There’s pineapples, lemons, oranges and big banana trees. In the heart of the garden lies an empty pond, that once was used to breed fish. This is the expansive and well-organized fruit garden of Kroy Lteng and his wife Kha Sa Mon, a Cambodian couple who have lived near the banks of the Mekong River for their entire lives.
It’s the Mekong that has kept their fruit garden fertile. A strong water pipe leading from the river to their fruit trees was all they needed. But things have changed for the Christian family, as well as for millions of others who depend on Southeast Asia’s longest river for their livelihoods.
The water level of the Mekong is at the lowest point in 60 years, possibly even more. And with new hydropower dams in Laos starting operations or planned to be built, a much bigger crisis is looming.
Over the years Lteng — who’s also the pastor of a small Christian church on the banks of the Mekong — has seen the river rise and fall. But in the past two years the river mainly fell, he said with a soft and calm voice.
“The water levels have dropped drastically. Sand banks that we never saw before have come up. The river is now far away,” Lteng, 49, said. “We can still use the pipe to water our crops, but the water is less clean. It’s sandy. That makes it hard to grow fruit.”
A short walk from Lteng’s garden is enough to see the impact with one’s own eyes. Where there’s supposed to be fast-flowing water, dessert-looking sand banks have arisen. “Before we never had this problem,” he said. “We had water here all the time.”
Just like many others in Cambodia, Lteng has no doubt what causes this problem. Of course, the rainy season was unusually mild this year; the rains came late and they left early. But Lteng and his wife believe the hydropower dams operating in the mainstream of the Mekong and in some of its tributaries are the real problem by blocking water.
“They are talking about building another dam. If that plan continues we will get really scared, because then there will be even less water than what we now have,” Kha Sa Mon said.
A short motorbike ride away from the fruit garden, fisherman Bot Nin was getting ready to get on his boat. It was time to check the fish traps that he set in the river a week ago. He wasn’t expecting much from it but the traps needed checking.
When the boat reached the first trap, Nin jumped into the water and checked it. He shook his head: not a single fish. The second and third trap were also empty. Only in the fourth trap the fisherman found two fish, both of them not bigger than 25 centimeters.
“I also use lines and fishnets,” Nin said. “But still the catch has decreased a lot. Two years ago I was catching 7 to 10 kg fish per day. Now it’s 3 to 5 kg, and I’m spending just as much time on it as in the past.”
The fisherman also believes the hydropower dams are having a negative impact. But he likewise said illegal fishing contributed to the problem.
“I sometimes see them with these very long nets. They catch everything that swims in the river,” he said. “But I’m also sure that if there was no dam, it wouldn’t be this bad.”
While many Cambodians living on and near the Mekong worry about their future, Nin at least has found an alternative source of income. With help from the World Wildlife Fund he put in four concrete fish tanks on his land. In just four to five months he can breed fish big enough to be consumed.
“We are still testing to see how this project works out, but if it’s successfully we will expand,” he said. “Right now it compensates my loss of income a little bit.”
Experts have warned that if the river’s rich ecosystems continue to be damaged by the hydropower dams then millions of people reliant on it for their livelihood risk falling into poverty.
In Kratie no one told this reporter they were confident of the government’s abilities in finding a solution to what they saw is a looming crisis.
“The first people have already given up on fishing here,” Bot Nin said. “Some now work in a rice field, others have found a job on a construction site or have migrated to Thailand.”
Back at the fruit garden, Kroy Lteng and Kha Sa Mon also don’t expect the government to find a solution.
“The government ignores our concerns. Everybody here worries about the dam, but they don’t inform us when the dam releases water and it seems that they don’t care about the fish or the people,” Sa Mon said.
Protesting against the government policy is difficult in Cambodia, a country where critics are often silenced with harassment, threats and — in some cases — criminal charges.
The Christian fruit farmers have found some peace in their belief. “Before we were Buddhist, but when I got sick that didn’t help us,” Lteng said. “When we started to pray to God things got better. So we stopped being Buddhist and converted to Christianity.”
Their belief gives them something to hold onto now that the changes at the river has made their future uncertain.
“We just keep quiet and live in peace. We have concerns about the future, so we pray to God to help us,” Sa Mon said.