Mekong Fishing Communities Struggle With Hydroelectric Dams And Climate Change

Authorities of the Mekong River Commission met last Tuesday, November 25, 2019, to try to devise a common strategy to the crisis that has been developing in the Mekong River over the last few months. In Cambodia, record low waters have left thousands of people with almost no fish supply, cutting them off from their main source of living. The authorities have warned that the situation is likely to get worse over the next months as a long and unwelcome drought may last until January. During this time of the year monsoon rains normally turn this part of the world into one of the wettest and most diverse places on earth. According to National Geographic, “It is home to the world’s largest inland fishery, with an estimated 25 per cent of the global freshwater catch. Sixty million people make an income off the fish, as well as crops grown along the Mekong River and its tributaries.” This crisis is the result of two factors that are inextricably connected: the construction of hydroelectric dams that endanger the river and its subsidiaries and the devastating consequences of climate change.

The Mekong River Commission is a transnational organization that “works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River.” It has been looking after the diversity of the area since 1995 and has largely been successful at building joint strategies that have set the ground for necessary regional cooperation. However, over the last decade Laos, one of the poorest countries in the region, has started to build a number of hydroelectric dams in order to become the main power supply in the region. These dams have come under heavy scrutiny due to their heavy environmental costs. There have been some collapses of the dams that have caused floods and mudslides. Their construction is said to be flooded with corruption, putting thousands of lives at risk. Furthermore, environmentalists argue that dams pose a huge threat to fish populations as they block their natural migrations in search of deeper waters in which to lay eggs. They also cause soil erosion and are extremely negative for the natural river hydrology. Thus, the entire ecosystem is at risk.

Climate change is also taking a huge toll in the region. Together with the dams´ devastating consequences, droughts have caused the rivers to hold record water lows and environmental scientists argue that droughts are expected to become increasingly pervasive in the coming years. Fishermen complain that where they used to be able to catch between five and 10 kg of fish a day they are now catching between one and two kg. The crisis has led many families to take their children out of school so that they can help catch more fish, as their livelihood depends almost entirely on fishing. However, this will increasingly lead them to rely on a means of subsistence that may be on its last legs. The education these children might not receive will deprive them of the opportunity to develop new skills that could make their families more prepared to deal with the inescapable consequences of climate change in the region.

The Mekong River crisis can be taken as an epitome of what is currently happening in the world. People´s traditional livelihoods are endangered on a systematic basis due to the endless prevalence of short terms gains over long term sustainable strategies. The combination of global warming and dam construction in one of the world´s richest and most diverse rivers is endangering the entire region´s ecosystem and the livelihood of its people. Their fate depends on whether institutions such as the Mekong River Commission can empower themselves over particular interests and establish long term coordinated strategies. The fate of the entire planet also depends on summits like the one being held in Madrid over the next two weeks. Climate change in the Mekong Region and Planet Earth can only be fought with globally coordinated efforts.