Up Against the Falls

In southern Laos, fishermen along the Mekong are facing a harsh reality

Samnieng Kambai nets fish with the help of a fallback trap across the raging Khone Falls in southern Laos, one of the most dangerous places for fishing in the world. An error could mean death. {{name}}
01 September, 2011

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE KHONE FALLS in the 4000 Islands of Laos a few years ago. I had seen a Lao fisherman catching fish against the power of the largest waterfall (by volume) in the world. Here, in southern Laos, the Mekong River stretches as wide as 14 km during the rainy season. As the water level falls, countless small islands emerge. The 4000 Islands translates from the Lao as Si Phan Don. At present, 201 species of fish have been identified here, many of which seasonally migrate huge distances up the Mekong from as far away as the Great Lake in Cambodia and the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Wild capture fishing on the Mekong is among the most productive in the world; 2.6 million tonnes of fish are caught annually. But the quantity of fish is declining, and some species, like the Mekong Giant Catfish (pa beuk) and the Irrawaddy Dolphin (pa khe), are under threat by extinction.

Fish constitute 80 percent of protein intake for most Lao people. But the piscine decline isn’t just affecting the country’s food supply. It’s also transforming economic and social life. Laos exports much of its fish to Thailand, but as supplies dry up, there is less and less to sell. Moreover, a fisherman’s subsistence is difficult, filled with life-threatening dangers along the whitewater falls, and he earns little money to boot. Faced with tough futures, many young men and women whose families have been fishing for generations are heading to Thailand for a better life.

A mist covers the Khone Falls and the roar of the cascading water resonates far and wide. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone near the falls—at 9.5 million litres per second, the volume of the Khone Falls is the largest in the world and nearly double that of the Niagara Falls. When I met Samnieng Kambai, he was fishing at one of the most dangerous places along the falls, collecting only two or three kilograms a day. He was following in his father’s footsteps. His younger brother, Sian, had also been fishing until he injured his leg and could not walk. Sian’s wife took his place. She said, “First time when I had to walk on a sling to our fishing trap, my legs were tottering and I could not move.”

What is the future of the Mekong? It’s under threat by developers who are building fisheries that have led to habitat destruction. The construction of a dam downstream of the Hou Sahong Channel has been proposed, which, if built, will severely impact fish migration routes. Is there any hope for the fishermen and their embattled catch in Si Phan Don?