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Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake is one of the most prodigious inland fisheries in the world. It is also one of the most threatened. In recent years, the confluence of climate change, hydropower dams, and overfishing have hit the lake hard. Individual catch has plummeted, with devastating results for the hundreds of thousands of fishing families living on the lake — most of them among the country’s poorest.
Historically, the lake’s incredible bounty allowed for the rise of the Angkorian empire and provided a livelihood for generations of fishers. That was thanks to a unique ecological function: a tributary river that connects the lake to the mighty Mekong reverses course twice a year, allowing for largescale fish migration and the movement of nutrients. Upstream dams have all but destroyed that pulse, imperiling countless lives. Drawing on years of reporting, journalist Abby Seiff explores the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap in Troubling the Water A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia. In this excerpt, Seiff explores how one fishing family is surviving amid the loss.
One morning in 2019, I open a satellite map of Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake on my computer and click my way around it. The water is a milky brown and at various points I can spot the floating villages if I squint and keep my eyes sharp. They look even more precarious in this digital soup than they do up close. A few dozen homes here and there, pinpricks against the lake’s great expanse.
To live in a floating home is to live in a constant state of flux. The materials are all land-born: wood and corrugated aluminum, rubber tires and plastic barrels, rope used in limitless ingenious ways. But beneath one’s feet is the constant feel of nothing. The steady roll of water reminds at once how much and how little there is. We have this whole lake, a floating house says with each gentle thrall to the tide. We have nothing.
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In a country full of poor, very poor, and severely impoverished people, many of those on the lake feel they sit at the bottom. If a farmer has a plot of land that never quite yields enough, that is constantly in danger of being grabbed by someone richer and more powerful—well, she has earth beneath her feet. She has collateral to take out another usurious microfinance loan. She has a dirt path that leads to a small road that leads to a bigger one that leads to a school, a market, a health clinic.
“Being a farmer is much easier than being a fisher,” an elderly man named Sen Mat tells me one cloudy March morning. Each year Mat and his wife and some of their neighbors set up a sort of temporary camp on a southern Tonle Sap bank that remains grassy even at the height of dry season. This marshland lies nestled between two floating villages, a mile from each set of bobbing homes, grass spreading lichenlike across its sandy surface. When the pastures in nearby Krakor turn brown and dry in the heat, the group leads their oxen here to feed. Their shelters are made of tarps and sticks punched into the soft earth, tiny waves lapping at the stilts. Behind them, the lake ranges endless as an ocean. Mat fishes near these banks and grows rice near his inland home. He holds no envy for those who have only the lake to rely on.
A floating village can take many forms. Some floating houses sit on large, square-hulled barges. The bottoms are broad, made of quality wood slung low in the water. When waves sweep the lake, these barges roll gracefully as a boxer. The roofs are solid, the living quarters large and well-apportioned. To be sure, this does not make for an easy life. Those living on big boats face many of the same privations as any of their floating neighbors; few farmers would trade their humble fields for these houseboats. But most who live on the lake fare far worse. The simplest homes in a floating village are something of a marvel: how do they survive the water and wind? These houses have thin wood floors lashed raftlike to tires and fifty-gallon plastic barrels. The walls are made of salvaged wood or corrugated tin. They’re layered with green tarp or strips of palm leaf tied neatly down—the shaggy coat soon patchy.
Kampong Prek sits near the mouth of a nameless river on the lake’s southern edge and is filled with these types of homes. Here, just sixty- three houses float within shouting distance of one another. When the lake swells with rain, residents row their homes inland, always hugging the shore. To call it a village seems an exaggeration. There is no shop or school or medical center, just a few dozen families trying very hard, and mostly failing, to get by. What ties people here together the most? A wild, all-consuming desire to move to land.
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Mok Hien is seventy-one and has lived most of his life in houses like these: wood, tarp, barrels; roofs that send rain cascading across the floor; walls that let gales scream on through. He has been in Kampong Prek since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and has four children and sixteen grandchildren. Most live nearby, but some have begun to leave—to Battambang, to Phnom Penh, to the cities where a semblance of opportunity exists.
Hien’s glasses are Coke-bottle thick; his hair is a shock of black, trimmed short in the back. He wears a krama wrapped tightly about his waist and pulls a T-shirt over his head while we wait to speak with him. His wife sits nearby, confusion sparking across her face. His daughter bounces a cheerful baby boy—half of a pair of yellow-shirted twins.
The family is tired because one night earlier in late March 2017, a storm rolled into Krakor district, lashing the lake. My colleagues and I had watched transfixed from the comfort of our rooms in a concrete guesthouse just a few miles inland. At roughly the same time, Hien and his children were standing in the knee-deep water, anchoring their home with their bodies so it wouldn’t blow over.
“The wind is getting stronger and stronger, and I was afraid the house would collapse,” Hien explains.
Hien begins telling us the type of story that’s like a fairy tale for the poorest—it’s the balm politicians promise for wounds, even when what is needed is medicine, stitches, surgery. There’s land about a mile away, and it could be theirs. All five dozen families have made an official request for the available plot. If the ruling party wins the next local election, the land is theirs—so says the commune chief. Of course they will vote for their shot at moving off the lake.
“All of the people here have asked the authorities for land to build houses and to plant crops. But there’s been no result yet. We requested it twice already, in 2016 and 2017. They told us to wait until after the commune council election. The commune chief said if the CPP wins, we’ll get it. So, yes. I’ll vote for the CPP.”
Such deals are commonplace here, where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained an unbroken winning streak through brute force and shining promises. Come election time, local leaders make the rounds, handing out kramas and bags of rice, small amounts of cash and the odd meal. Ruling party hats, T-shirts, and stickers litter the countryside for years after—at times it seems every other old man is dressed in a CPP shirt or cap. Though it is less effective these days, the party has long campaigned on threats, warning of a return to civil war that resonates with the traumatized older population. “Who saved you from the Khmer Rouge?” the CPP still likes to remind voters. Who built hospitals and schools? Who brought the country back from Year Zero? The threats are packaged with promises grand and small: new health centers and roads, new irrigation systems, new crackdowns on corruption, on crime, on whatever may trouble a particular village.
Real land in exchange for ownerless water: A bold promise, to be sure, but who wouldn’t take the chance and cast their ballot for the CPP?
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After last night’s storm, a rare cool breeze cuts through the March heat. Outside Hien’s house, the lake is becalmed now. Beneath the hazy sky, the water in these churned shallows is nearly opaque: a crumpled reflection below each home.
From Hien’s deck, I can see his neighbors sculling their boats through the village. Some are returning with the day’s scant catch; others are heading out. Parents are rinsing out pans, children cleaning rice for dinner. How many of them stood in the lake a night earlier, holding up their failing homes, I wonder. How many saw the wind damage a wall there is no money to repair? How many coughs for which there is no medicine?
“Things are different from last year. The lake has never been like this before,” Hien tells me. The forest fires and the drought of 2016 had driven people near the edge. The powerful gusts from the newly exposed lake are pushing them still closer. Hien is certain it’s only a matter of time— years? months? weeks?—before the gales grow so strong they collapse his home. The houses here seem terribly exposed to the larger forces. In a corner of Hien’s house that doubles as a kitchen, pot lids are tucked neatly inside the wall frames and a pan hangs from a hook; a rooster moves lustily across the worn floor. If the storms become more powerful, could any of this be saved?
Hien points out that moving to the land won’t just save the hungry fishing families—it could well save the fish.
“If the government moves people who live here, in two or three years, you’ll see a lot of fish,” he predicts. “When we came back after three years of the Khmer Rouge, there were lots of fish here. Now, we can’t even find one.”
Hien rhapsodizes about learning to farm. He is old, but not too old to pick up a new skill. And then there are the children, and those who come after them.
“I want to live on the mainland. I think the next generation will too.”
Excerpted from Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia by Abby Seiff.
Author’s Note: I first met Mok Hien in 2016 and visited him again in 2017, shortly before the June commune elections. The elections came and went, but the promised land never came to pass. Five years on, in early 2022, my colleague Len Leng interviewed Hien by phone. He and his family were still living in their floating home in Kampong Prek, still struggling with the exceedingly low fish catch, and still deeply in debt. Asked what would improve their situation, Hien had the same answer as half-a-decade earlier. “I wish our family could get a plot of land somewhere so that we could grow vegetables and other crops. Fishing is getting harder everyday,” he told Len. “We have no hope at all.”