Northern Cambodia water resource visit

My tour with Bunthann Phou of the NGO 3SPN continued through Ratanakiri, Stung Treng and Siem Reap this week. We visited a number of NGOs and indigenous/ethnic villages or projects.

Just south of Banlung we visited the Yeak Loam Lake park. This is a beautiful 41-hectare volcanic crater lake nestled in a protected forest of 290 hectares not far from town. The lake has 8 species of native fish and several turtle species, not sure if any are genetically distinct from those in surrounding waterways. This park is managed for local tourism by a committee of representatives from 7 local indigenous villages of the Tumpuan ethnic group. They have a 25-year agreement with the Provincial Government which allows them to manage the park. They have a staff for patrols, cultural work–they have a small museum and local elders play traditional music–and to collect entrance fees and do sales (food and some traditional fabrics). There are numerous small wooden shelters with platforms near the Lake which are very popular for picnics in season, especially on the weekends, with local families from Banlung. The Project got some initial help in 1998 from UNDP, but now appears to be a self-supporting enterprise. The surrounding forest and its resources (including many magnificent huge trees) are protected from any extraction by outsiders, but ethnic villagers may use certain traditional forest products and small roundwood. The agreement with local government is up in 2023, which concerns the community. Seems like an excellent opportunity for conservation collaboration and environmental education interests, as even small forests like this are getting scarce around Banlung. The young assistant director–Sovann Heam– seems like a natural YSEALI candidate, which we mentioned to him.

We had an excellent session in Stung Treng with representatives of two local NGOs–My Village and CEPA. We discussed the Sesan and Srepok river communities and the effect of Lower Sesan II Dam. We also discussed Dong Sahong dam being built in Laos on the Mekong just upstream of Cambodia border. We took a drive up north across the Mekong on the new (2014) Chinese bridge (impressive) and went up to the Dong Sahong area (Cambodia side). This is also a local tourist area. There are restaurants, markets and boats for touring the river, including synthetic double kayaks. WWF reports only 3 dolphins show up on their surveys in this area, but people go out to look for them. Dong Sahong dam construction is visible in the distance. It is reported to be 50% complete. It will be 32 meters high and generate up to 260 MW. Not sure how much land will be inundated by this low dam, since the river appears to be steeper in that area of Laos. The local NGOs explain that the Dong Sahong dam is blocking one primary channel of the Mekong, but there are a number of alternate channels around the dam in this geomorphically complex site. Some of the alternate channels have whitewater rapids. Some dry up during the dry season. But there appears there may continue to be opportunities for sediment transport around the dam to continue. Also upstream and downstream fish passage may be possible after the dam is built. Of course we could not see any construction drawings, so the exact future configuration of the channels is unclear. But local reports say the Lao authorities have removed fish traps from some of the alternate channels to give fish passage more of a chance to work. Would be interesting to see a detailed plan to understand more about the sediment retention and fish passage issues at this site.

We also visited a village on the Sesan River downstream of the Lower Sesan II dam. The local fishermen here are very familiar with the dam construction process since they have been going upstream through the dam site to fish for 3 years since construction started. We could not get permission to visit the dam site, so we interviewed the local fishermen. They explained that the dam construction involved a fairly narrow bypass channel for the river. As the river rose each wet season since 2014, water roared through this bypass, under the construction bridge, at a much higher velocity than the river ever flowed before. In fact, local boats could not ascend the bypass because water velocities in wet season overwhelmed even 13 HP motors. In fact several boats which tried early on were swamped and lost at the bridge site. The fishermen believe these high bypass channel velocities are far too great for smaller species of migratory fish, and probably could only be passed by large, strong species of migratory fish. This explains why fishermen much further up the Sesan told us that the small migratory fish that always appeared in their area in early wet season have not appeared for the last 3 years…..dam construction cut off their migration. The locals believe that the dam will divide the Sesan now into two fisheries: an upstream fishery and a downstream of dam fishery….this is true. No one knows which if any migratory species will be able to use the new reservoir as a grow out (rearing habitat), and continue to migrate into smaller tributaries for spawning. Certainly the species which migrated up past the dam site (many many species according to 3SPN ethno-biology study) are at risk of disappearing, and may have a hard time finding any suitable habitat for spawning downstream of the dam. This puts a strong pressure on those interested in preserving some of this migratory fishery to make sure a future Sekong River dam (Stung Treng Province), if it is built, must include fish passage facilities. That is because Lower Sesan dam was shut in January, and the Sesan and Srepok fisheries will now suffer that debilitating force. If the Sekong, a very large river which flows from some fairly intact forested watersheds in northern Stung Treng and neighboring Laos. can be kept open for fish passage, it could supply part of the tributary spawning habitat for Mekong migrant fisheries, even with Sesan and Srepok partly lost.

Traveled to Siem Reap to meet with NGO FACT (also a member of Rivers Coalition of Cambodia) to learn about their fishery work, and visited a community they work with near Tonle Sap lake. They work nationwide with base communities of fishermen, and also have offices in Phnom Penh. Also learned about Sam Veasna Center in a brief visit there. This wrapped up our fisheries and water resource visits, although I was also able to meet up with Mey Phalla, a 2015 Clark Fork Coalition-Mansfield YSEALI scholar, in Phnom Penh, where he now works for CARE International on health projects in eastern Cambodia. Also met with a representative of WCS in Phnom Penh to learn more about their wildlife conservation programs.

Heading back to US today (Sunday) after a fascinating trip. Many thanks to the US State Department, YSEALI program, Mansfield Center and of course 3SPN and Bunthann, who put together a very valuable tour. I will be writing some recommendations in a final report. Cheers…….Will McDowell, Missoula, MT, http://www.clarkfork.org

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