Alarming risks for food shortages in Cambodia and the Mekong region

2-3 December, 70 researchers, government officials and civil society representatives gathered to discuss the future of food security in the Mekong region. The workshop was organised by Shared Waters Partnership to address the changes in the water management regime of the Mekong River.

Cambodia and the Vietnamese Delta are the most sensitive areas for food security due to the alteration of the Mekong mainstream. The anticipated changes includes 88 politically contentious dams, all planned or already under construction in the Lower Mekong basin.

“Cambodia will need to replace 340,000 tons of lost fish protein yearly as a result of the 11 planned upstream dams. So what is the answer to this loss?” said Jamie Pittock, lecturer at the Australian National University, during his keynote presentation.

The Royal Government of Cambodia has an ambitious plan to develop hydropower dams in the Mekong tributaries confined within Cambodia. The government of Lao PDR has recently notified the Mekong River Commission of its decision to proceed with the development of the Don Sahong dam, located only 1 km from the Cambodian border. The Don Sahong dam site, where the river forms a complex network of water channels, is an extremely vital route for fish migration:DonSahong
Map of the Don Sahong project site (MRC, 2013)

Presentations during the workshop focused on the impacts of building the dam. Conclusions indicated that the risks to fisheries, which are the major source of food and nutrients for Cambodian people, are extremely high.

Fish resources are the second largest dietary components after rice in Cambodia and provide most of protein and micro-nutrients to the local population. Fish migration is sensitive to the artificial barriers in the river, such as dams. Fish passages and other technical solutions have been put forward as mitigation measures to prevent fisheries loss, yet it was pointed out many times during the workshops that such solutions are not adequate to accommodate fish migration and simply cannot ensure food security. Mak Sithirith, Researcher, WorldFish, said that “fish passages are not to support the food production but just to argue for the dam building. It does not make sense for the local communities.”

The hot-spot addressed was the Tonle Sap  System. The Tonle Sap is the fourth largest inland fishery in the world and supports over 1 million people in floating villages and another 2 million people in flood plain. The impact of the hydropower dams coupled with effects of climate change will affect the Tonle Sap severely. Marko Keskinen, lecturer at Aalto University, stressed that “cumulative impacts of climate change and hydropower will alter flood pulse significantly and radically reduce the inflow of nutrient-rich sediments to the Tonle Sap system. These changes are likely to have negative impact on ecosystem productivity, including fish production.”

The Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute aims to achieve food security through increased rice production. Participants of the workshop however agreed that the current rice intensification scheme can have negative impact on fisheries due to the release of pesticides and fertiliser and unsustainable land use. Promoting the mix of fish and rice paddy rather than intensifying rice production was put forward as a potential mitigation tactic.

Responding to the changes and challenges facing the food security of Cambodia, the Royal Government of Cambodia must adopt the strong multi-disciplinary approach that captures the dynamic between water-food-energy in the long-term national vision on food security. The research community in Cambodia has an important role to inform the government on the risks and to suggest the sustainable alternatives to mitigate the risks foreseen. SIWI/UNDP Shared Waters Partnership will continue to work on enhancing the food security dialogue in the region to translate the results from the workshops to the policy level.

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Big thanks to all the participants of the workshop!