwater fish species.

To Koh Tnaoth and the islands nearby, the Mekong is everything. It’s the bathing and cooking water that is pumped up the shore and stored in large earthen urns. It’s a source of food, where a seemingly limitless supply of fish are available to catch (in truth, a few residents reported that fishing catches had declined quite a bit compared to their childhoods). The river ferries tourists from Phnom Penh to nearby islands; it serves as a passageway to the mainland; it represents memories of childhoods; it’s here where parents taught their sons and daughters to fish, cook and farm.

Freshly prepared lunch at one of the two homestays we stayed on during the trip
Freshly prepared lunch at one of the two homestays we stayed on during the trip

“The Lower Mekong remains one of the world’s last great stretches of undammed river” an author wrote in a 2012 academic paper. No longer. Twelve hydroelectric dams are planned on the mainstream Mekong in Laos and Cambodia, and six in upstream China are already operational. This excludes the 70+ dams planned for the Mekong’s tributaries throughout the region.

The pressures that are creating a need for these dams — regional population growth, stagnating human development indices, climate change, rural to urban migration — are not going away. If anything, they are getting stronger.  Laos, which is planning 11 mainstream dams, is one of the world’s least-developed nations. It views the dams as an opportunity to earn valuable electricity export earnings and jump to middle-income status. Cambodia, which is planning one dam near Koh Tnaoth island in Sambour district, views the dam as an opportunity to attract foreign capital and generate electricity. China has made downstream dams more appealing – upstream water flow is much more regulated now because of China’s dams.

But are mainstream Mekong really dams the solution? If every single mainstream dam is built, they are projected to provide only 6-8% of regional electricity need by 2030. Half of the river would become a slow-moving reservoir, which would affect the rich biodiversity of the region. A huge portion of the Mekong’s fecund sediment, which nourishes the delta and riverside land in Cambodia, would become trapped in China and elsewhere along the river. Estimates vary, but some suggest fish hauls are expected to decline by over one-third if all the dams are built, particularly troubling for Cambodia, which boasts the world’s largest fish and other aquatic life consumption per capita. Food security in the country would not survive such a drastic cut.

An elderly man uses a bamboo rod to fetch oranges (maybe grape-fruits?) for us. They were delicious and gigantic.
An elderly man uses a bamboo rod to fetch oranges (maybe grape-fruits?) for us. They were delicious and gigantic.

The cumulative impact of tributary dams is as equally troubling. Mainstream dams have to go through specific processes through the Mekong River Commission, a multilateral body of Mekong River countries (China chose not to join). Granted, these review processes are ineffective at actually stopping dams from being built — the MRC does not have decision-making power, but can study mainstream dam impacts and make recommendations. Tributary dams can skirt through these review processes but be as equally damaging as big dams. Fishery experts estimate that Cambodia’s Lower Sesan II dam alone could decrease fish hauls in the Mekong Basin by around 9%.

There are good dams out there, and small hydropower ones are seen as better alternatives to massive, multi-billion dollar projects. But a “good” big dam is hard to come by.  A 2014 review of 245 large dams found that building large dams rarely yields a positive return on investment, and in many cases resettlement efforts and environmental mitigation strategies are botched.

For Cambodia, most of the consequences of these Mekong dams — diminished fish catches, lower Tonle Sap Lake water levels and decreased sediment — won’t be borne by well-heeled businessmen in Phnom Penh. The impacts will be felt by the average Cambodian, who will see a noticeable rise in fish prices if fishery hauls are reduced. They will be felt by the subsistence fishermen and farmers who dot the Mekong and Tonle Sap Lake, who form part of the 80% of Cambodians who live in rural areas.  These are fisherman and farmers like Sokha. I’ll be in Cambodia until early July searching for stories about the river and trying to capture the way of life around Tonle Sap Lake and the communities around Lower Sesan II.  

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We spoked to two brothers and a cousin (pictured) of the Thy family who served in the military.
We spoked to two brothers and a cousin (pictured) of the Thy family who served in the military.

I went to the islands with Makara and Monin from the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), which seeks to document Khmer Rouge atrocities and preserve the testimony and stories of survivors. Cambodia today is modernizing, and most of the population was born after the regime fell from power. Preserving these stories for younger generations is an important way to honor the legacy of survivors and prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring. Also, many older Cambodians still live with their own, untold narratives from the regime. DC-CAM wanted to hear people’s stories from the islands, and start forming relationships with villagers.

For a week we island-hopped: from Roungeauv, the longest island in the Mekong, to Koh Tnaoth, to Koh Riel, to Koh Breas and to Koh Knhear, among others. Monin and Makara spoke to commune chiefs and villagers, and we explored our tropical surroundings while slowly melting under 95 degree heat. Makara and Monin took motorbikes (scooters) to crisscross the islands. I rode on the back shouldering my heavy camera gear and trying not to fall off. I did fall off, but only once, a small miracle considering the ‘roads’ are hardened dirt paths cratered with mud trenches.

Being on these islands felt like an homage to the past, to a simpler time revolving around subsistence-based living. Of course, modern developments encroached — everyone had a phone, many of them smartphones. There is a risk in exoticizing such seemingly pleasant places, and there are tangible challenges to living on a remote part of an island: a lack of immediately accessible health facilities, municipal services, and education. On one island, we passed a large wooden school that was abandoned for the day because the teacher hadn’t showed up.  

Monin and Makara talk to an elderly man about his life on the island.
Monin and Makara talk to an elderly man about his life on the island.

But there’s immense beauty there too. On Koh Tnaoth, Makara and I set up my camera after dinner. We set the timer and exposure and waited. Thirty seconds later, seemingly a thousand stars lit up the screen.

Stars light up the night sky near our homestay
Stars light up the night sky near our homestay.