Cambodian Wetlands a Treasure on the Brink

stung treng province – About 5 km north of Stung Treng town, the landscape turns into a watery wilderness.

The marshlands spread on both sides of the Mekong River, leav­ing a few islands of rock and sand, and flooding trees that stand alone against the flatness of the scenery. Only the most skillful fishermen and tour-boat drivers can ride their small boats through the whirls that break to the surface.

Stretching over 37 km up to the Laotian border, the Stung Treng wetlands cover 14,600 hectares.

By far the largest marsh­lands in Cambodia, they serve as spawning grounds for numerous fish, including endangered species such as the giant barb, which weigh up to 200 kg, the yellow my­stus and the great white fish. They lay their eggs in pools whose depths can plunge 200 meters, and their young take refuge and feed in the submerged tree roots of this area.

Authorities are reporting that an increase in illegal fishing combined with a change in water flow of the Mekong is threatening fish reproduction, which is crucial to Cambodia.

Disruptions in this ecosystem af­fect fish populations in every country along the Mekong Ri­ver’s course. And in Cambodia, any de­cline in fish population af­fects both people’s lives and livelihood, be­cause fish is the only affordable source of protein for most rural Cambodians and 1.2 million people live off fisheries alone.

This year, natural and human fac­tors cut the daily catch from the Mekong River in Koh Sneng village nearly in half, Thala Bari­vat district, said village Chief Sey Soy. Instead of the 3 kg to 5 kg people used to catch per day, they now are down to about 2 kg per day, Sey Soy said. “One kilo fetches 2,000 riel ($0.50), so I still can support my family,” he said.

Sey Soy’s village is one of 21 villages in Thala Barivat district that participate in a community effort to preserve natural resources in the wetlands.

The Culture and Environment Pre­servation Association is working with 2,285 families in the area to make them aware of the importance of the wetlands and have them manage their own natural resources, said the association’s coordinator, Sous Sivutha.

And the results have been good, said Sey Soy: “Illegal fishing has been reduced since the village became involved in 2000.”

While the association concentrates on community work, the World Conservation Union project, which is part of the Me­kong Wetlands Biodiver­sity Conser­va­tion and Sustain­able Use Pro­gram, conducts stu­­d­ies to develop preservation plans for the area.

The project was launched in 2003 with UN support, after the Cam­bo­dian government signed the Ramsar Site Covenant on Octo­ber 23, 1999. The agreement made the Stung Treng wetlands the 116th site of protected wetlands in the world under the cov­enant, which is named Ram­sar af­ter the Iranian city where it was in­stituted.

Community activities led to a sharp drop in illegal fishing in the area during the 2003-2004 season, said Prom Nga, co-manager for the World Conservation Union project. But the dead fish now found floating in the river show that illegal fishing is on a rise again, he said.

Grenades, explosives and electrocution equipment not only kill fish but also destroy the marshlands and flooded forest, said Chea Kim Sien, provincial director for the Ministry of Environ­ment and the project co-manager.

Some of the 21 fishing communities are not strong enough to control illegal fishing alone, said Prom Nga, adding that they need training and cooperation from lo­cal authorities.

But the 15 rangers assigned to the task don’t have enough boats or communication equipment to patrol the 14,600 hectare wetlands, he said. In addition, they only make 50,000 riel ($12.50) per month and can’t afford to pay gas for their boats on that salary, Prom Nga said.

At this point, there is no budget to enforce preservation, he said. But the UN Global Envi­ron­men­tal Facility approved a $30-million grant for a regional wetland project in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam last year—and Cam­bodia may receive about $4 million of that amount, he added.

In addition to illegal fishing,  low levels of rain over the last few years and hydro­power plants re­cently built along tributaries of the Mekong River have also re­duced water in the wetlands, af­fecting fish and vegetation, Prom Nga said.

Chea Kim Sien knows that Stung Treng’s wetlands are a world of great natural beauty, with infinite varieties of plants, birds, animals and flooded forest that prevent erosion. If the wetlands are protected and preserved they would make the area perfect for ecotourism, he said.


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