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13 August 2019

Development trap: How electrification pushes Cambodian fishermen into debt

A fisherman and his daughter on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

Photo: Leonie Prevel.

Cambodia has come a long way since the horrific genocide of 1975-1979, during which the Khmer Rouge regime massacred 20% of the country’s population and wrecked widespread poverty. In the last 25 years, Cambodia’s economy has become one of the fastest-growing in the world. However, the fruits of economic development have not been divided equally and the majority of people who live in the countryside remain poor.

Economic growth brings power lines. Only about a decade ago, Cambodia had to import most of its electricity. In an attempt to overcome this shortage, the government turned to hydropower, and as of last year, almost half of Cambodia’s energy is hydroelectric.

However, this victory brought about the sharp urban-rural divide. Almost everyone in the cities has access to electricity, whilst only half of the rural population enjoys the benefits of electric power. It is also the rural folks who bear the side effects of hydropower plants. Apart from risks of flooding, dams disrupt fish migration and spawning, leading to a steep reduction in fish populations in rivers and lakes. Meanwhile, Cambodians heavily rely on fish for food security – it constitutes 75% of their protein intake.

“The rivers are everything for the rural people, and, even though it is hard to see the direct link, rivers are vital for the urban people too. That is where Cambodians get their food. They love the hydro dams because of electricity, but the dams are the very same reason why the fish catches decline. The rural people say ‘I can’t eat electricity, but I can eat fish. I would rather have the fish’. This is what the urban people are failing to recognize, “ says Sai, an activist for the rivers of Cambodia.

Kampong Phluk and its many boats during the dry season.

Photo: Phou Bunthann.

A fisherman in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

Photo: Leonie Prevel.

The water has changed

About an hour bumpy car ride from Siem Reap lies Kampong Phluk, a floating village on the northern edge of Tonle Sap Lake. The houses are built on poles to adjust for the lake’ yearly flooding during the rainy season. Most of the people here are fishermen, but thanks to the legendary Angkor Wat temple proximity, ecotourism is a growing trend.

Oeur Pao is one of the local fishermen. He is 52 and has seven children. He has experienced a drastic drop in fish catches firsthand. “The water has changed,” he says. The fishermen are very vulnerable to fluctuations in fish prices. When the prices are low it is difficult to make ends meet.

Many fishermen invested in boats to offer sightseeing for tourists as a way to cope and diversify. Villagers are also building extra rooms in their houses to rent out a bed as a homestay so tourists could get an authentic experience. But all of these things cost money, and many fishermen got into debts.

Oeur Pao and his youngest son outside his house in Kampong Phluk, Cambodia.

Photo: Phou Bunthann

The spiral of debt

Most fishermen sell their fish to middlemen in port. When the catches are bad or the equipment is broken or stolen, the middlemen give fishermen loans, if they promise to repay it with fish. This ties fishermen to the middlemen who keep lowering the price they buy the fish for. Usually, by the time the debt has been repaid, fishermen have to take another loan.

“Of course, I’d rather drive tourists than fish! But I can’t afford to invest in a tourist boat because of my dept. So, I’ve put those plans behind me,” says Eav Changrong, a fisherman in Kampong Phluk village.

Dams discussion under embargo

Hydropower dams have been controversial and sparked outcry among environmental activists. But the protests were quickly silenced by the government of Cambodia. The discussions about the negative consequences of hydro dams were given a red light. Consequently, most Cambodians don’t know about the negative impact of the dams.

“I’ve heard about hydro power on TV, but I don’t really know what it is. I think it produces electricity, and that it lowers the electricity price. I don’t think there will be any consequences here, because the dams are not built around here. I do not know where they are being built, but not here, that’s for sure, “ says Eav Changrong, a fisherman in Kampong Phluk.

This leaves the fishermen in the dark: they don’t know why their fish catches are decreasing. Some fishermen in Kampong Phluk think that there is less fish because illegal migrants from Vietnam fish without a permit.

It’s easy to blame the immigrants. The villagers can see them with their own eyes, and the immigrants, who live on the outskirts of the society, have no way of defending themselves from these accusations. However, the immigrants couldn’t have possibly caused the decline of fish stocks in the huge Tonle Sap lake. When it comes to food security, the immigrant and the local fishermen are in the same boat.

Above: Eav Changrong (to the right) and his family. To the left: Leonie Prevel (the author of this photo essay).

Photo: Phou Bunthann

Leaving no one behind

Overall, Cambodians are better off, especially comparing to the times of the Pol Pot’s communist regime. Life improvements carried on to the next generation – most kids stay in school longer than their parents.

Cambodia managed to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal, cutting poverty in half from 2000 to 2015. Now the other half of its population, 8 million, must be lifted out of poverty by 2030. Unfortunately, those who remained in penury are the poorest of the poor and most of them live in rural areas.

By all means, poverty reduction in Cambodia’s countryside isn’t money for old rope. For example, while school and basic healthcare are mostly free, few rural people can afford it because they need help with fishing. Free healthcare stations are usually closer to urban centers, and few of the rural poor can afford transportation or missing a day of work.

Aspiring to development and creating jobs with an injection of electricity, such as soaring Cambodia’s garment industry, is worthwhile. However, it is a miss if the development benefits don’t reach people in rural areas.

What is more, garment workers, tourist guides and office workers in cities need to eat too. So, dwindling fish stocks by blocking all the rivers with dams in a country that heavily relies on fish for its food security may not be the most farsighted way forward.

Development needs to be equitable. Sustainable development is impossible without food security and decent life in rural communities. Our strategies have to go beyond promoting urbanization by creating jobs in the cities. We must be true to the promise of leaving no one behind.


Author: Leonie Prevel, agronomy student at the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and communications intern at SIANI. 

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