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  • River Wetlands

Fishing, Farming, Flooding

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


Video to be updated.


THE VILLAGE OF TEAM LEU


Team Leu lies along the bank of the Sesan River in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri in Cambodia and is home to an indigenous ethnic minority group called the Krung. Access to modern technology is limited in Team Leu and most villagers lead relatively traditional lifestyles. Majority of villagers in Team Leu rely on farming and fishing for subsistence and depend heavily on the river for survival. However, since the 1990s, villagers have observed drastic changes in the river’s hydrology, flooding patterns, and riparian ecosystems. Suspected to be due to major hydropower projects such as the downstream Lower Sesan II Dam and the Yali Falls Dam upstream in Vietnam, these changes have dramatically altered the relationship between the villagers and the Sesan River.

View of the Sesan from Team Leu.


FISHING


For as long as anyone can remember, fishing has been an integral part of life in Team Leu. For generations, villagers have used simple nets, fishing lines, and small wooden boats to fish in the Sesan as well as its small tributary streams. However, fish catches have dropped dramatically in recent years. “I used to catch around one kilogram of fish per day,” said Kham Pern, a former fisherman who switched to farming as fish catches dwindled. “Now, I can spend the whole day out but only catch two or three small fish.” According to another former fisherman Chan Thai, who has also since switched to farming, catches in the past used to be so plentiful that villagers could make fermented fish and even trade surplus fish with others in the village after feeding their families. Those days are long gone, and now he is only able to catch just enough for his family’s consumption.

Bun Thean, our local translator and guide, about to cast his net into the Sesan River.


However, even as fishing becomes less viable as a livelihood, fishing remains of critical importance in Team Leu. “The river is still very important to the community because we can fish,” Chan Thai stressed. “Fishing is still very important in supporting our families.” For most in Team Leu, fish remains irreplaceable as their main source of protein as alternatives like eggs and meat are too costly. Therefore, while villagers no longer fish for a livelihood, most continue to fish in their spare time to provide for their families.



Fish caught in Bun Thean’s cast net being measured for size.


Fish caught using bamboo rods and hooks along a tributary stream.

Although most villagers attribute this drastic decline in fish stocks to the construction of dams upstream and downstream, they are powerless to reverse the effects of these huge hydropower projects, and instead focus their efforts on the conservation of local fish habitats.


In 2006, villagers partnered with the 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN) to establish the Fishery Conservation Committee. Three deep pools in the river around Team Leu were identified by the committee as important shelters for breeding fish and conservation areas were drawn around these pools. While villagers using traditional fishing methods are allowed to fish in these areas, outsiders, who often use illegal and destructive fishing practices such as gillnet fishing and electrofishing, are prohibited. The committee has submitted a proposal to the Fisheries Administration requesting funds and resources to enforce regulations and patrol these areas.

The local government has also attempted conservation initiatives. In 2018, officials released fry of two local species, Trey Kes and Trey Chlang , into the Sesan on two occasions to boost fish stocks. There was another such release earlier this year. Locals have been receptive to this measure and report increased catches after these releases.


FARMING


In tandem with the diminishing viability of fishing as a livelihood, the importance of agriculture has grown quickly in Team Leu and farming is now the main livelihood in the village. Although itself the result of villagers’ efforts to reduce their dependence on the river, agriculture in Team Leu also relies heavily on the Sesan.


A farm in Team Leu.


Crops in Team Leu are irrigated with water from two main sources - rainfall and shallow “holes” in the ground that fill up with water when the water table rises during the wet season. Chan Thai told us that his water hole, just half a metre deep, has been in his family for generations. “Everybody who does agriculture here has one of these holes,” he told us. “But it can only be used during the wet season. By November there will be no more water.”

Some farmers, however, perhaps seeing the water holes as separate from the river, maintain that the Sesan is of no use to their crops and instead lament how even agricultural livelihoods are being threatened by the river’s changing hydrology. Despite switching from cultivating rice to the more flood-resistant cassava to cope with increasing severe floods, Kham Pern recounts how a serious flood last year wiped out half his cassava and mango crop, severely affecting his income and leaving his family short on money. The flood last year had also so severely affected the village’s rice harvest that villagers had to turn to buying white rice from the market.


FLOODING


Flooding has become more common and erratic in Team Leu. While floods used to occur once every five to seven years in the past, Team Leu now experiences two to three floods per year on average. Also, while instances of flooding in the past coincided with seasonal patterns, floods now sometimes come with little warning when water is released from the upstream Yali Falls Dam. “Sometimes, we get warnings that there will be a flood the next day but they don’t tell us what time,” said Nhir Ray, a housebuilder in Team Leu. “Sometimes we don’t get a warning at all.”

Flooding events have also become more severe. Before, floods were not as high and did not last long enough to destroy crops. They were even seen to be beneficial as they brought in nutrient-rich silt to fertilise farmland. In recent years, however, floodwaters have become higher and can last up to days.

The combination of increased frequency, erraticity, and severity of recent floods have caused widespread damage and loss of property. “My house was totally flooded, it was completely destroyed,” said Chan Thai, recounting a 2014 flood. “I lost my marriage certificate, identification papers, and records of my family history.” He also lost pigs and chickens in the same flood. Pan Weng, another farmer in Team Leu, told us how his old house, which was made of bamboo, had been swept away.

Although no lives have been claimed by the floods in Team Leu, the erratic waters have also stirred fear in the village. “Flooding makes us afraid of the river,” Nhir Ray told us. “If we are asleep we will not know when the floods come and we will die.”


Boat built by the local boatman, serves as an emergency vehicle during a flood.


THE DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP


Despite the changes in river hydrology, flooding patterns, and ecosystems that have dramatically changed the way villagers interact with the river, life in Team Leu remains inextricably intertwined with the Sesan. While direct relationships such as fishing may seem to be ebbing and many villagers perceive the relationship between the community and the river to be diminishing, new relationships like fear and loss, and growing dependence via agriculture are also emerging. These links may be small, hidden, or seen to be detrimental, but nonetheless continue to tie life in Team Leu to the rhythms of the river.