Innovation versus Desecration: A Look at the Up-versus-Downstream

For some, the damming of the Mekong has been seen as a great source of innovation and profit, a way to build the economy, but for others, their economy is destroyed by it. When the Chinese government is building dams upstream, they are destroying the fishing economy downstream in Cambodia.

Cambodia is a developing country where most of its income comes from water reliant jobs such as rice fields and fisheries. These jobs have been highly profitable because of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, where water that rushes in during monsoon season.

Monsoon season takes place between June and October where the lake floods from Mekong River’s water. During the dry season, from November to May, the water reverses back into the Mekong River. This natural flow of inflow and outflow creates high biodiversity levels and thus is an advantage for nearby fishermen (Sithirith, 2015). Many of these fisherman are found on the water, in what they call, the floating villages.

The floating villages are home to 80,000 people whose daily lives depend on the river (Christie, 2012). These people have learned to adapt to living on water by making floating homes, schools and temples.

School for the Floating Villages
Temple at the Floating Villages

When living on the water, fish have become essential for basic needs of survival and provide for 70% of their protein. Cambodians rely on this fish and appreciate it to the extent that the riel , the country’s currency name, came from the silver carp, a fish that is commonly caught in the Tonle Sap Lake (Sullivan, 2007). Fish are a major part of making it possible for people to live in the floating villages, but these fish are under great risk.

With the construction of the upstream dam, there has been a loss of fish biodiversity downstream (Gaffes, 2014). Because Cambodians are considered part of the downstream, they really do not have a voice for what goes on upstream. In the past, there have been practices such as electroshocking pools and dynamiting causing declines in species, but now by installing these dams, this could negatively impact the flood pulses during monsoon season and thus affect fish biodiversity.

The flood pulse, or water flow, of the river is essential to sustain life. The flood pulse is the partnership between the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake. The river and lake exchange water during dry and flood seasons. This flood pulse is similar to that of a ‘heartbeat,’ that only occurs with the water flow and volume from the Mekong River and vice versa. The issue with hydroelectric dams is when there is an insufficient amount of water that is needed for the heart to continue beating. If the heartbeat were to stop beating, then all that is reliant on this heartbeat would no longer function as it once did. The habitats of ecosystems, fisheries, poor, local communities, and the Cambodian economy may collapse if this heartbeat were to stop beating (Sithirith, 2015).

students on their way to class

There are 1.5 million people dependent on the Tonle Sap Lake. Thol Thoeun is one of them. He lives in the floating villages and faces hard economic times. There are more than 70% of homes within the floating villages that earn less than $1,000 annually and many of the fisherman are in debt.

These people, like Thol Thoeun, do not have a voice when it comes to major issues, like hydroelectric dams, that will impact their day-­to-­day lives (Berdik, 2014) where, eventually, they will have to adapt. With less fish coming to the Tonle Sap Lake, these fisherman will have to find another source of income and food.

Some of these fishermen know this and have decided to take action. These local fisherman are working with international researchers in the hopes of saving the Tonle Sap Lake (Berdik, 2014). The researchers plan to create a computer model that follows the natural systems and human activity over a period of time to see the changes within the lake. The goal of making this model is to see the impact of different economic and developmental actions have changed the ecosystem. By looking at this, the goal is to figure out sustainable solutions move forward.

Models have been an example of the different actions that have impacted the lake. Roel Boumans, an ecologist, created the modeling project that shows sixteen watersheds of the lake and floodplain filled in with various different colors based on the land­use and vegetation data from satellite images. Vegetation and different land use attributes, soil composition and elevation, are important, but so are agents. Agents are fish and people who can change or may have to react to the changes of the lake. Local fisherman are a crucial part to making agents part of the model. Local fisherman catch fish with research nets, identify the species, and SNIP the tail for DNA testing (Berdik, 2014). Local fisherman are also a major part of the project by sampling water and sediment, handing out household surveys and contributing to economic research. These relations between local fisheries and international researchers can help identify the reduction of fish in the lake.

Fisherman on land near the floating villages

The reduction of fish has created an economic impact, not just for the local fisheries, but on a national level as well. The Cambodian economy relies greatly on the fish that come from the Mekong River. The annual economic value of the Mekong fisheries first sale value is between $3.9 and $7.0 billion in US dollars, but the total economic value is much higher than that because it does not include those selling fish at markets, those moving fish to cities, preparing meals, those making products or supplies, or the fisherman who are considered outside the cash economy (International Rivers, 2014). The fish shortages have impacted all these different sectors who rely on the fish for their livelihoods. This shortage of fish have led to increased prices for purchasing the fish, according to the Fishing Network NGO, making it more difficult for people to buy the protein they need for basic needs of survival (Lipes, 2015). These fish are not just for Cambodians, but they are also transported outside. Thus, they have a global impact as well.

According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that wrote a Strategic Environmental Assessment, the dams will impact the water flow blocking fish migration and will alter natural habitats. Thus, hydroelectric dams would reduce fish species by roughly 26-­ 42%, which creates economic losses of $500 million per year. This would also put over a hundred species at risk of extinction. The assessment also stated that around 106,000 people would be evicted from their homes and more than two million people would be threatened by food insecurity (International Rivers, 2014). Fish migration is important to sustain the lives of those who rely on these fish for their basic needs of survival.

With population growing by 2%, there is a growing demand for more fish within the floating villages. Many of the rural Cambodians have moved to the Tonle Sap Lake to be fishermen. An example of how this has impacted the Floating Villages is during 1998­- 2008, full­time fisherman in the Tonle Sap increased by 38% to 38,200 (Berdik, 2014). There is a growing demand for fish in the Tonle Sap Lake making them closely dependent on the lake.

The installation of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River is seen as a trade­off between food and electricity (Berdik, 2014). There is an entire livelihood that is dependent on the fish that come from the Mekong River and by installing hydroelectric dams many people’s livelihoods will need to change due to the change in natural water flow. Even though this may negatively affect Cambodians who rely on the fish for protein, there are reasons why the government has attempted to show that dams are important and will address the demand for energy. Hydropower dams are a renewable energy and does not pollute. The water used in hydropower may be used for irrigation, human consumption. Also, the durability of the dam causing the production of energy for decades (NET). Hydropower dams do have these benefits, but human lives, for centuries, have been reliant on the water from the Mekong River; thus, the natural flow of water matters more than hydropower dams.

The Mekong River, Tonle Sap Lake, the fishes who migrate along these waters, and the humans reliant on the water may experience change when the water’s “heart” no longer beats. For the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake, the flow of water is no longer natural because of human interference with nature. For the fishes, they are unable to migrate because of hydroelectric dams and thus affects the human consumption of fish. Humans are at risk losing what they need for their basic needs of survival because of energy advancement.

This is a human rights concern because livelihoods will be negatively impacted by this advancement. There are socioeconomic complexities between means of food security for people and energy advancement between locals and the government, but with cooperation between the two, basic needs for survival may be met as mentioned in the MRC. Thus, the “heart” that so many people rely on will continue beating.

Climate Justice Concerns:

In the same way, the over-utilization of greenhouse gases in developed countries can be seen as innovative to some, but harmful to others. The upstream versus downstream can be seen as a metaphor for the developed nations exploiting developing nations resources, where developing nations do not really have a say with what goes on upstream. This calls for a reconstruction of the way we handle natural resource concerns in international relations.

What I am Proposing:

By assigning economic price to water, there is a way to give the water value. Dublin Principle 4 addresses the economic value of water. It is highly controversial to give economic value to nature and its services because critics argue that this undervalues biodiversity which is not bought and sold. However, by putting an economic value on water, there is a connection of nature’s interests and that of the people (Berdik, 2014). If people give water economic value, then that water may be allocated efficiently to the point where the biodiversity would not be impacted. With hydroelectric dams, people are giving value to energy over water because water is not being efficiently valued. When water is priced, the water and services may be effectively monitored.

An Alternative Method:

If the economic method is not deemed appropriate, then an alternative method may be issued. This would entail treating resources the way we treat people. By giving resources personhood, we are establishing value in them. The hope is they will not being overexploited for “innovation” and will remain intact for future generations.


The troubling part of the current state of our society, democracy, energy systems and economy is how our leaders will impact the globe. More specifically, the concern is the incentive behind global “sustainable” development. The fear is that sustainable actions are being made for profit (GDP growth) rather than for the well-being of others and their resources.

The following graph shows the symptoms, causes, and solutions through outside countries “innovative” development:

Words like sustainable and innovative have a positive connotation to them, but often times do not consider the negative affects downstream. It is time we recognize the motives of the upstream while acknowledging the direct impacts for those living in the downstream.

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