A series of 88 hydroelectric dams to be built in the lower Mekong basin of Cambodia by 2030 is projected to put Cambodia’s largest source of food at risk. Cambodians eat 168 more grams of fish daily than the world’s average. The construction of the dams could cut the freshwater fish population up to 42 percent.
The growing demand for electricity in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China and Myanmar has prompted multi-national developers to begin planning 88 hydroelectric dams. Eleven of these dams will be located on the Mekong river mainstream and the 77 remaining dams will be on the various tributaries of the river.
“Cambodia is going to pay the highest price for dam development basin-wide, to the point of affecting the food security of its 80 percent rural population,” warned Eric Baran, a specialist with the WorldFish Centre.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Ouk Rabun, reported that Cambodia takes approximately 528,000 tons of fish from freshwater fisheries each year.
Fish is the cheapest food option for Cambodians. Consumed far more frequently than beef or poultry, fish is the primary source of protein for a population where a fifth of the citizens live below the poverty line of $17 U.S. dollars a month.
More than 40 percent of national production — about 300,000 tons of fish per year — comes from Tonle Sap Lake. Located in northeastern Cambodia, Tonle Sap is the most productive inland fishery in the world. WorldFish estimates that 1.5 million Cambodians make 95 percent of their income directly from the lake.
Cambodia has exceeded the Millennium Development Goal poverty target, and the poverty rate has halved, from 53 percent in 2004 to 20.5 percent in 2011.
However, those who have escaped poverty are still vulnerable to slight economic fluctuations. Neak Samsen, Poverty Analyst of the World Bank in Cambodia warns, “the loss of just $0.30 (US) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty, doubling the poverty rate to 40 percent.”
The proposed site for the dam construction is the Mekong basin. Of the fish normally caught in the basin, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) found that at least 39 percent are migratory.
Building dams in the Mekong would obstruct the migratory fish from swimming between the basin and Tonle Sap.
According to the U.N. World Food Program’s country director for Cambodia, Edith Heines, “The reduction of fish stocks due to the construction of the dams could have serious implications on the health, and specifically the well-being of malnourished children under five.”
The World Bank projects future generations of Cambodians will rely more heavily on aquaculture and rice field fisheries to meet their fish consumption needs.
However, this change in food source has implications for Cambodians living in poverty, because “the poorest people will not be able to simply shift to different agriculture practices without reallocating water, building infrastructure, or exploiting other water sources.”
Although government officials argue that the money gained from the dams will go toward agricultural development, there have been no guarantees and the impoverished in Cambodia may likely be the ones to suffer the greatest losses.
– Grace Flaherty