The demise of a flooded forest in the Mekong River, blamed on high-volume dams in China, and to a lesser extent Laos, is robbing Cambodians of vital income.
It’s laundry day and 34-year-old Tha Sara is going through a pile of colourful garments, arranged neatly on her slender canoe. Docked near the banks of the mighty Mekong River in northeastern Cambodia, just below the border with Laos, the tiny boat rocks gently as Tha Sara pours water from the washing basin back into the river.
From the banks, where lush canopies shoot up into the sky, two of Tha Sara’s three children – a girl and a boy – watch on. The 12-year-old chats to her while the timid eight-year-old listens.
When she was thousands of kilometres away it was his voice on the phone that made her fall to pieces. “I always cried because I ate delicious food and thought of my kids,” Tha Sara says of her two-year stint as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, where she stayed until May 2022. “Living here is very poor.”
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Tha Sara had been meaning to work overseas for years but it was her husband’s death in 2019 that tipped the scales in favour of leaving home.
Like most men in the village, he was a fisherman – a precarious occupation with widespread fish scarcity. To make ends meet he took out loans and after his untimely death, the family was plunged further into debt.
It all tallied up to US$5,000, a flabbergasting amount in a country where those in manufacturing jobs earn up to US$200 per month.
It wasn’t long before Tha Sara boarded a cramped minivan alongside four other women from Veun Sien and a middleman, and travelled down to the capital, Phnom Penh.
Here, she waited at the agency for two and a half months for her paperwork, which included details of compulsory medical check-ups, to go through.
As soon as her passport was ready, Tha Sara was on the move again. After three flights and some 15 hours in the air she finally arrived in the Saudi Arabian city of Abha, more than 6,000km (3,700 miles) from home.
Tha Sara is by no means unique in her international endeavours. Interest in working overseas among the 401 people in her home village has been such that the Phnom Penh employment agency hired a broker there.
“The village seems quiet because the women are gone,” says village chief Si Chandorn, with a croaking laugh.
Saudi Arabia is not the sole destination for these villagers. Local women of all ages have also migrated to Malaysia.
Exactly how many have travelled outside Cambodia remains unclear. According to Si Chandorn, in late 2022 another woman left for Malaysia while two more registered to join the ranks of domestic workers there, though interviews with villagers suggest the number is higher.
Women also migrate domestically, Si Chandorn says. Out of the 20 villagers who left last year, 18 were female. They usually work in hospitality, hair salons, as domestic workers or as market vendors.
Such migration, according to Si Chandorn, is a relatively new phenomenon, which began en masse in 2017 because of a lack of income-generating opportunities and the declining fish population. But it wasn’t always like this.
“For generations the Veun Sien area has had an abundance of fish because it is the area of the flooded forest,” she says. Tales of fish jumping into boats when startled by the sound of paddle against hull abound here and the 63-year-old village chief swears by them.
The Stung Treng flooded forest, which grows in the middle of the Mekong River, north of Stung Treng town, has for years been a hub of biodiversity. Designated a Wetland of International Importance under Unesco’s Ramsar Convention in 1999, the forest has been home to endangered birds and fish, including the Mekong giant barb and Mekong giant catfish.
Spread over an area of 14,600 hectares (36,000 acres), the Ramsar site has been a destination for hundreds of migratory fish species, which travel upriver to spawn. The forest fruits have nourished certain fish species.
As of 2021, more than 15,000 people lived in 20 villages within the boundaries of the Ramsar site. Fishing used to be the main occupation and while it is still important, many villagers in the area have all but abandoned the practice as rampant illegal fishing – among other things – has decimated fish stocks, according to a 2023 paper by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The deep pools north of the Ramsar site used to support a small population of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. They were the emblematic species of the area, at the centre of conservation efforts and eco-tourism initiatives supporting countless livelihoods.
Their population has dwindled over four decades, because of illegal fishing and, some say, construction of the nearby Don Sahong dam between 2019 and 2021.
International visitors have flocked to the area to admire the iconic flooded forest landscape, comprising massive strangler figs wrapped around Anogeissus and acacia trees, which can only be found along this 40km stretch of the Mekong.
The trees are uniquely adapted to the riverine conditions and change with the river’s flood pulse and the seasons. When the Mekong swells with the monsoon rains, typically between May and October, they become submerged. And during the dry season, when the water levels drop, they dry out and replenish.
But villagers who spoke to Post Magazine observed that the water stopped receding completely during the dry season in the mid-2000s, robbing the trees of the critical drying out period and leading to tree rot and massive die-offs.
Today, bare trunks and branches protrude from the water and in some parts of the river trees lay collapsed, bearing an intricate web of airborne roots.
“The damage being wrought on these flooded forests, and on the various species of aquatic life that depend on them has already been significant. Different species have been affected differently, but some have almost completely disappeared,” Ian Baird, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States, is quoted as saying in a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature titled “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Stung Treng Ramsar Site.”
“This loss of important habitat is having a significant impact on fisheries, especially for a number of Pangasiidae catfish and cyprinid carps.”
The demise of the forest has also accelerated the erosion of sandbars, leading to the loss of villagers’ farmland as chunks of land crumble into the river with the dead trees and shrubs.
Baird, who lived in the area in the 1990s and has close ties to the communities, returned in May 2022 to investigate the reasons behind the forest die-off. He found that up to 50 per cent of the tall trees had died and that high-volume dams in China and neighbouring Laos – on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries – were to blame.
They store water in their enormous reservoirs during the wet season and release it during the dry season to generate electricity.
This cyclical release of water during the dry season is why the flooded forest trees remain submerged, when they are supposed to dry out – a textbook example of cumulative dam impacts, according to the academic. And one that might lead to the complete eradication of the flooded forest in the future if mitigation measures are not put in place.
“This is a death by a thousand cuts,” Baird says. “But things could be done. If the dams upriver weren’t storing so much water and releasing it during the dry season then the impact would be less.”
There are currently more than 150 dams straddling the Mekong and its tributaries in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Thirteen of them have been built on the mainstem: 11 in China, where the river is called the Lancang, and two in Laos.
In China alone, two dams – the Xiaowan and the Nuozhadu – account for more than half of the total storage capacity in the Mekong basin, claims the US-based think tank Stimson Center.
The Xiaowan dam became operational in 2010 and Nuozhadu in 2012.
Baird analysed water-level measurements taken during the dry season over a period of 100 years by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body overlooking the development of the Mekong and comprising Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Looking at water levels in Pakse, southern Laos – the closest point to the Stung Treng flooded forest – he found that the water levels have been rising over the past 15 years.
While acknowledging the importance of the Stung Treng Ramsar site and potentially adverse impacts of upstream dams on river hydrology, the MRC secretariat stopped short of refuting Baird’s claims.
“According to the data collected from our monitoring station at Pakse, we observed a ‘slight’ increase in the water level. This could be due to various factors such as changes in climate patterns, reservoir release and land use change,” the secretariat said in a statement.
The secretariat said it had noticed “some deterioration” of the flooded forest since 2010 and that it raised the issue with member states, which recognised the importance of protecting it.
“We are working with the four countries plus China and Myanmar on another project: ‘Limit of acceptable change for LMB wetlands.’ Here, we strive to look at what the minimum and maximum environmental flows in each dry and wet season are.
“This means, once we have them, we will be able to trace down the original cause(s) that affect water levels and volume (in a way that exceeds a maximum acceptable level),” the statement read.
It remains to be seen to what extent the MRC can exert pressure on China, which is not a member state and as such is not bound to share information with nations downstream of its hydropower projects, including on the release of water from upstream reservoirs.
“Downstream governments have long voiced concerns over the impacts of upstream dams in China,” says Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program. “One aspect which hampered criticism was a lack of data on the specific impacts of China’s dams since China provides no data to downstream countries.”
A precedent for cooperation was set in 2020 after climatologists raised the alarm over upstream dams in China affecting the Lower Mekong Basin. In response, China agreed to share information with downstream nations all year round.
Despite multiple requests, the representative of Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment in the capital, Phnom Penh, did not provide a comment for this story. Chhoun Chhorn, the provincial environment department’s deputy director of the Ramsar site in Stung Treng, did, however, confirm that no measures have been taken to protect the flooded forest.
“We used to participate in raising the issues on TV and with relevant stakeholders to call for funding, budget contributions in order to rehabilitate the forest but it remains quiet,” he told Post Magazine.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Stung Treng has cut the fishing season short by one month, closing it in May instead of June, citing dolphin, biodiversity and spawning grounds conservation.
To her delight, when Tha Sara touched down at Abha, she was greeted by her employer and his eight-year-old son. That’s where the pleasantries ended. From then on, her stay with the Saudi family as a domestic worker was marked by hardships.
“My first boss was unkind and I didn’t have enough food,” she says. “I ate only bread and when I boiled water they said I can’t because it would use their electricity, so I asked the recruitment agency to change bosses.”
According to the International Labour Organization, her experience falls within a broader pattern of abuse and exploitation experienced by Cambodian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Malaysia.
Women are subjected to such treatment despite bilateral agreements on the deployment of domestic workers between Cambodia and these destination countries. The abuse of Cambodian women in Malaysia was so widespread that in 2011 the Cambodian government issued a temporary ban on sending domestic workers to the Southeast Asian country.
Tha Sara’s new employer, though slightly kinder, proved to be as demanding as the first. Her workload remained back-breaking and included taking around-the-clock care of four children, between the ages of two and 13, meal preparation, cleaning, laundry and ironing, among other jobs. There were no days off, even when she fell ill.
She was, however, allowed to use the Wi-fi and the employer’s many mobile phones to call her children back in Cambodia.
After two years in Abha, where she earned US$400 a month, she had almost paid off her debts and even managed to save some money. Then, in May 2022, a message came from her relatives: Tha Sara’s daughter had fallen gravely ill and they were refusing to continue taking care of her children.
“Because they [my employer] didn’t want me to go back, they didn’t buy my flight ticket so I had to buy it myself,” Tha Sara says.
Had she worked for the family for three years, they would have had to cover her airfare. Instead she had to spend the lion’s share of her savings – some US$2,000 – on returning to Cambodia. And even that was a fraught process.
Travelling to Saudi Arabia in 2019, she had been accompanied by a minder every step of the way and everything was taken care of. The return journey was very different. Tha Sara was left to her own devices.
“There was a problem with the air tickets. When they tried typing my name, it was red and only when I paid US$500, I could fly,” she says of an encounter with staff at an airport in Thailand, the last leg of her journey.
Tha Sara returned home with just enough to buy a motorbike and soon fell back into an old routine. She rises with the sun, cleans the house, opens her tiny snack shop and gets her children ready for school.
Before the morning becomes scorching hot, she heads to the farmland, where she has been growing cassava and rice. Her day is punctuated by a two-hour break between 11am and 1pm and then she’s back at the farm until nightfall.
But for a new dirt road passing by her house, Tha Sara hasn’t noticed any positive developments in Veun Sien. The fish stocks remain paltry and the flooded forest as she knew it seems like a distant memory.
“Life hasn’t changed from before and after I left. It is the same because we still don’t have an income,” she says. “Only the angcheng [tall] trees have fallen into the river, though I don’t know why.”
Despite her setbacks, Tha Sara remains undeterred and is already dreaming up plans for the future: a store by the main road. To make this a reality, however, she needs money, which remains unattainable as long as she stays in the village, or in Cambodia.
“If my daughter gets married, I want to leave again,” Tha Sara says. “This time I don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia. I will go to Malaysia. Saudi Arabia is far and Malaysia is closer.”