Tonle Sap, Cambodia – During Cambodia’s monsoon season, when the Tonle Sap Lake grows due to flooding from the Mekong River, rice farmer Sam Fonsai’s backyard fills with water and plastic waste from his neighbors who live on yachts.
But during the dry half year from December to May, Vongsay can barely get a drop of lake water from his home in Chong Khneas, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) northwest of the capital Phnom Penh.
The 40-year-old farmer lacks a live well or equipment to pump water from the lake 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from his property, and blames farmers upstream for diverting much of the water to irrigate their crops.
“There is not enough water to flow downstream because other farmers upstream are also blocking the water,” Fonsay told Al Jazeera.
In the past, Feng Sai’s family could grow two crops of rice, but in recent years, due to the lack of rainfall and insufficient water conservancy infrastructure, it is difficult to manage one crop of rice. Vongsay said he tried to grow peppers last year to diversify the crop, but the plants withered and died.
“We don’t have enough water infrastructure,” he said. “If we had this condition, we wouldn’t just grow rice, we would grow rice and other vegetables three or four times a year.”
Farmers along Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake are facing increasing threats to their livelihoods as demand for land continues to grow, drought caused by climate change Hydropower development consumes precious water resources.
According to a report, since 2018, the transaction volume of the Tonle Sap Lake has dropped below the historical average Mekong River Commission (MRC) report Water levels were checked between November 2020 and May last year.
The lake experienced a severe drought in 2019, as did the Mekong system on which it depends, with lasting effects on water levels. In January 2020, the lake had about 6 billion cubic meters of water, slightly more than a third of the dry season average, according to MRC.
Siem Reap rice farmer Van La, 44, told Al Jazeera that the weather has not improved since the drought of 2019, when unseasonal winds and rains last year kept seeds in the ground during the dry season.
To pay for renting his farmland and spraying fertilizer — which he needs to do more often because of the irregular weather — Ra tried twice to grow rice last year.
“It didn’t work because I had almost nothing to gain,” he said. “It’s impossible to do it twice because there isn’t enough water.”
Population growth and rising land prices have sparked a boom in deforestation in the region to build housing and agricultural land, increasing demand for water from the lake and its tributaries.
Seasonal flooding in the lake, which has been linked to snowmelt in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province, is also vulnerable to expanding hydroelectric dam development, which scientists have linked to the unpredictable water levels of the Mekong River.
While farmers’ livelihoods are under increasing pressure, the Tonle Sap fishery, which produces an estimated 500,000 tonnes of fish per year, has also been affected. report smaller catches, leading some fishermen to turn to fish farms or agriculture.
Brian Eller, author of “The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong” told Al Jazeera that in addition to hydroelectric dams on the Mekong, small reservoirs (often without official approval) built to meet farmers’ needs are putting pressure on the lakes.
“These reservoirs effectively steal water from surrounding communities and block critical migration pathways for the world’s largest inland fisheries,” Eller said.
Vongsay, a farmer near the Tonle Sap, said the expansion of a canal along his property in 2019 that was supposed to help him and other farmers get more water from upstream has led him to stop farming altogether.
“We first agreed that it was okay to dig the canal deeper, but we didn’t expect it to be this deep,” Vongsay said, explaining that he couldn’t drive a rented tractor through the expanded canal to farm rice fields.
Vongsay said he and his family make a living by making Buddhist holiday decorations as a sideline.
Shesela, a researcher with USAID’s Mekong Wonders Project, told Al Jazeera that the combined impact of climate change, deforestation and infrastructure development on the Tonle Sap shows the need for authorities to better understand the delicate nature of the Mekong. water supply and develop solutions that take into account these factors.
“It’s interconnected. When people use more water without conserving and restoring, there is a shortage of groundwater and surface water,” she said. “even [if] We have adequate irrigation infrastructure, we do not have [groundwater] Spring and rain. It is still difficult to obtain sufficient water throughout the year, [will be] future. “