Mekong Utility Watch

Spirit trap: The Mekong

Gr√°inne Ryder
New Internationalist
March 21, 1995

Before sunrise the men have collected the night’s catch from the large lee traps scaffolded over the rushing water. Women sit gutting and chopping the silver-white fish, to get them ready for smoking. ‘Not a great catch, but good enough,’ says one man, placing his fish on the scales. ‘Last season, one of these traps caught over a ton of fish in just one night.’

To many people Laos brings to mind covert bombings, hilltribe refugees and the Ho Chi Minh trail. Twenty years after the war, global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now describe this one-time enemy of the West as poor, little and land-locked. This latter-day imagery is more economic than anything else. In fact, Laos is bigger than Korea or Bangladesh and still has a wealth of forests and rivers – the envy of its newly-industrialized neighbour, Thailand.

The Mekong flows through or borders Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) for about 1,800 kilometres – from China’s Yunnan province in the North to the Khone Falls in the South. Most of the country is mountainous and lies within the Mekong watershed, one of the large Himalayan river basins shared with Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Dotting the river and stream valleys are an estimated 7,000 irrigation systems, built, owned and managed by local communities. Some of these systems are several hundred years old – and still work. Small weirs, typically several metres in height, are built across the streams using a lattice of hardwood and bamboo, and filled with rocks and brush. After every rainy season the villagers repair the weirs, using materials gathered free of charge from the surrounding forests.

During the critical time when rice seedlings are transplanted, the elected head of the irrigation system will walk the length of the canals and back every day to ensure that water is rotating from field to field properly, so that every family gets enough water for their crop. But when the forests disappear these irrigation systems start to break down. Then the streams run dry for much of the year and flash floods wash out the weirs.

In southern Laos, where the Mekong swells to 14 kilometres in width every rainy season, the land is surrounded by a sea of water. This stretch of the Mekong is known as See Phan Done (Four Thousand Islands) because in between monsoons the river recedes, revealing thousands of islets. Before the Pathet Lao Revolutionary Party came to power in 1975, See Phan Done was a province in its own right. One of its islands, situated below the great waterfalls of the Mekong, is known as Khone Falls or Lee Pee (meaning Spirit Trap). It used to be the last inland port of call in Laos for French cargo ships. A pier and a railway line across the island, built during the French colonial era, still remain.

Today, See Phan Done is a district within Champasak province and the Prime Minister himself, Khamtay Siphandone, is a son of the Mekong, born on the island of Khong. Through the years of war and revolutionary struggle, fishing has remained the way of life for Mekong islanders. Older islanders remember the days when fish were so plentiful that they would put the rice on to boil before casting their net to catch dinner. The wisest fishermen of See Phan Done know the habits and habitat of about 40 different species of carp, 20 species of catfish and an assortment of other aquatic creatures including stingrays, snakeheads, eels, threadfins, croakers, pufferfish, crocodiles and the legendary river dolphins.

The Mekong fish that local people are most familiar with have complex migratory patterns both for spawning and feeding. Movements with or against the current can be triggered by heavy rains, rapid changes in water level, or the light of the moon. During the high-water season, July to October, many types of fish move into the flooded forests along the Mekong and its tributaries where they gorge on insects, worms, leaves, seeds, fruits and other fish.

For the people of Don Khone, the May and June migrations are the most important because that is when they catch the adult pangasius krempfii, a Mekong catfish which is salted and sold in bulk at the market. Weighing up to 14 kilograms, this catfish is believed to migrate over 700 kilometres from the South China Sea to spawn above the Khone Falls.

Fishermen report a gradual decline of fish catches since 1970 and a more rapid decline within the last four years. They believe it may have to do with the introduction of modern fishing gear and the growing market for wild Mekong fish.

In the old days, one village may have had only two or three cast nets made from jute and shared between families. As a local fish-trader recalls: ‘When I was young there was one trader, a Chinese, in the district. My father was the first person ever to sell him fish but he had no idea how much the fish were eventually sold for at the market. On the days the trader didn’t want any fish, my father would just dump them into the water because he didn’t know what else to do. Everyone already had plenty of fish to eat.’

Today one family might have as many as seven small-meshed gill nets made of nylon. People no longer fish just to eat, they also fish for income to buy things like boat motors, televisions and rice mills. ‘I earn 300,000 to 500,000 kip [$400 to $660] a year from fishing,’ says a father of four. ‘We need this money to buy basic things for the family such as medicine and fuel.’

A Don Beng islander comments on the changes in recent years. ‘In the past we never fished the deepwater pools because we were afraid to disturb the spirits. But now with modern fishing gear people are greedier, fishing everywhere, disturbing the fish when they spawn.’ People on Don Som blame outsiders for part of the problem. ‘People come by boat from way upstream to camp on the banks of our island. They use many gill nets, hunt frogs and spear fish using lights. Some even steal from our vegetable gardens!’

To tackle the problems, the fisheries division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests is encouraging communities to take action. Starting in Khone district, over 20 communities have worked out their own rules for fishing practices and seasons. The aim is to eliminate the most destructive practices – such as the blocking of streams when fish need to move out of the big river to spawn and feed — or the use of landmine explosives to catch fish. They encourage signposting of special habitats, such as deepwater pools, as off-limits to fishers in the low-water season.

As one local school headmaster put it: ‘With our rules for conservation and management recognized by the district authorities, we are adapting our ways to protect the fisheries for our children.’

But the future of Mekong fisheries is not entirely in the hands of local communities. Following the advice of global financing institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, the Government is offering its Mekong tributaries to foreign investors interested in building hydroelectric dams to export electricity to Thailand. Twenty per cent of the total Mekong flow originates in China where the first mainstream dam was completed in 1993 and the Yunnan authorities plan to build at least five more further upstream.

Mekong fish expert Dr Tyson Roberts warns:‘Engineering projects such as mainstream dams, upstream or downstream of Lee Pee, or canalization of the Mekong for shipping may soon destroy the rapids and the fish in them.’ Out of 11 dams proposed for the lower Mekong by French and Canadian dam consultants, the smallest is a 238-megawatt diversion scheme at Hoo Sahong, the river channel between Don Saddam and Don Sahong. Currently, there are 58 families living on Don Sahong. Some had heard of the plans, others had not.

‘How can they think of touching Hoo Sahong – it is one of two most important channels for fish moving upstream!’ exclaimed one man, surrounded by children and fishing gear. ‘If they harm the fish, we will die’ says one woman with a baby in her lap. ‘Everyone here depends on fish.’ A woman standing nearby adds: ‘We have nothing without the river.’

Gráinne Ryder is a Canadian who works with the Bangkok-based environmental group TERRA – Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliances.

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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