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Human and environmental incursions in the Mekong have been highlighted in new reports.

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Fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin are being stressed by overfishing and habitat degradation induced by fast population increase, infrastructural development, and climate change, while changes in the Basin's aquatic ecosystems are having an impact on social conditions.

This was covered in two Mekong River Commission (MRC) papers released today, which show that fishing remains a vital source of income in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.


The two reports, "Status and Trends of Fish Abundance and Diversity in the Lower Mekong Basin from 2007 to 2018" (FADM) and "Social Impact Monitoring and Vulnerability Assessment 2018" (SIMVA), showed that households continue to rely on water resources that are becoming increasingly strained.


“These studies emphasize the significance of responsible development, balancing regional and national interests, and stronger regional collaboration to protect Mekong River water and related resources,” said Dr. An Pich Hatda, Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission.


Both findings urge that fish stocks be conserved in order to ensure food supplies for the millions of people who live in the LMB and to prevent future revenue erosion. In comparison to 2013, 35 percent of 2,800 polled households said their income was lower, 32 percent said it was the same, and only 26 percent said their income increased slightly, while 6 percent said it increased greatly, according to the SIMVA 2018.


Affecting incomes are adverse changes in water resources, which include agriculture, aquaculture, fish, other aquatic animals, and plants, with roughly 22% of families reporting that the issue has impacted them.


Other non-water-related livelihoods, such as gainful work, business, or trading, are becoming more significant, and may lessen vulnerability to changes in the Mekong water supplies. The two findings warn that there is still much room for improvement, with policy implications for governments, if communities are to be safeguarded from water and climate-related risks.


Using the MRC's long-term fisheries monitoring data, the 138-page FADM is the first-ever large-scale research to evaluate both regional and temporal fluctuations of fish abundance and diversity in the LMB. Fishing communities were found to be disrupted in practically all zones of the LMB, according to the study. Catch rates decreased at two of the four and three of the five stations surveyed in Laos and Vietnam, respectively.


To restore distressed fishing communities, the report advises governments of the four MRC Member Countries to enforce national fisheries regulations and collaboratively implement the authorized Mekong Basin-wide Fisheries Management and Development Strategy. It also suggests incorporating river management strategies to counter the risks associated with increased hydropower production.


Professional fishermen monitored the Mekong mainline and its major tributaries on a daily basis between 2007 and 2018 at 38 locations. However, due to insufficient data, only 25 sites were chosen for the study. Cambodia had eleven of the 25 monitoring stations, Laos had four, while Thailand and Vietnam each had five.


In contrast, the 168-page SIMVA gathered fresh data and information that provides insights into the social conditions, vulnerabilities, and well-being of communities along the Mekong mainstream. The study also discovered that the occurrence of floods is increasing, presumably as a result of climate change and other variables such as water infrastructure expansion.


Approximately 62 percent of the sampling villages suffered losses and damages as a result of flooding between 2015 and 2018. Thailand had the greatest percentage at 80%, while Vietnam had the lowest at 42%. Twenty-five percent of villages stated flooding had been substantially worse, and twenty-five percent said it had gotten worse in the last year than it had in previous years. Losses and damages from major climate shocks, particularly flooding, have increased dramatically since the 2014 study.


SIMVA 2018 is the third survey of its kind, and it was done in the same research areas and using the same methodologies as SIMVA 2014.


The SIMVA 2018 survey reveals, among other things, that the percentage of households fishing in the region has declined from 50 percent in 2014 to around 37 percent in 2018. This was due in part to a decrease in fish catches, and in part to the expansion of other economic opportunities and the diversification of livelihoods.


Gender inequality is another aspect that contributes to societal vulnerability. Traditional gender norms still exist in many parts of the LMB corridor, with significant wage and employment gaps between men and women. Female-headed homes, which are also single-parent households, are more vulnerable. Females headed 19 percent of homes, while males headed 81 percent, according to the poll. Laos and Vietnam had the lowest rates of female-headed families, at 13 percent and 27 percent, respectively, while Thailand had the highest, at 27 percent.


Aside from the FDMA and SIMVA initiatives, the MRC has also conducted major socio-economic monitoring exercises in collaboration with Member Countries, such as the State of the Basin Report 2018, which was the first large-scale undertaking to compile comprehensive socio-economic information in the basin, including the Upper Mekong River Basin.

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