There’s no doubt that tourism is a key sector for the Cambodian economy. Bordering Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia has a rich history and culture and boasts average temperatures of 27-28 degrees centigrade. It also houses one of the world’s great rivers, the 4,800km Mekong, which winds its way from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea. It’s for this reason I recently visited.
The Mekong nurtures over 1,300 fish species and provides vital habitat for the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. It’s also vital to local livelihoods and food security: the basin accounts for up to 25 percent of the global freshwater catch and provides up to 80 percent of all animal protein for those living there.
But the Mekong is under threat. The countries in its basin need energy for economic growth and the river offers a renewable source through hydropower. Over 80 hydropower dams are currently planned to harness this energy – but they could have catastrophic consequences on the river downstream and those that depend on it. Dams need to be planned, sited and operated in a way that takes account of food security and environmental needs as well as economic. My visit was about understanding our work to secure not only a healthy river, but strong communities able to benefit from it.
We began at Khone Falls, a stunning waterfall and popular ecotourism site at the Laos/Cambodia border. The Falls are the largest in southeast Asia and it was here the field team spoke of the complexities of international river management; how decisions in one country can impact those downstream and the difficulties influencing them.
I met with local trader, Phalla, whose income is dependent on tourists visiting the site and taking his taxi to the nearby Irrawaddy dolphin pool – a transboundary stretch of habitat in which as few as six dolphins now remain, in part due to by-catch from damaging fishing practices. The dependence of riverbank communities on tourism associated with the Mekong would become a strong theme throughout my stay.
The next morning we headed to the Mekong Flooded Forest, a 56km remote section of the Mekong mainstream – between Kratie and Steung Treng – which was recently recognised by the Cambodian government as a management and conservation site for biodiversity and fishery resources. From tall riverine forestry to remote islands, its composition was striking and provides diverse freshwater habitat for a vast array of animal and plant species.
Further downstream, we met six families fishing on the riverbank. Parents cast nets while the children cleaned their equipment – it had been a good catch that day and they expected to provide for the wider village of 30 families. I saw then just how crucial a healthy river is to sustenance. A visit later on that week to Kratie’s food markets also showed how commercially valuable the Mekong’s fish species are.
That evening, we stayed in a remote homestay in Koh Pdao owned by Ms Cham Reaksmey. Without running water, electricity or bathrooms, I was vividly reminded of the country’s need for economic growth. She explained how the river and its dolphins are vital for her income and in turn the education of her children; she earns $5 per tourist per night and this is used to send her two young boys to school in a nearby village.
We woke early the next day, taking a boat out at dawn to the Kampi dolphin pool, where around 25-28 individuals remain. As the dolphins need to come up for air, it doesn’t take long to spot their unique fins. They were extraordinary creatures with a very distinct noise that I won’t forget.
Strong rain forced us to take shelter in a nearby outpost where I met with Mr Sor Chamraon. Mr Chamraon explained how WWF is supporting a unique ‘river guard’ programme that’s enabling enforcement of Cambodian law banning the use of gillnets in fishing. We discussed the equipment and training he and a growing team of guards have had to patrol stretches of the Mekong (known to be the dolphin’s habitat range) several times a day – from life jackets and GPS units to simple first aid and team work skills. He struck me with his commitment and passionate attitude to his work despite the dangers involved; illegal fishermen often have more advanced equipment and he’s seen this develop over his eight years in post.
My last stop was at a local riverbank market, where I met with Ms Soun Narin, who for the last three years has earned her living making hand-crafted sculptures of freshwater species that sell for $10-100; income that allows her to feed her family.
Local trader Ms Chhneang Nalin told a similar story – she sells products of this type on her stall from 7am – 6pm everyday. Not surprisingly, the most popular products sold are those of dolphins.
A long flight back to the UK allowed me to reflect on the trip and just how essential a healthy river is to local communities. I’d like to think helping ensure this will be a key legacy of the HSBC Water Programme.
Our work to ensure a healthy Mekong river and local communities forms part of the HSBC Water Programme, a five-year initiative launched in 2012 to protect five priority freshwater places, while ensuring better management of natural resources by business and communities.
What do you think about the plight of the Mekong and it’s inhabitants? Leave us a comment.