Water levels in the Tonle Sap lake and Mekong river are unusually low for this time of year, hindering transportation and the livelihoods of surrounding communities, officials and local villagers said yesterday.
Mao Hak, director of water resources at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, said the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap had not experienced such low water levels in 12 years.
“It’s happening now, and it happened before in 1992 and in 1998,” he said.
Mr Hak said he thought the water levels were perhaps due to factors related to climate change or the limited amount of rainfall during last year’s rainy season, adding that in recent days rains had slightly raised water levels.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for the fisheries NGO Fact, said water levels on the lake were so low many of the larger boats found it difficult to reach local communities while people and businesses had to rely on smaller craft.
“The main problem of the shallow water is transportation,” he said. “The big boats cannot cross; the fish traders cannot take the big boat to buy fish from the fishermen.”
Mr Bunly said more smaller boats are needed to make more frequent trips to buy fish from local villages, which reduced the prices traders were willing to pay fishermen.
“The traders give a lower price to fishermen because they spend much money on transportation,” he said.
Sokh Ly Muth, governor of Pursat province’s Kandieng district, which is lapped by the Tonle Sap lake, said the fish industry was down in his district because of water transport problems.
“The villagers cannot sell out their fish and they have to transport the fish themselves to sell at the market. Before, traders came to the villages,” he said.
Pra Huot, a fisherman from Pursat province’s Raingtoel commune, said he could not remember a time when water levels were as low.
“It’s the lowest ever. I am 42 and I never met this problem. It’s happening along all the provinces along the Tonle Sap,” he said, adding the water was perhaps 40 cm deep, while at this time last year it was about a meter deep.
His village of Koh Keo is located on a remote part of the Tonle Sap lake’s shore which made it hard for traders to reach with current water levels, he said.
“This year, the fish price is cheaper, it cost 7,000 riel per kilo last year and it’s now down to 5,200 riel per kilo,” Mr Huot said. “The price is lower due to the shallow water the traders cannot reach our village.”
Tonle Sap biosphere reserve director Long Kheay said the lake’s fisheries were so far unlikely to be affected by water conditions, adding however that fish farmers could experience problems in raising their fish.
“Water levels don’t impact fish [stocks] yet, although it’s too dry,” he said. “The water level is low and it’s hot. The fish farms will have a problem and fish might die in the cage if fish farmers don’t take care.”
Around 500,000 families are estimated to be living directly off the Tonle Sap’s fisheries, many of them are engaged in small-scale fish farming, raising fish in submerged cages in the lake.
Tek Vannara, communication officer at the Culture and Environment Preservation Association based in Stung Treng, said levels in the Mekong River in that province had been unusually low.
“This year, the situation on the Mekong is very bad. The water is very shallow,” he said, adding that villagers along the river had difficulty collecting water from the river and riverbank agriculture was suffering from drought, while fish were concentrated in deep water pools where they were vulnerable to over-fishing.