As concerns over the future of the Mekong River continue to grow, dozens of Cambodian youths are coming together to raise public awareness about the environmental threats facing the life-giving river.
The group, called Young Eco Ambassadors, is organizing a full-day event on June 15 attended by government officials, civil society groups, international NGOs, local communities and the public, in which they will call for better protection of the Mekong.
Held at the Cambodia-Korea Cooperation Center in Phnom Penh, they said, the event is centered on story-telling and cultural performances to promote greater appreciation for “the wonders of the Mekong.”
‘Environmental knowledge is still limited’
One of them, Raksmeythida Oum, said Cambodians need a better understanding of the importance of the river and why it - and the environment in general - should be protected.
“The main problem is that environmental knowledge of Cambodian people is still limited. We are not aware of the effects of environmental problems on our daily living,” she told VOA Khmer, adding that pollution, for example, was still poorly understood by many.
“The Wonders of the Mekong project also tries to raise awareness of plastic, because people often throw plastic waste away into the water and the Mekong River affecting the biodiversity, fish and other natural resources.”
The Mekong is one of the world’s largest, most biodiverse and productive river systems, running from the Tibetan Plateau in southern China down through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Its vast inland fishery provide food security for some 40 million people, according to studies by the Mekong River Commission. In Cambodia, fish from the river and Tonle Sap Lake is the main source of protein for the rural population.
‘Cooperate with us to care about the Mekong’
The event is part of the USAID-funded Wonders of the Mekong project, and caps a 15-month-long period of activities during which 30 Young Eco Ambassadors learned about the Lower Mekong River Basin and its ecosystem by conducting fields visits and engaging in research, workshops, trainings and communication with experts.
Sereyrath Aing, a co-founder of the Young Eco Ambassadors, said, “In this storytelling-event about the Wonders of the Mekong River we want to highlight the accomplished project by the Young Eco Ambassadors and we want others to know [about it].
“So I want all participants, including youth and relevant institutions, to see all the accomplishments and cooperate with us to care about the Mekong River.”
In addition to the story-telling and performances, there will also be a workshop, an exhibition, and creative stimulation to engage the audience and teach it about environmental conservation.
The U.S. Embassy set up the Wonders of the Mekong project and youth engagement activities on environmental issues in Cambodia several years ago in order to promote better understanding and management of the river.
Overfishing, pollution, deforestation and dams
Greater public engagement is necessary so that environmental concerns can be addressed, said Lykheang Seat, another participant, who explained that the river faces threats from overfishing, pollution, a deteriorating watershed due to deforestation, and large-scale hydropower dams.
Seoung Chealy Prach, Awareness Coordinator for the group, said the environmental issues are pressing.
“In our everyday [lives] the environment is like my heart. If I do not have the environment it means I cannot live,” he said. “Environmental problems are not only conservationists’ responsibility, but also everyone else’s… in our society.”
He said the Young Eco Ambassadors want to spread awareness of the river’s great value to Cambodian society and call on the public to help by making small changes in their daily lives, such as ending plastic waste pollution.
The most severe threat to the river’s future, however, are the hundreds of large dams that have been built or planned by governments on the Mekong and its tributaries. The projects - many of which are planned with funding from Chinese, Thai, or other regional and Western investors - are controversial due to their heavy environmental and social impacts.
A total of 11 dams have been planned on the mainstream: nine are located in Laos – two of which are under construction and a third is approved – while two dams are proposed in Cambodia. The Lower Sesan 2 Dam went into operation in 2017 on a Mekong tributary in northeastern Cambodia.
‘Dams are a major problem’
The dams could wipe out fish stocks and iconic species such as the Giant Mekong Catfish and freshwater dolphins. Campaigners, community activists, and downstream countries such as Vietnam have tried in vain to stop the dam.
“Dams are a major problem for the Mekong River because dams will block the fish [migration routes] and impact people who live along this river,” said Sereyrath Aing. “Moreover, for Cambodia as a developing country, the dam development project doesn't have a clear study of, and solution for, mitigating the impact… It also doesn't share the benefits fairly among all citizens.”
Sereyrath Aing said the Young Eco Ambassadors, rather than condemn the projects, would like to call the public and government’s attention to the Mekong’s great natural and cultural values in order to convince them that sustainable development can preserve the river and its values for future generations.
“We need to raise awareness and engage more people to involve and [make them] understand more about this wonderful river. We also send our message and needs to the authorities through the event in a positive way. We will show them that the Mekong is important and that we want the Mekong to flow naturally without any barrier,” she said.