Siphandone's River Wonder

Posted on 13 July 2015
Mekong River in southern Laos.
© Adam Oswell / WWF-Canon
By Amphone Phommachak

Siphandone (Four Thousand Islands) is a place of important and striking biodiversity. Consisting of thousands of islands set steadfast in the course of the Mekong River, it is home to communities that have spent generations living off this great waterway’s ample resources. It is home to not just humans, but well-known aquatic species too – the calm and friendly Irrawaddy dolphin being the most recognisable.

When I walk the car-free roads, or take a boat from one noiseless island to another, I am always amazed by the way traditional life remains constant in the face of so much change in other places. I want to know more about it, understand people’s ways of living, and discover how this simple act of just being with nature and the river can benefit us all.

Healthy rivers, healthy people

I am the Project Manager for WWF’s Siphandone project in southern Laos. One of the project’s core objectives is to support the creation of protected river areas called Fish Conservation Zones. It is prohibited to fish in these areas, meaning the fish population can increase, and therefore help the overall health and biodiversity of the river system. What’s most unique though is that communities – through their Fisheries Management Committees – oversee the zones and have the power to give warnings and fines to those caught fishing inside the FCZ, as well as confiscate their illegal equipment.

We now have 37 FCZs in 30 Siphandone target villages and this is a major and unprecedented achievement – giving power to the people to enforce the Fisheries Law that protects their river resources. Men and women have equal opportunity to contribute to planning the FCZs and the means required to protect them. And for people who depend so critically on the life source that flows right by their houses, this is crucial.

Our collective future

People often ask me: “Amphone, what is the future for Siphandone?” I often tell them is that the young generation is key. I believe that children can change our futures. If they not only learn, but see the value of the river resources, they can share messages of change to their elders and their communities.

With this in mind, we set up the Green Schools programme. Its aim is to raise environmental awareness within school children, and we’re lucky to have the support of the Department of Education and Sport in this. Of course, you can’t just tell children about it, but must demonstrate it too. We plant flowers, engage in recycling, and have created storybooks related to conservation. I can see how they react to it, laughing, learning, developing positive attitudes and a real grasp of what at heart I think they already knew – that their immediate environment sustains them and they have to contribute to its protection.

Right now we have 5 schools with a total of 717 students, of which 64 have been selected as the Green Club Team, and we work with them even closer to build up the environmental learning.

To celebrate and reflect

Today, July 13, marks National Aquatic and Wildlife Day (or National Fish Releasing Day), and for me provides time for reflection. How have we done? What have we achieved? What can we do better? Traditionally fingerlings (small fish) are released into rivers all over Laos in a celebration of what rivers provide to us, and in an effort to improve overall river biodiversity. But it’s also a time to think about the actual health of these rivers and how people manage and depend on them, to find solutions to the pressures that often have negative impacts.

I see progress every day. When I talk with the old women in villages, their faces telling the stories of their lives, I am happy. I hear about Siphandone from old and new perspectives. They’re pleased WWF is here, helping them to claim an even greater, legally bound stake, in the resources they’ve used for decades. And then as the sun fades over the islands, we go inside, sit down and share food together. It’s always fish, always the best and most delicious fish caught from the river just metres away. And if all is quiet, with perhaps just the low sound of wind in the trees, you can hear the Mekong course by with a strength and life unparalleled in the world.
Mekong River in southern Laos.
© Adam Oswell / WWF-Canon Enlarge
A village river patrol in Siphandone.
© WWF-Laos Enlarge
Mounlapamok District market, Champassak Province
© Adam Oswell / WWF-Canon Enlarge
The Green Schools programme raising environmental awareness.
© Adam Oswell / WWF-Canon Enlarge
Irrawaddy dolphins live in a deep river pool in Siphandone.
© WWF-Cambodia / Gerry Ryan / WWF-Greater Mekong Enlarge
Fisherman on the Mekong.
© Adam Oswell / WWF-Greater Mekong Enlarge
On the Mekong at dusk.
© Graham Baird Enlarge