WWF project helps Mekong River communities adapt to environmental change
While some communities in this stunningly beautiful area are beginning to reap the benefits of tourism, many others are poor and remote, and heavily dependent on the protein provided by the fish catch.
Now, their subsistence-level livelihoods are seriously threatened by the intensive extraction of resources, planned hydropower development and climate change.
The Cost of ChangeVillagers living along this stretch of the Mekong are confronted with rapid change that threatens their traditional sources of nutrition. New infrastructure development is exploiting the massive hydropower potential of the river. The greatest threats to livelihoods and the environment are the Xayaburi dam, which is under construction, and the planned Don Sahong dam.
It is feared that the dams will drastically destabilise the river ecosystem; blocking crucial fish migration routes and sediment flow, severely reducing fish stocks, and devastating the habitats of species including the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, and the Giant Freshwater Stingray.
WWF is urging Mekong nations to defer decisions on further dam construction for 10 years, to enable critical data to be gathered and to ensure decisions are based on sound science and analysis. Both dams have been opposed by neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam.
Until recently, a lack of fishing regulations, the use of more efficient modern equipment and prohibited fishing methods – including electroshock, spear fishing, explosives, poisoning, and large nets – have put immense pressure on fish stocks. Poor communities are also especially vulnerable to the drastic impact of climate change events, including droughts, severe storms and flooding.
Francois Guegan, Landscape Manager at WWF Lao PDR, explains the issues facing the population:
“The main challenge is adapting to a new environmental setting with fewer natural resources. The problem is made worse by climate change. And development is coming so quickly that it is difficult for the environment and people – and for the older generation especially – to adapt. The whole Siphandone area faces similar challenges. We don’t know how yet, but surely there will be a decrease in the fish capture.”
Conservation and Diversification – a ‘Magic Recipe’WWF is working with villagers and the Lao government to protect livelihoods from these threats through the Siphandone Project, which began in 2012 and runs until 2015. The Project is supporting 30 villages to set up fish conservation zones (FCZs), in which fish cannot be harvested.
Each community is fully involved in deciding the location and size of its FCZ. Villagers organize a constant watch over the site, and decide the penalties imposed for any violation. As a result the community maintains a true sense of ownership of the zone.
Under the Project, fish conservation measures are supplemented by technical training for villagers to improve the quality of crop cultivation and livestock farming, to increase the nutrition they yield and so reduce the dependence on fish. Posters displayed prominently in every village illustrate the benefits of a healthy river, as well as the permitted and prohibited fishing methods.
The idea of combining FCZs with diversification into other sources of nutrition unites communities, the government and WWF in a common goal. For the government, the Project represents an ideal means to both enforce the Fisheries Law passed in 2009, and promote more resilient livelihoods.
Bounketh Khamphithak is the Provincial Coordinator of the Siphandone Project for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Bounketh’s knowledge of the people and conditions in the field puts him in an ideal position to advise WWF and ease the implementation of the Project. He is involved in decision-making and activity planning – always in consultation with the communities. Bounketh emphasizes the unity and inclusiveness that are central to the Project.
“We’re making good progress with WWF, especially in relation to the 2009 Fishery Law. We are now working with villages and communities to disseminate the Law. The way we work in coordination with all the relevant government departments is a very positive thing, and the right way to act.”
Francois Guegan agrees that WWF, the villages and government are operating on the same wavelength. “The concept is really quickly accepted. It is a ‘magic recipe’ – improving people’s lives by combining fish conservation, fisheries management and livelihood diversification. We are not imposing anything on anyone – it is a community-owned and sustainable process. I think we’re doing the right thing here and we get really good cooperation from the communities and government.”
Protecting the Dolphin PoolNoumay is a 55-year-old fisherman from Hangkhone village. Hangkhone shares a 26.5-hectare FCZ with Hangsadam village, which includes the trans-boundary ‘dolphin pool’ that joins Cambodian waters and is home to 6 of the estimated 85 remaining Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong.
In the past, illegal nets have been used in the pool by both Lao and Cambodian fishers, but thanks to regular patrolling, the practice has stopped. Sitting on his boat in the middle of the pool, Noumay says that this is “because people are already aware of the law and know they will be arrested.” However, he has seen changes in the fish stock that may be the result of overfishing, climate change, development up-river or the introduction of non-endemic species.
“We still get fish, but there are three kinds of fish we now only get rarely. This year compared to the last there are two kinds of fish that have not appeared when they normally would, but there are other [new] kinds.”
When asked how his grandchildren might make a living, Noumay acknowledges the uncertain future of the fish catch. “I think they can’t rely on food from the river, so I think we should focus on cultivation and livestock to make a change in livelihoods.”
Francois Guegan is also cautious. “There is an opportunity here to turn things around by diversifying fish production and breeding endemic species through aquaculture… but that will require good management of commercial fishing, good law enforcement, and essentially, good management of the Fish Conservation Zones. If these happen, there could even be an improvement in fish stocks, for example at places like Hangsadam Village.”