Cambodia’s Tonle Sap shows what’s at stake in the Mekong’s dam-fueled decline

Every year around December, fishers, farmers and families across Cambodia begin the season for making the country’s traditional prahok fish paste, a vital staple in the country’s diet. But this tradition, along with the food supply and livelihoods of millions of people, is under threat from a growing ecological crisis.

Recent reports show Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, the most productive freshwater fishery in the world, is in an increasingly stark decline with major social impacts.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture announced on December 23 that the freshwater fish catch among some of the country’s licensed fishers has dropped 31% compared to last year. Cambodia’s yearly fish catch is worth an estimated US$600 million. 

The drop in fish catches, already echoed by many local residents, is caused by extremely low water levels—in the past 20 years, the lake’s average level has dropped by two meters. This drop is tied to both climate change and the construction of hydropower dams upstream on the Mekong river.

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