Enter any home in Cambodia during mealtime, and chances are high you’d find fish from Tonle Sap Lake on everyone’s plates. The lake and the adjoining Mekong River make up one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world, providing a regular source of food for more than 65 million people. Yet the region’s resources are increasingly under threat from a combination of factors, including climate change.
With help from Conservation International (CI) and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, local communities are restoring and protecting the region’s freshwater ecosystems to build resistance to these threats and secure their future in one of the world’s most bountiful and crucial natural systems.
Abundance Under Threat
CI scientists are examining climate change scenarios to determine which areas of the ecosystem are predicted to flood the most in the future, so that they can be prioritized for conservation today.
In the Tonle Sap’s floating villages, fresh water sustains all aspects of life, providing everything from transportation routes to fuel wood. During the monsoon season, the Mekong empties into the lake, expanding its territory into the surrounding “flooded forest” which protects crucial nursery habitat for young fish. Besides commercial fish species, the ecosystem is home to unique animals found nowhere else on Earth, such as the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the Cantor’s giant soft-shelled turtle (Pelochelys cantorii).
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Yet this historically abundant region may be on the edge of collapse. Dam construction on the Mekong and its tributaries, while important to meet the energy demands of an increasing population, is leading to a reduction in water levels and fish migration downstream. Ninety-five percent of the Tonle Sap’s flooded forest has also been cleared, primarily for agriculture and the unsustainable collection of fuel wood.
This degradation appears even more serious when viewed through the lens of climate change. Scientists are predicting that climate change will alter rainfall patterns in both China and Laos, which will result in a longer, hotter dry season for the Tonle Sap, a shift which promises to significantly shrink the lake’s floodplain and have disastrous consequences for fishery yields and freshwater availability, putting the food security of millions into question.
Actions for Today, Plans for Tomorrow
To help sustain fish populations, CI-Cambodia is helping floating villages create and manage community fisheries, protect dry season ponds and place artificial reefs in deep water. These efforts all help support juvenile fish and prevent overfishing.
CI has also helped to promote more sustainable forest management through the training of community rangers, improvement of patrolling practices, prevention of illegal fishing activities and appealing to the local government to enhance legal protection.
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CI scientists are examining climate change scenarios to determine which areas of the ecosystem are predicted to flood the most in the future, so that they can be prioritized for conservation today. Communities and the government have also created tree seedling nurseries and are concentrating on replanting the areas predicted to be the most resilient after the effects of dams and climate change.
In addition to strengthening ecosystem resilience, the people of the Tonle Sap region must also prepare to adapt to new conditions already set in motion by climate change, such as reduced fishery yields. To help local villages become less dependent on fisheries for their entire livelihood, CI is encouraging alternative income projects, such as floating chicken coops, piggeries and gardens, ecotourism and handicraft production.
Future projects include the provision of fuel-efficient stoves for thousands of households—a change that will not only greatly reduce local dependence on fuel wood, but could also play a large role in reducing the risk of respiratory disease, particularly among women who spend much of their day cooking in smoky environments.
Together, all of these initiatives aim to provide environmentally friendly, climate change-tolerant sources of food and income to many of Cambodia’s poorest people, and empower local communities to take decisive actions against a global problem that impacts their daily lives.
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