Fishermen left without fish as Cambodia's river reversal runs late

The river reversal vital for Tonle Sap Lake may not happen until next month, officials said. PHOTO: REUTERS

KAMPONG KHLEANG, CAMBODIA (REUTERS) - Crucial water flows to Tonle Sap, South-east Asia's largest lake, have been delayed for a second consecutive year, according to river experts, severely disrupting fishing and threatening the food supply of more than a million people.

The river reversal vital for Tonle Sap may not happen until next month, officials said, owing to drought conditions and more than a dozen hydropower dams in China and Laos which are blamed for disrupting the natural flow of the Mekong River.

The Mekong typically swells in rainy season where it converges with Cambodia's Tonle Sap River, causing an unusual reversed flow into the Tonle Sap Lake, filling it up and providing bountiful fish stocks.

But that hasn't happened yet and people who depend on the lake are struggling to get by.

"I went out fishing for two nights and couldn't catch enough," said 37-year-old Khon Kheak, repairing a fishing net under his stilt house at Kampong Khleang, a floating village with little water to float in.

That trip earned him 12,000 riels, or about US$3 (S$4), compared to US$12-US$25 a day last year, enough to support his family of six.

His wife Reth Thary worries those days may be over.

"If it continues like this we would be finished, we also owe people money," she said, referring to a US$1,000 loan.

Water typically flows into the Tonle Sap Lake for 120 days, swelling it sixfold before running back into the Mekong as the monsoon season ends, usually in late September.

Based on rain forecasts and rainfall data, the river's unique reverse flow should happen in August, said Mr Long Saravuth, a Deputy Secretary General of Cambodia's National Mekong Committee.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) attributes the delay to lower 2019 rainfall and operations of upstream Mekong hydropower dams, two of which are in Laos and 11 in China.

"From now on, the reversed flow timing will likely not be the same as it used to be," the MRC said.

Laos and China say the dams bring vital economic benefits and regulate water flow, helping to prevent severe floods and droughts.

But fisherman San Savuth, 25, wants Cambodia's government to negotiate the release of water from those dams to help Kampong Khleang's 2,000 families.

He may go to Siem Reap, a city 55km away, to find construction work.

"We can't catch anything. There is no water, there is no fish," he said.

Even without the coronavirus squeezing international travel, there is no hope of attracting local tourists for boat trips from Kampong Khleang, which would normally handle 600 passengers a day.

There is a padlock on the abandoned tourism office surrounded by overgrown grass, and about 130 tour boats are lying idle.

"People in Kampong Khleang are fishermen without fish," said tour boat owner Ly Sam Ath. "There is no farming for them to do."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.