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Worries ahead for Cambodia

In Cambodia, government officials and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are sounding the alarm over late rains and record low water levels. In a country with a population of 14 million, over forty percent or some 6 million people rely on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers for their livelihood.

The director of the Fisheries Administration in Cambodia is warning that the impact of the low water levels in the Mekong and Tonle rivers could be severe. The places where fish can lay their eggs have been limited by the late rainfall, with crucial spawning grounds remaining dry. This will affect the production and migration of fish during the rest of the year.

River levels along the Mekong, which runs through China, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, have been of concern for some time. This month’s river levels are the lowest ever recorded for August according to the Mekong River Commission. Environmentalists worry that the increasingly shallow Mekong could be affected by upriver dams in China. 4 dams are already in operation along the Chinese stretch of the river and 9 more are under construction. With over 60 million people dependent on the Mekong for food, commerce and transportation, the situation is being carefully monitored by the River Commission.

But it is not only the fisherman of Cambodia who are being affected by the low rainfall. Rice farmers are also suffering, since more than 85 percent of the country’s rice production relies on the annual rains. One farmer in the western Pursat Province reported that his sowing was a month behind schedule, which could cut his yield by half. Other provinces are reporting an increase in the numbers of rural Cambodians who are heading to Thailand in search of seasonal labour.

Rice is Cambodia’s main crop and there could be a 22 percent decrease in production this year, from 7.6 million MT to 5.9 million, according to estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  In this climate of concern, it is little wonder there is limited enthusiasm among some officials for the war crimes tribunal set up to try former Khmer Rouge leaders. Last month, the UN-backed tribunal convicted its first Khmer Rouge official for his part in the genocide of 1975-1979, when around 2 million people were killed. The 67-year old ex-teacher, Kaing Guek Eav, a commandant of a detention centre which oversaw the torture of around 14,000 adults and children before they were sent off to the “killing fields”, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in jail.

Human rights groups say the sentence represents a measure of hope that other Cambodians responsible for similar atrocities will be punished. But many ordinary Cambodians have expressed disappointment at what they see as a lenient sentence. More proceedings are scheduled for next year, when four of the highest ranking officials will be tried. 

But whilst TV coverage of the trials might prove a distraction for some of Cambodia’s population, others will be too busy worrying about their livelihoods in the present to pay much attention to the events of the past. The director of the Fisheries Administration in Cambodia is warning that the impact of the low water levels in the Mekong and Tonle rivers could be severe. The places where fish can lay their eggs have been limited by the late rainfall, with crucial spawning grounds remaining dry. This will affect the production and migration of fish during the rest of the year.

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