Category Archives: Cambodia

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.

I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.

But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?

Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.

Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.

The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.

More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.

One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.

As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.

There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.

Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.

Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.

For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures

Also posted in Black and White, Blog, Poverty Tagged , , , , , , |

Culture, Infighting, and an Uncertain Future

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

Since visiting Koh Sralay, a community located downstream of the dam that faced reduced fishing prospects which would quite possibly derail their family livelihoods, we wanted to learn about the challenges ahead for people living upstream, on the site of the dam’s future reservoir. With the addition of Meach Mean, our crew size had grown to six (including a driver and translator), and we packed ourselves into the back seat of an aging Toyota Camry for a two hour drive to the remote village of Kbal Romeas.

As we neared the village, the roads became increasingly treacherous and were dotted with deep mud holes from recent rains. Eventually the two-wheel drive car could go no further with such a heavy load of passengers and the driver ordered us out. Meach called ahead to the village and arranged for a small fleet of motorcycles to drive out and shuttle us the last few kilometres.

Kbal Romeas was home to 136 families of Bunong, an ethnic minority tribe who have inhabited the area northeast of Steung Treng for around 2000 years. Though Buddhism was making inroads in Bunong communities, they were predominately animists who believed in living in harmony with nature, and who fed themselves almost entirely from natural resources. The only road leading to the village was unpaved, and the locals owned no cars. Bunong do not believe in fencing in their domesticated animals, instead trusting that their herds will make their way home each night. Piglets ran openly through the community, competing with chickens for mangos that fall from the trees above. Some Bunong do not speak fluent Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. These were the people who had the most to lose if Sesan II was built.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden.

“This whole area will be 10 metres underwater,” Meach told us upon entering the village. “36 000 hectares will disappear during the first rainy season after the dam is finished.” As the proposed date of completion for Sesan II is 2017, there was not much time left.

The Red-Blue Divide

“There are three reasons I am against the dam,” 29-year-old Dam Samnang told us (he spoke no English and so was thankfully spared from the unfortunate irony presented by his name). “It provides no direct benefits to people in this community, it will destroy all our houses, and it will ruin the river system so that we can never come back.” Though he spoke simply, his words were loaded with emotion.

Samnang went on to describe his feelings of frustration over the community’s lack of power to protect their own lands, something he attributed partially to a national ambivalence towards minority tribes like the Bunong. “Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” he explained. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

A Bunong family in Kbla Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in Kbal Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia.

With so much history and culture at stake, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the Bunong  would unanimously oppose the dam. But as we learned over the course of our visit, the community had been the target of a systematic divide-and-conquer campaign. Samnang told us how even his most basic attempts at mobilizing his community had been met with fierce opposition, culminating with a visit from the local authorities who formally banned them from signing petitions or hosting environmentally related gatherings. What legal basis they had for doing so were unclear to Samnang, and he suspected that they had no way of enforcing what they said. More likely, he thought, it was a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the villagers and sew divisions within the community.

Perhaps the most important factor in splitting the community was the resettlement package on offer from the company that owned Sesan II – Sinohydro Resources. A wide variety of factors decided the amount on offer for those willing to relocate, but the basic premise was simple: go away and receive money, land, or a new house – in some cases all three.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The blue paint indicates that the family has rejected the resettlement package offered by the Chinese dam builders. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

For many, including Samnang and his family, no amount of money would cause them to peaceably abandon their home, but for those in the village whose economic situation was desperate, the package was harder to turn down.

Widows and the extremely impoverished were some the most susceptible to Sinohydro’s offers, Meach Mean told us, and more than a third of the community had already agreed to be relocated. “A few years ago everyone rejected the deal,” Meach explained, “but when [the authorities and company representatives] kept coming back, more and more accepted. Poverty forces them to accept.”

Once a family had accepted, a sign was spray painted in red on the front of their house, proclaiming their decision publicly. In response, those who remained adamantly opposed painted “NOLS2DAM” (No Lower Sesan II Dam) on their own homes, making it possible to walk along the village’s central road and know at a glance who was staying and who was going. A handful of families, including Samnang’s, had gone one step further, using green paint to write “we will fight until we die, we will not leave” in Khmer script.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro - the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam - and will vacate their property. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro – the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam – and will vacate their property.

Progress at What Cost?

As we prepared to leave Kbal Romeas, our last destination on the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, we couldn’t help but fear the worst. Despite strong voices of opposition from people like Samnang and Meach Mean, the wheels of development seemed to be inexorably turning in Cambodia, regardless of the impacts on those living from nature in traditional ways.

Being outsiders, it was not our place to decide what developmental policies are best suited to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, but it was difficult to stomach the thought that a cheaper electricity bill was worth destroying a two thousand-year-old culture.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river.

“I’m worried for my parents and I’m worried for my kids,” Samnang had said in one of our last conversations. “This dam will be a disaster for us; our destiny is in trouble. They say they want to develop Cambodia, so why do they destroy our homes?”

Our time with the Bunong brought the realities of modern progress to the forefront of our consciousness. Most people living in modern urban environments have come to expect a certain level of comfort, and life in major cities would indeed be difficult without the conveniences electricity brings – air conditioning, refrigeration, and cell phones, for example. In all but the most extreme cases, even those living below the poverty line make use of power in one way or the other, and you would be hard pressed to find a city-dweller anywhere on earth who would not gladly welcome a cheaper electricity bill. But the sources of those luxuries often remain out of sight, far away from the bright lights of the cities in places like the one we had just come from; someone or something, whether an entire Bunong village or an uncommon species of fish, would usually suffer to keep those lights running affordably.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas.

When would the cost become too high, we wondered? At what point would the social or environmental costs become too great to justify the benefits? And who would be responsible for making those decisions?

These were the questions in our minds as we prepared to say goodby to Cambodia for the time being and head towards the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to begin the third leg of A River’s Tail.

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , |

Behind the Scenes: The Mekong in Cambodia

All three members of our team have called Cambodia home for the past few years, and so following the Mekong and its tributaries through the southeast Asian kingdom was a return to the familiar in many ways. Over the course of more than a month we traced the river from the border of Vietnam, along the Tonle Sap to the region’s largest freshwater lake, and north to the controversial Sesan II dam and the Laos border.

This short film is a behind the scenes look at how we worked in the field while following the Mekong through the Kingdom of Cambodia. Enjoy!

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Tagged , , , , , , |

Blocking the Flow: The Sesan II Dam

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

We heard the phone ring in the darkness (Nokia’s ubiquitous descending cadence adapted from Francisco Tárrega’s 1902 classical guitar composition) well before we could see the boat driver who answered it.

Allo?” came the groggy voice. Though most Cambodians are notorious early risers, clearly 4 a.m. was not a time the man enjoyed.

We had met him the previous afternoon while walking along Steung Treng’s riverfront promenade and chartered his boat on the spot to take us to the nearby island of Koh Sralay, where we hoped to gain insight into how the human-river interactions in sparsely populated northern Cambodia differed from those further south along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

After we were settled onto the boat’s wooden benches, the driver stood in the shallow water along the river’s edge and spun the bow towards open water, clucking his concern about the lack of visibility around the high powered flashlight clenched between his teeth.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. Residents of Koh Sralay are entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. 

An hour later, the sun still not yet risen, the tip of the island appeared out of the gloom. The outlines of numerous fishing boats visible only for being slightly blacker than the water they floated upon. We were searching for one fisherman in particular, whose wife we had spoken to the day before as she sold catfish in Steung Treng’s market, but in the grey darkness it was nearly impossible to distinguish individual faces – let alone identify a man we had been told to seek out based solely on a name and a loose physical description that could have applied to nearly every fisherman on the river.

“Thon Min?” As our translator called out the man’s name to each boat we passed, invariably they waved us further downriver while offering few specifics. When we eventually found him it was nearly 6 a.m. and his morning’s fishing was all but finished. Not long after, he headed for home.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. The Chinese owned Sesan II dam will heavily affect Thon's ability to fish from the Mekong.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. 

“Only one fish today,” Thon told us as he tied his boat up to a thicket of mangrove trees. “People from upriver came last night and used electric fishing nets. Whenever they do this we catch nothing the next day. But this is still enough.”

The Last Bastions of Sustainability

“Here we can feed the whole family without buying anything, other than spices and oil.” Thon told us as we sat cross legged on the floor of his large stilted home. “When we catch more fish than we can eat, we sell them at the market, and we produce enough rice and vegetables to feed our family.” Considering that Thon’s family counted 10 members, this was no small feat.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay.  His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay. 

From crop watering to protein intake to drinking water, virtually every aspect of Thon’s life was connected to the health of the Mekong and it’s nearby tributaries – and it was the first time in the 3 months since we began the project that we had talked to someone who didn’t report a drastic decrease in water quality. Compared to the dwindling resources and environmental degradation we had witnessed on the Tonle Sap Lake, or the extreme poverty we encountered in Phnom Penh’s Cham village, Koh Sralay seemed like a positive example of how the river had supported life in Southeast Asia for millennia.

“On the Tonle Sap there are too many people and too many fishermen,” Thon explained when we asked him why Koh Sralay was flourishing in comparison to the Tonle Sap. “This is bringing down the quality of the water and the numbers of fish. There they fish every day of the year, but here we follow the seasons.”

Kuch Hen, 45, recieves a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt Mekong fish populations and sediment flow.

Thon Min’s wife Kuch Hen, 45, receives a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam.

Following the seasons, Thon explained, meant that they fished only when the river was in the process of rising or falling with the coming and going of the monsoon rains – the times when fish were moving to or from their spawning grounds. During the rest of the year, they hung up their nets and turned to inland farming instead, giving fish stocks a period of respite. By contrast, fishermen on the Tonle Sap often set their nets multiple times a day, every day of the year.

Though there were almost certainly examples of irresponsible river stewardship taking place (the clandestine raiding by upstream fishermen toting electrified nets Thon had mentioned, for example), in general this was a prosperous symbiotic relationship between civilization and the environment. But a threat loomed on the horizon, one with the potential to completely and irrevocably derail the lives of people like Thon.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. Thon and his family are self sustaining, supporting themselves entirely from river fishing and agriculture. The Sesan II dam, when completed, will heavily impact fish populations and river sediment, heavily affecting families like Thon's.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. 

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia. The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng. 

 

Stopping the Flow

“We worry about the dam,” Thon told us before we left Koh Sralay. “If it breaks, a big wave will come and destroy this island, and I don’t know how it will affect our fishing.”

The Sesan II hydropower dam is arguably Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. When completed, the Chinese-owned dam will block two of the nation’s most important Mekong tributaries – the Sesan and Sekong rivers. The ensuing damages would be varied and devastating. Migrating fish would be unable to reach their breeding grounds; reduced sediment flow would disrupt the fertility of downriver farmland as well as increase erosion; a vast reservoir would displace thousands and inundate huge swaths of forest. An entire way of life could be lost, very possibly forever.

“The river is for life, for Cambodia, and for community identity,” Meach Mean told us over a bowl of fish soup. An independent environmental activist and the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (a grassroots organization that mobilizes disparate villages to rally against the project), Meach is one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. “Rivers create a lot of our culture [in Cambodia], including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet. If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just fish.”

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

Wanting to see the physical manifestation of the controversy, we asked Meach to take us the to the dam. With security checkpoints stationed along the roads leading to the construction site, we had to hire two small wooden fishing boats to circumvent the road blocks. It was more than an hour’s journey against the river’s current, during which time we saw little evidence of development, save a few small fishing hamlets scattered amongst the tree lined banks. It was hard to imagine that something so destructive could be lurking in such an idyllic and remote place.

“There,” Meach said as we rounded a bend. At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but gradually the shapes of industrial cranes emerged on the skyline, towering over a wall of concrete. Initially it seemed like the river was completely blocked, but as we drew nearer we could see that a small channel remained open. As our boats made for this gap, I asked Meach what would happen if we were confronted by security: “What do you think? We leave very quickly,” was his simple response.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. Mean is an environmental activist and founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an organization that works to mobilize affected communities against the construction of the Chinese-owned dam that will displace thousands, innundate 36 000 hectares of land, and heavily impact local fishing and farming practices.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. 

The boats dropped us behind the dam in order to minimize the chances of being spotted by construction personnel before we had a chance to see the site. After a sweaty scramble up a loose stone slope, we found ourselves standing on a gravel road, the entire building site in front of us. The immensity of the project was hard to process, stretching beyond what our peripheral vision could take in. For a moment we just stood and stared, but Meach quietly urged us to get our pictures as quickly as possible as a security patrol could be along any minute. Not wanting a confrontation we heeded his advice, snapping pictures furiously. When a dump truck rumbled past a few minutes later and the driver immediately began speaking into his radio, we knew it was time to leave.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. 

We skidded back down the rocky embankment and boarded our boats for the drive back. “How did that make you feel?” Meach asked. Overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried were all words that entered our minds. Having read a great deal about the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong and its tributaries had prepared us intellectually, but the reality of seeing such a massive structure nearly blocking an entire waterway was another matter.

We were mostly quiet and reflective on the hour long boat back towards Steung Treng. The following day we were headed to a village of indigenous Bunong people, whose homes sat directly in the path of the dam’s proposed reservoir and we wondered if we had just seen the future destroyer of people we hadn’t yet met.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Cambodia’s Beating Heart

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol.

“Turn your lights off soon or people will see us.” The fisherman spoke in a muted voice that barely carried over the few metres between our boats. The night was moonless and it was pitch black at 3:30 a.m. on the Tonle Sap lake. We needed to use our headlamps to check the focus of our cameras and were at first confused by the fisherman’s apprehension. When we asked if he was worried the LED beams would scare the fish away, he replied calmly: “No, it’s because we are in the conservation zone. If they catch us we will be in trouble.”

Two hours later, in the shallow water surrounding the floating village of Akol, the fishing boats gathered in the blue pre-dawn light to check their catch. Their mood was cheerful as they picked through the nets, pulling healthy (if smallish) looking fish from the nylon mesh and tossing them into large metal bowls. There was no sign of their former nervousness, the danger apparently passed.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. The Tonle Sap provides the vast majority of Cambodia's protein and fatty acids, and is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. 

Considering that the lake was known to be one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, as well as one of the main sources of protein for the country’s 15 million people, the fact that fishermen were resorting to sneaking into protected areas spoke of an alarming truth: the Tonle Sap, often referred to as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, was struggling.

“Outside the conservation area there are no fish, so what should I do?” Chan Savoeun asked us rhetorically. A 28-year-old fisherman (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), Savoeun had been fishing in the Tonle Sap for more than a decade, and was well aware of the lake’s ailing health. “I am catching around 30-50% less fish than I did [10 years ago], so we have no choice but to fish in the protected zone. We know this is not good, and we are all worried about what will happen if there are no fish left [in the conservation area], but how else can we survive?”

The Great Lake

A floating community of roughly 30 families, we had come to Akol to try and learn how the Tonle Sap (commonly translated as “The Great Lake”) influenced those who lived from its floods. Though it was the peak of the dry season and the village’s pontooned houses were tethered to an exposed sandbar, their temporary attachment to land did not lessen their dependence on the water. “There is not one family here who does not earn their income from the lake,” Savoeun told us.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol, Cambodia to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks.

Fishermen pull fish from their nets at sunrise near the village of Akol. 

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Virtually every family in Akol is engaged in fishing in one way or the other. Often the men will set the nets at night, and the women and children will assist them in checking the nets the next morning. 

Looking around, it was easy to see the truth of what Savoeun said. Apart from a makeshift volleyball court erected on the coarse red sand and a few wells (which, full of lake water as they were, were meant for convenient showering and dishwashing rather than as a source of clean potable water), it was apparent that very few, if any, aspects of life in Akol were dictated by access to dry land. There was only one permanent structure, still under construction, and it was destined to serve as an office for an international conservation organization. When the monsoon rains returned later in the year and the lake’s level rose by up to 8 additional metres, the village could lift anchor and drift away, leaving the office to stand alone.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families. During the dry season, the receding Tonle Sap  lake reveals a small sandbar, turning the floating community into an island village.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community.

But the Tonle Sap, whose once bountiful waters support dozens of communities like Akol, was not well. Generations of overfishing, combined with a rapidly growing population had stretched the lake’s already diminishing fish population to its breaking point, as evidenced by the morning’s trip into the protected zone. The widespread use of illegal fishing equipment – from nets so fine that even the smallest and youngest fish were trapped to battery powered electric nets that killed every living creature in its shock radius – had further decimated stocks and deforestation and human-induced bush fires had ravaged the aquatic trees amongst whose submerged root systems young fish were hatched before migrating into deeper waters.

“I noticed that animals were being reduced by hunting and fishing, and that the forests were burning – so I asked for this job,” Horm Sok, a field researcher employed by Conservation International told us.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Though he had only held the job for 6 years, Horm Sok had been living in Akol since 1979 and has borne witness to the dramatic changes afflicting the Tonle Sap. “The population has grown so much and the fish are disappearing,” he told us as we followed him through the sweltering jungle to see some of the conservation initiatives he oversaw. “There didn’t used to be so many fishermen or illegal fishing.”

Horm’s responsibilities ranged from monitoring forest fires to photographing otter dung as a means of monitoring species numbers, but two projects in particular he hoped would be effective in slowing the loss of marine life.

Destruction of the coastal forests that acted as nurseries for infant fish was caused by multiple factors, he told us, almost all of which involved human activity or negligence. Carelessly tended cooking fires had sparked blazes that ravaged 30 hectares of land in the last year alone. “The loss of 30 hectares represents up to 3% of the future fish population,” Horm said, adding perspective. And while the loss of 20 football fields worth of forest might not seem like a dramatic number on a global scale, in a country with the third highest rate of deforestation in the world, Cambodia was a place with few trees to spare.

Additionally, Horm supervised the protection of several fish nurseries that played an even larger role in repopulating the Tonle Sap’s fish. “There are thousands of fish in each pond,” he told us, gesturing to a muddy pool 4 km inland from the lake, protected from exploitation only by the permanent presence of a paid security guard. So far from the water it was difficult to see a connection between the stagnant ponds and the Great Lake, but when the water level rose in several months the entire area would be inundated, absorbing the young fish into its vastness. “Ponds like these can contribute up to 20% of all fish [in the lake],” Horm told us, contextualizing what we were looking at.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population.

“It’s not about the money,” Horm said when we asked about his motivations for undertaking such a monumentally difficult task as keeping the Tonle Sap healthy. “I asked for this job because I want to conserve the animals and the forest. When I see the fish [vanishing] and the forests burning I feel a lot of regret.”

A Lake Like No Other

“There is nothing else like the Tonle Sap. It’s like an inland ocean, a fish soup,” Taber Hand, founder of the water-focused social enterprise group Wetlands Work! told us in his Phnom Penh apartment. Though we were physically distant from the lake, his passion for its health was plain, and his knowledge vast.

“There are more fish by tonnage in the Tonle Sap than in both the commercial and recreational freshwater sectors of the United States and Canada combined,” he continued, surprising us with the staggering statistic. “But the lake is a poster child for tragedy.”

During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, turning Akol into an island community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Boys walk across the stilted path that connects their home to the small sandbar the village of Akol is anchored to for the dry season.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager's houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager’s houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. 

Paradoxically, one of the most devastating environmental blows to Cambodia’s waterways was the government mandated closing of industrial fishing corporations in the early 2000’s. In an attempt to garner political support, the incumbent government ordered that all large scale commercial operations be disbanded and the fishing grounds returned to the people. While the idea might seem harmless on paper, the real world results were devastating. Despite the huge numbers of fish caught by industrial fishing, the international corporations involved understood that they needed to protect the ecosystem in order to secure a financial future for their companies. When these companies withdrew, taking with them the armed guards who protected their fisheries, a resource free-for-all ensued. In the mad dash to claim land for rice farming, harvest valuable tree species, and fish the abundant waters, the populist policy brought about widespread destruction.

“The industrial fisheries protected the lots by force, which angered the population. But by playing to the people, [Prime Minister Hun Sen] doomed the waterscape. The former lots have become habitat wastelands, totally destroyed by deforestation. They’re probably getting 0.5% of what those areas produced before,” Hand explained.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home.

Additional factors such as government corruption (bribed fisheries officials selectively ignoring illegal fishing practices), agricultural pollution, and population growth, have further exacerbated the problem.

Though he emphatically told us that there a variety of actions that could be undertaken to restore the Tonle Sap, Hand was pragmatic when we spoke about the likelihood of these steps being taken in time.

“The biodiversity is there to provide more than enough,” Hand told us, “but its the human side of the equation, the human priorities, that don’t fit. We could have our cake and eat it too, [the solution] is right there for us to act on, but people want to work for themselves instead of together.”

In an impoverished country like Cambodia where millions battle on a daily basis to feed their families, it is perhaps not surprising that environmental cooperation is not a top priority. But without such a mass movement, Cambodia’s most important waterway was headed for disaster.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol.

As our meeting with drew to a close, Hand reflected on a telling fact: “‘The Tonle Sap is the heart and soul of Cambodia’ used to be an extremely popular saying. Everyone said it, including the Prime Minister. But you know, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that in at least 10 years.”

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , |

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, 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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, 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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, 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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

Entering the Kingdom

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

“Ok, you can take pictures, but don’t put me on Facebook,” the man decided after a few minutes of consideration. Judging by the way the rest of the dock workers had looked to him for instructions when we arrived, he was the boss. With his approval secured, the air of apprehension over the presence of two foreigners dissipated and the crew returned to the task at hand: loading a rickety wooden barge with 50kg sacks of sugar and thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

We were back on Cambodian soil after completing the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project and the economic disparity between the two countries was immediately apparent in the dusty border town. Whereas the majority of buildings on the Vietnamese side of the border were made of modern materials, just a few hundred metres into Cambodia, wood had replaced concrete.

As we watched the men slide cargo down a metal ramp into the hold of a small transport vessel, the varying scale of the extent of the respective countries’ activities on the Mekong were also apparent. A sporadic line of yellow buoys stretched across the Mekong marked where Vietnamese waters ended and the purview of Cambodia began, but they were hardly necessary. A line of immense cargo ships dotted the horizon on the Vietnamese side while, only a few small craft drifted in the Cambodian currents.

Though Gareth, Pablo, and myself all called Cambodia home, after three weeks of exploring the Mekong in Vietnam it was easy to forget just how different the two countries were.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

A Time For Corn

Moving away from the border and following the river north along highway 101 towards Phnom Penh, corn was everywhere: heaped in great piles in front of thatched houses, growing in expansive brown fields to the west of the road, and spread across the asphalt, the orange kernels drying in the sun on swaths of tarpaulin that forced our Toyota Camry to slow to a crawl as we veered around them. Knowing Cambodia to be a nation of rice farming, the overwhelming dominance of corn was not what we had expected to see.

“Here we grow different crops depending on the season,” 59-year-old Chheng Tre explained. “During the dry season [in April and May] it is corn, then I will switch to growing beans, and then back to rice when the rains come.” Clad in camouflage military fatigues with a blue checked traditional Khmer scarf known as a krama, Tre looked more like a retired revolutionary than a farmer but spoke with a calm authority that was difficult to question.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav.

According to Tre, a kilogram of fresh corn could be sold to a broker for 720 riel (around 17 cents US), with dried kernels fetching slightly more. By comparison, even the lowest grade rice sold for between 25 and 30 cents, with more premium strains – such as long grain jasmine – fetching more than 40 cents. The fact that farmers like Tre would bother to grow a crop with such a lower potential for profit was indicative of the pronounced infrastructural differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seemed obvious that, if given the choice, farming rice was the more profitable option. But as Yong Yang, a 35-year-old farmer and friend of Tre’s told us, “Rice needs a lot of water, so we have to wait for the rains.” In contrast, the farmers in Vietnam – among the largest rice exporting nations, both regionally and globally – were growing three harvests of rice per year, regardless of the season.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

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How Vietnamese farmers, less than 50km away and geographically separated only by an artificially imposed land border, were able to circumvent the realities of nature owed to the complex network of irrigation canals that crisscrossed the Mekong Delta. On the Cambodian side of the border, though there was little difference in the size and flow of the river, there was no such system.

And so, reliant as they were on small gasoline powered pumps to divert the Mekong onto their fields, Cambodians grew corn – which needed far less water to survive than the temperamental rice.

For the Cows

What first struck us as odd about this method of corn production was that we had rarely, if ever, seen Cambodians cook with corn. While grilled corn on the cob was a popular street food snack, the farmers we visited near the border were not keeping the ears in tact. Rather they fed them into a series of grinding machines separated the kernels from the cob which they dried in the sun until they were far too hardened to be enjoyable for human consumption.

Just to be sure our ignorance of Cambodian cuisine wasn’t causing us to jump to conclusions, I called a friend in Phnom Penh to ask if her family ever used the small pieces of corn for cooking. “No, never,” she replied, her bewilderment at my strange question apparent.

“No, it’s for animals,” Chheng Tre said when we asked him to resolve the mystery for us, greatly amused by our confusion. “It is sold Vietnam [or Thailand] where they feed it to cows.”

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

With a new found understanding of interconnectedness of the riparian economies, we spent the rest of the day photographing the corn refining process and speaking to the people who relied on the crop to financially weather the harsh agricultural conditions of the dry season. A Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) eaten on the streets of Saigon, we had learned, might owe its existence to Cambodian corn, fed from the waters of the Mekong.

We left Tre and his fellow corn farmers once the sun had dipped below the horizon and returned to our hotel to get as much sleep as possible. The next day promised yet another pre-dawn wake up so that we could explore the effects of river erosion on the communities who lived along its banks.

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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