Monthly Archives: February 2016

Towards the Great Lake

A student walks across a wooden bridge on his way to school in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A student walks across a wooden bridge on his way to school in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

“I need you to put me in a car and send me back to Phnom Penh,” Gareth said over the phone at 5 a.m. Our hotel rooms were only separated by a single flight of stairs, but it was clear from his drained voice that he didn’t have the strength to handle the short walk. In the mid sized city of Kampong Chhnang, located on the western bank of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river, the A River’s Tail project was about to suffer its first casualty.

We had taken a bus from Phnom Penh the day before, diverging from the Mekong to explore the Tonle Sap, and Kampong Chhnang was meant to be a brief stopover before taking a short boat ride to the remote riverside community of Tae Pi. Arriving in the late afternoon, we spent the remaining daylight hours wandering along the waterfront, shooting pictures of daily life and speaking to locals about the health of the all important waterway. They, like nearly everyone we had spoken to during our travels, told of declining fish stocks and the corresponding economic hardships.

The lack of prosperity was plain. Despite being the most important river port between Cambodia’s two largest cities – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – the city was shrouded in an air of lethargy, made all the more sluggish by the sweltering heat of the dry season. While people went about their daily tasks – mending fishing nets, loading manufactured goods onto waiting boats, and socializing along the promenade – the atmosphere was defined by a distinct lack of bustle.

A woman stands in the lumber yard where she works stacking bamboo onto raised platforms in anticipation of rising river levels in the rainy season.

A woman stands in the lumber yard where she works stacking bamboo onto raised platforms in anticipation of rising river levels in the rainy season.

A family goes about its morning routine in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A family goes about its morning routine in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man buys a ticket for a ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man buys a ticket for a ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

As the sun set on the provincial capital, Gareth’s deterioration became increasingly apparent from his colourless face. Hoping that a long sleep in an air conditioned room would restore him to health, we returned to our hotel earlier than usual. Yet when my phone rang the next morning I knew that it hadn’t worked. So early in the morning there were no taxi drivers available to pick him up, so I spent a few hours wandering along the banks of the river watching the city wake up as children arrived to school on water taxis.

Eventually I managed to find a driver willing to take Gareth back to Phnom Penh, and I helped him settle into the backseat with two litres of water and a can of Coke. With Pablo locked in his office in the capital working feverishly to edit the video footage from the Vietnam leg of the project, for the first time since A River’s Tail began I was on my own.

A soldier, who works part time as a fisherman to earn extra money, mends his nets in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A soldier, who works part time as a fisherman to earn extra money, mends his nets in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

Workers carry ceramic tiles to a local ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

Workers carry ceramic tiles to a local ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man rubs a glue made of plant resin into the hull of his boat to seal it against the water in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man rubs a glue made of plant resin into the hull of his boat to seal it against the water in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

Old Friends and Parched Earth

The real reason we had stopped in Kampong Chhnang was so we could visit Jan Ta and her family, who Gareth and I had met 7 months previously while driving a wooden fishing boat through Cambodia’s waterways. It was this 3 week trip that was the foundation for what would become the A River’s Tail project, and meeting Jan Ta in the remote community of Tae Pi where she lived had been one of the highlights. When I called her again, even after more than half a year without contact, she immediately agreed to send her son to fetch me in Kampong Chhnang.

A teenager drives his boat between the city of Kampong Chhnang and the remote village of Tae Pi.

Jan Ta’s son drives his boat between the city of Kampong Chhnang and the remote village of Tae Pi.

Our relationship had started by accident when Gareth and I, caught on the water as the sun set and desperate to find a place to spend the night, made an impromptu stop at a small cluster of homes along the river’s edge that we spotted through our binoculars. When we had pulled up to the shore, the initial reaction of the villagers had been one of suspicious apprehension: Who are you and what do you want? This was not a place that foreign tourists frequented, and the locals had eyed us warily. But after a series of phone calls to a Khmer friend who was able to explain that we were just seeking a place to sleep, the mood shifted immediately. All hostility vanished and the nearest villager, Jan Ta, had welcomed us into her home.

At that time, during the wet season when the river was at its highest level, Tae Pi had been a picture postcard of simple riparian life. A cluster of 30 families lived in stilted wooden houses along the river’s edge, fishing from the river and gathering aquatic vegetables and flowers to sell at nearby markets. The contrast that greeted me on my return could not have been more pronounced.

As Jan Ta’s 16-year-old son throttled the engine of his boat to full speed and smashed through a thick barrier of lilies, I thought we were making a quick stop somewhere before continuing on to Tae Pi. There were no houses in sight, only a wide expanse of dry brown fields stretching for a kilometre or more towards a small mountain on the horizon. This did not in any way resemble the village I remembered, and it wasn’t until Jan Ta’s son tied the boat up to shore and beckoned me to follow that I understood that we had arrived. While I knew that Cambodia was subject to dramatic environmental changes between seasons, the transformation of the land rendered the area more unrecognizable than I could have imagined.

Two puppies play in a grounded boat in the remote community of Tae Pie. During the rainy season this plain would be innundated by water.

Two puppies play in a grounded boat in the remote community of Tae Pie. During the rainy season this plain would be innundated by water.

Gone were the tightly knit clusters of fishermen and flower vendors that had exemplified Tae Pi on our last visit, and the conspicuous absence of people was somehow unsettling. After a 10 minute walk across fields so dry that the grass crunched audibly under foot, I arrived at Jan Ta’s house. She stood in the shade of a parched looking tree, smiling warmly in greeting. Some things, at least, had not changed.

Dwindling Prospects

“The rainy season is much better,” Jan Ta said after I commented on the transformation of the village. “In the dry season I can’t earn any profits. It is impossible to catch fish, so I have to rent half a hectare of rice field just to have enough food.” Though she seemed genuinely happy to see me, there was a worn look on her face that I hadn’t seen the last time we’d met and I suspected that all was not well.

“This place has completely changed in the last 10-20 years,” she told me, launching into a categorical list of her woes almost immediately upon my arrival: “People are using fishing nets so fine that no baby fish survive to grow up and be caught again. They are also using batteries to shock the water, which kills everything. The farmers now use chemicals on the rice, which goes into the water and poisons the fish.”

Jen Ta, a resident of the village of Tae Pi, sits with her sons and some of her livestock. During the rainy season fishing will be her primary source of income, but in the dry season she raises animals to earn money.

Jan Ta, a resident of the village of Tae Pi, sits with her sons and some of her livestock. During the rainy season fishing will be her primary source of income, but in the dry season she raises animals to earn money.

As Jan Ta spoke, I realized that the quaint memory I’d created of a community living in harmony with nature was an illusion. The drastic metamorphosis of the landscape only served to exacerbate the revelation that I had remembered the village as I had wanted to – a stereotypically idyllic memory that was rapidly being dispelled.

“I don’t know about the future of the river, but I can barely find anything in it these days,” Jan Ta continued. “If the river can’t support us now, I don’t have much hope for my kids. They will need to leave here and get a job somewhere else. I have already sent my eldest son to Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory so he can send money home.” A new reality of life along the Tonle Sap, one of the most important sources of fertility for the Mekong, was taking shape. And like most of the stories we had found during our travels thus far, the overall picture was not good.

A young girl walks her family's cow heard through the remote village of Tae Pi. When the river level is low during the dry season, residents turn to rice farming and rearing livestock to earn income.

A young girl walks her family’s cow heard through the remote village of Tae Pi. When the river level is low during the dry season, residents turn to rice farming and rearing livestock to earn income.

I left Jan Ta’s house for a few hours to walk through the village, hoping that some time alone would allow me to make the necessary adjustments to my perception of a place I had once thought so timelessly quaint. I realized that I had made the mistake common to so many travellers: in my eagerness to see what I wanted to see I hadn’t been critically objective in my observations. I had tricked myself into thinking Tae Pi was a model for how people could live happily from the bounties of nature. The truth was that these people, like so many others along the Mekong and its distributaries, were reeling from the consequences of the human overexploitation of the river’s finite resources – resources that were clearly at their breaking point.

That night Jan Ta prepared a meal of rice, fried fish, and eggs, ever the good host despite the obvious challenges her family was facing. I tried not to let the pervading sense of sadness I had felt since readjusting my views on the realities life in this remote village, but Jan Ta seemed to see through me.

“I like it here,” she said. “Even if it is impossible for me to earn enough money, I will stay.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , |

Phnom Penh’s Vanishing Lakes

 

A bulldozer flattens sand that has filled in Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the city.

A bulldozer flattens sand that has filled in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the city.

Through a tiny slit between his hat and the handkerchief that protected his mouth and nose from the sandstorms swirling around him, the bulldozer driver glared at us with thinly veiled hostility. He clearly wanted us to stop photographing his rumbling yellow machine as it worked to terraform the flat sandpit that was once the largest lake in Phnom Penh, but seemed reluctant to confront us.

The first time I visited Phnom Penh, in 2010, I stayed near the thriving tourist and nightlife district that once surrounded Boeung Kak (Kak Lake). By that time, the lake’s fate had already been sealed, though the true impacts of the 99 year property lease granted to a local development company had not yet fully manifested themselves. Residents were still fishing and harvesting morning glory from the dark water, and children were still swimming in the sweltering afternoon heat.

Nearly six year later, as we passed through Cambodia’s capital on our way to the Tonle Sap lake beyond, the area was a shadow of its former self. After the politically connected land developers were given the go-ahead to develop the lake into a luxury condominium complex, they decided to pump in millions of gallons of sand dredged from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to displace the water and prepare the area for construction. Now the restaurants and backpacker hostels had either closed or relocated, and a three metre concrete wall ringed the barren sandpit that was once the largest wetland in the city. After more than six hours of crisscrossing the area, the only remaining water we could find was settled in the bottom of a stagnant ditch, its surface choked with plastic bags and styrofoam food containers.

A bulldozer terraforms the land on a filled in section of Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A bulldozer terraforms the land on a filled in section of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

Construction workers walk past concrete drainage pipes at a building site on Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake

Construction workers walk past concrete drainage pipes at a building site on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake

“Three thousand families used to live here, making their living from fishing and farming,” remembered 37-year-old Ou Kong Chea, a Boeung Kak resident who watched the lake’s slow destruction over the last 8 years. “Before things were better. People could make a living, attract tourists, and there were no floods. Now when it rains, the flood water [in my house] comes up to my waist.”

Behind the bulldozer, lighting towers dotted the horizon, poking into the evening sky and encircling a cluster of vibrant green football fields that were – with the exception of a dusty gravel road – the only discernible feature on the otherwise barren landscape. We were told they would cost $10 per hour to play on, making it unlikely that anyone from the once-thriving lakeside community would be able to afford to play on them. Aquaculture and fishing, once the area’s primary sources of income, were vocations that had ceased to be viable after the lake water was replaced with sand dredged from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.

A van is parked in front of a series of football fields that have been built on the filled in remains of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake. The fields cost 10$ per hour to play on, a prohibitively high price for many local residents.

A van is parked in front of a series of football fields that have been built on the filled in remains of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake. The fields cost 10$ per hour to play on, a prohibitively high price for many local residents.

It Was Better Before

When the construction crews packed up for the day, a group of young boys clambered onto the dunes and began lighting fires in the dry grass that was the only living thing on the sand other than a solitary young tree – which the boys allowed to burn in the spreading blaze. Though three thousand families used to depend on the lake’s healthy ecosystem for subsistence, in the face of its utter destruction the death of a single tree must have seem like inconsequential collateral damage to them. When I asked one of them, a twelve year old with spiky black hair, why he was starting fires he shrugged and said enigmatically “it was better before.”

Having witnessed the lake’s death rattle over the last five years of visiting and living in Cambodia, we were inclined to agree: it was better before.

Boys start small fires in the dry grass that has grown on the sand that was used to fill in Boeung Kak Lake, once Phnom Penh's largest freshwater lake.

Boys start small fires in the dry grass that has grown on the sand that was used to fill in Boeung Kak Lake, once Phnom Penh’s largest freshwater lake.

Residents play volleyball in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.

Residents play volleyball in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake.

Across town on Phnom Penh’s southern extremity, residents of Boeung Tumpun (Tumpun Lake) were facing a similarly bleak fate. Though Tumpun still retained some of its water (giving it the de facto distinction as the largest remaining freshwater lake in the city), dozens of large-diameter PVC pipes had been steadily filling the reservoir with sand that unrelentingly encroached on the remaining aquatic farmland.

From the porch of his family house that he built 14 years earlier, Mao Sarith looked across the small green belt of remaining farmable land towards the vast wall of sand bearing down on him with the slow destructive certainty of an iceberg. “People didn’t need anything before. With the [farming and fishing] from the lake, they could earn everything they needed,” Mao remembered. At 61-years-old, Sarith’s farming days were mostly over, but his family of six still depended on the lake for income.

A farmer tends to his aquatic crops on Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A farmer tends to his aquatic crops on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A morning glory farmer prepares to drive his boat onto what water remains in Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake

A morning glory farmer prepares to drive his boat onto what water remains in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake

“I used to be able to farm near my house…the land was large and the water was clean. [But now] the farmland is smaller and we can’t produce as much. Now the water is little, and its dirty and smelly, so the crops don’t grow as well. I used to be able to earn $100 each time I went to market, but now it’s more like $25,” Sarith lamented. For the younger of his four children, this loss of equity will likely force them out of school to supplement family earnings by taking on full time work.

And Then There Was Sand

When we asked Sarith’s daughter, Lun Heng, some painfully rhetorical questions about the family’s future without access to water, her responses were predictably pessimistic. “We feel scared. Before we could earn money here, but not anymore. Some people from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) visited and told us that [the developers] plan to kick us out so that they can build here, but I think the water is more important than condos and villas.”

Sitting with Sarith and his family watching the sand slide inexorably closer to his vegetable plot, it was easy to see why they were nervous. For people who had subsisted from aquaculture and fishing their entire lives, the loss of water was nothing short of an economic catastrophe. And like the people we spoke with at Boeung Kak, the motivations behind such developments were difficult for Boeung Tumpun residents to rationalize.

A residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

“I bought this land, and I want to live here,” Sarith told us. “A lot of people depend on the lake. I’ve seen a lot of trouble happen in Cambodia, but this situation is very bad. Water should be public, but somehow it [has become] private, it belongs to companies. People should be free to use nature.”

A few hundred metres away, 50-year-old Vanna Oi watched from the steps of his stilted wooden house with an air of resigned detachment as a bulldozer gouged a path through what was once his front yard. “Before it was good,” he said, echoing the feelings of the boy at Boeung Kak. “The water was clean, and then they filled it with sand. I’m not really happy anymore.” As the bulldozer pushed mounds of dirt up to the bottom of his stairs, he added “I don’t even have a way to get out of my house.”

Vanna Oi, 50, sits in front of his home on Beoung Tumpun in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bulldozers are in the process of terraforming the land in front of his house, blocking his stairway.

Vanna Oi, 50, sits in front of his home on Beoung Tumpun in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bulldozers are in the process of terraforming the land in front of his house, blocking his stairway.

Throughout the course of our travels to date we had seen many instances of water mismanagement, but Phnom Penh’s vanishing lakes provided a chilling look into what the future could look like for Mekong dwellers if the river is not handled with some care. Though it is highly unlikely that the Mekong will be filled in with sand and flattened to make way for football fields, it is imaginable that without proper stewardship the river could cease to support the people who depend on it. And as we saw during out time at the lakes, when the water is gone the results can be disastrous.

A man carries salvaged manaquins through a residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.

A man carries salvaged manaquins through a residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , |

And Upon You Peace

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village.

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Even after seven months of regular contact, it was hard to know how Yu Sos felt about us. A short, swarthy man with a wiry neck beard, he was not prone to outbursts of cheer; I could count the number of times I had seen him smile using my fingers alone, and I had never seen him laugh. When Gareth and I first met him we initially assumed he didn’t like us, but over the course of our relationship he had repeatedly demonstrated exceptional generosity and patience, furthering our confusion about the paradox between his actions and his outward mood. For more than half a year we had looked forward to our visits to his family’s house boat at the confluence of the Mekong and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, while simultaneously fearing that he secretly hated us. It wasn’t until A River’s Tail gave us a budget to employ a dedicated translator that we were able to finally penetrate his mask of stoicism and fully understand the precarious situation of the river-dwelling Cham community that he oversaw.

Chams, as the ethnic group who inhabit parts of Cambodia and southern Vietnam are known, represent the last vestiges of a defeated empire. A major power in what is now south and central Vietnam for more than a thousand years, the Kingdom of Champa was fully annexed by the Vietnamese in the 1800’s. At odds with the predominantly Buddhist states of Southeast Asia, Champa was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Islam, and the modern day Chams remain divided between the two faiths to this day. The majority of Vietnamese Chams practice Hinduism, while those in Cambodia are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men pray in their community's makeshift mosque.

Cham men pray in their community’s makeshift mosque.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

As we entered the Cham community on the southern tip of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula and made our way to Yu Sos’s home, we were greeted with assalamu alaikum rather than the normal sues-dei used by Khmers – reminding us that while the residents might look no different than the rest of Cambodians, we were entering into a distinctly different culture.

Though fact that the vast majority of the community lived on houseboats rather than on land, over the following days that we spent with the Chams we learned that their relationship to water was far from harmonious.

Formation By Conflict

When Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, Yu Sos decided to swim for freedom. Jumping into the Tonle Sap river at 3 a.m., he clutched a banana tree to stay afloat as he drifted with the current. “Some soldiers saw me and tried to shoot me,” Yu told us as we sat cross-legged in his floating home, miming the automatic firing of an AK-47 to illustrate his story, “but I dove under the water and [the bullets] missed.”

For nearly two days he floated towards Vietnam until nearly drowning when the banana tree got caught in the net of a fishing trawler. The ship’s crew hauled the exhausted Yu on board and turned him over to the Vietnamese military. After an intense interrogation session he as conscripted into the Vietnamese army and sent back to his home country to fight the regime he had been so intent on escaping.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh's Muslim communities.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh’s Muslim communities.

After four years of gritty guerrilla warfare the Khmer Rouge were defeated and Yu was reunited with the family he had left behind. “When I found my parents we cried together,” he remembered. In the aftermath of the 4 year conflict that left millions of Cambodians dead and a society in ruins, Yu and his family began the process of looking for a new home. The Khmer Rouge had stripped most Cambodians of their property titles as they redistributed land in their ruthless mission of creating their idealized vision of a communal agrarian society, and many, including Yu, did not know where they were and were not allowed to settle. After attempting to establish a life in the city of Prey Veng, their post-war poverty forced them to move on yet again. “We didn’t have any money to buy a house, so we got a boat and drove it to Phnom Penh,” Yu told us. “When we arrived we found other families [on boats] in the same situation as us, so we got permission to from the authorities to form a community together.”

Though Yu told us this story with a characteristic lack of emotion, both Gareth and I were stunned into silence for several minutes. The wooden fishing boat we had used for the 3 week trip into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake that gave rise to the A River’s Tail project was docked in the Cham community and looked after by Yu’s oldest son, and we had visited nearly a dozen times in the last year. Yet despite our numerous interactions (Yu and his son had painstakingly taught us to drive our vessel, never losing their calm despite our ineptitude), we had never learned this aspect of the community’s formation because of the language barrier between us. Had A River’s Tail not given us the means to return to the community with a translator we likely would have remained ignorant of the traumatic history.

In an hour of conversation our perceptions of Yu and the Chams had been forever altered; suddenly his gruff demeanour didn’t seem so hard to understand.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

The Realities of the Voiceless

“No one wants to live on these boats,” Yu said matter-of-factly, shattering the last of our illusions about Phnom Penh’s Chams. Upon entering the village, which sat under the shadow of the newly completed Sokha Hotel, it was clear that the residents were not wealthy. Those who lived on the shore did so in hodgepodge shacks made of wood, thatch, plastic, and bits of tin, while the boats of those living offshore were aged and in varying stages of disrepair. Yet despite the obvious poverty, we hadn’t fully let go of the thought that perhaps the Chams didn’t need money to be happy, or that somehow their floating community derived its self identity from the river and didn’t require the modern affectation of material possessions. Maybe, we thought, these people lived a quaint and simple life that the rest of the smart-phone obsessed world needed to learn from. Yu’s to-the-point synopsis quickly dispelled our naivety.

“I don’t really like the river much, but I have no choice.” Yu stated plainly. “When it storms we worry about our kids drowning, and they can’t go to school because we need them to help us fish. Many of us can’t afford to buy water, and so we drink it from the river, which makes us sick – I have problems with my kidneys because of it. We are trying to get a piece of land from the government so it is easier to manage these problems.”

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

Yu went on to tell us that, if given the option, he would gladly accept an even less pay than he earns as an artisanal fisherman (a meagre sum to begin with) for the chance to move his family off the river and onto land. His connection to the river is one of necessity, not choice: “I depend on fish from the river for my living just like a shopkeeper does his shop. But every year the amount of fish I can catch is going down.”

As if these varied hardships weren’t enough, the community is in peril of losing what little they have – the narrow strip of land onto which they anchor their boats. Corporate developers, particularly the Sokimex Group which owns the $100 million Sokha Hotel that dominates the skyline above the Cham village, apply constant pressure in their mission to have the community removed from their property. “We had to move to this place after the hotel asked us to move from where we were before. They work with the authorities and the police came and told us they would sink our boats if we didn’t move,” Yu remembered. And while a tentative agreement was reached, allowing the Chams to stay in their current location, Yu fears that the agreement will be broken. “If that happens,” Yu said, “I don’t know where we can go.”

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

After several days in the Cham community, our schedule dictated that we had to continue up the Tonle Sap to the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang and its surrounding villages. As we shook hands and wished Yu luck in securing a future for his village, a rare smile twitched at the corners of his mouth: “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he said in farewell.

And upon you peace.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

When the Land Slid Away

A fisherman starts his boat's engine in the early morning off the coast of the Mekong island of Peam Reang, Cambodia.

A fisherman starts his boat’s engine in the early morning off the coast of the Mekong island of Peam Reang, Cambodia.

“I used to swim across the river when I was a kid,” Yea Bunthea told us in the small cafe his family operated out of their home. “I probably still could, but I think I’d be exhausted.” Though he meant it as a joke, there was an underlying sad truth to his words: in the community of Khpob Ateav, the Mekong’s banks were washing away at an alarming rate. “10 years ago the river was only 700 meters across. Now it is more than a kilometre.”

From where we sat the truth of Bunthea’s statement was apparent. Instead of a naturally sloping river bank, there was a hard, uneven precipice that dropped abruptly to the water five metres below. As we watched two of his children throw stones into the river, it looked as though an earthquake had ripped the land away by force and left a jagged scar in its place. Whenever they got too near the edge, he shouted at them to move back, apparently worried that the sandy lip could give way at any time.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Yea Buthea, 50, (foreground) and his brother Yen Bunsong, 35, (background), stand on the edge of their family property. The Mekong’s banks are eroding at the rate of roughly 4-5 metres per year in the area, and the brothers will have to dismantle their home and move within months or else it will collapse into the water below.

Looking around, it was easy to see why he was worried. To the left of his home was an empty lot where his neighbours house had been; a lonely staircase was the only remaining evidence that it had ever existed. Where it should have stood there was no land, only empty space over the water. “Our neighbour took his house down and moved inland a few years ago,” Bunthea explained. “We are also planning to move in a few months because our house will also collapse into the river soon.”

Bunthea’s brother Bunsong took us on a tour of the family property, showing us the narrow patch of sandy earth that lay between their home and the Mekong’s currents. Bunsong said the banks were eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year, and had been doing so for the last decade. If the trend continued, as it almost certainly would, the family had very little time left.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion wshed away their land.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion wshed away their land.

An Insatiable Skyline

River banks are shifting entities, not static structures. They collapse and expand according to water flow, rain patterns, and sediment replenishment. But what we were seeing in Khpob Ateav was too fast and extreme to be part of any natural cycle. Only human activity had the power to affect the environment in such a drastic way, and from our preliminary research, we knew what was responsible.

Sand is a commodity that is generally taken for granted. It lacks the glamour of substances such as gold or diamonds, and is worth far less by volume than coal or oil. It is a substance that most of us think of as abundant and virtually worthless, and yet it is neither. Wherever concrete is required – which is in nearly every building project anywhere in the world – sand is needed in great quantities. In Singapore alone, which has expanded in size by more than 20% since the 1960’s, over 14 million tonnes of sand have been used for land reclamation and construction – much of it coming from Cambodia.

That sand has to come from somewhere, and in Cambodia that often means dredging it from the Mekong.

Children stand along the jagged river bank in Khpob Ateav. 4-5 metres of land are being lost to river erosion in the community, displacing those who live along the banks.

Children stand along the jagged river bank in Khpob Ateav.

The international natural resource and human rights watchdog Global Witness has released a far more comprehensive report on the impacts of sand dredging than we could possibly hope to match, so we will keep it simple: sand dredging changes the course, flow, and sediment distribution levels of rivers. For the residents of Khpob Ateav, that means the their land is being washed away much faster than it is replaced.

Talking with Bunthea and Bunsong, it was clear that they didn’t fully understand the cause of their dilemma. They knew that something was wrong, but not why. When a family is struggling to keep above the poverty line, how can you explain that their backyard is vanishing so that a new condo can go up in a country 1300 km away?

Winners and Losers

To board the ferry from Khpob Anteav to the nearby island of Peam Reang we slid down a slick slope of red-brown mud with a distinct lack of grace that delighted the locals who had gathered to watch. In a cruel twist of irony, Bunthea told us that as his land was washed away, portions of it drifted across the river and settled around the periphery of Peam Reang, creating a boon for island residents in the form of new farming land where before there was only water.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

Sunlight shines through rainclouds over the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Sunlight shines through rainclouds over the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

As the ferry drew closer to the diamond-shaped island we were able to take in the scope of the land transfer. A vast expanse of fine sand extended from the coastline in a crescent that was at least 2km wide at its base. It might have seemed like a natural beach had it not contrasted so glaringly with the island’s existing jungle topography.

“I’ve been farming here my whole life,” said Chheng Tre, a 59-year-old farmer we met while exploring the sand flat, “and the land never changed. But in the last 3 years an extra 60 metres have been added.”

Not without empathy, Tre admitted that while the increase in farmable land has been a blessing to Peam Reang residents, it has come at the expense of those living on the mainland. For an island on which every square metre of arable land had been claimed for generations, the sudden availability of open ground must have seemed like a miraculous gift – one that they were rapidly moving to exploit. Vibrant green watermelon patches blanketed the edges of the newly emerged ground, and young men were busy ploughing the remaining area, eager to make sure they didn’t miss out on their share of the bonanza.

A construction crew rebuilds the Mekong's banks in the village of Khpob Ateav. The river banks are eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year in the area, largely due to sand dredging upriver, threatening the families who live there.

A construction crew rebuilds the Mekong’s banks in the village of Khpob Ateav. The river banks are eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year in the area, largely due to sand dredging upriver, threatening the families who live there.

Workers harvest watermelons on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers harvest watermelons on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers carry baskets of watermelons to a nearby tractor on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers carry baskets of watermelons to a nearby tractor on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Though the people on Peam Reang hadn’t meant to steal the land from the families of Khpob Anteav, the situation still seemed like an injustice of the highest order. Powerful Cambodian oligarchs were reaping immense profits from selling the Mekong’s sand to foreign countries with little, if any, concern for the people who were being displaced. While it needs to be noted that a construction crew was working to put up makeshift erosion barricades, the extent and rate of the disappearance of the river banks made it doubtful that the repair efforts would ever keep pace with the destruction.

As we made our way back towards Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, what we had seen reinforced a fact we already knew to be true after our time in Vietnam: when people interfere with the river, those who live downstream are at risk. It is impossible to know what will happen to the people of Khpob Ateav, but if more consideration is not given to how the Mekong is treated, they are in peril of being washed away.

Storm clouds gather over the island of Peam Reang.

Storm clouds gather over the island of Peam Reang.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

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