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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.”

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also 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.

ART CAM 0001-2

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.

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

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

———-

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

The End of Mekong Delta Fishing

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

“I’ve been fishing here for more than ten years, and the plastic has always been like this,” Giau told us as she sorted though the pile of fish, which was pathetically small considering the enormous size of the net she had emptied them from. With deft fingers she sorted through the catch, picking out the most valuable shrimp and fish first before working her way through the less prized species until only a few minuscule creatures remained, flopping amongst an assortment of plastic bags and food wrappers. I counted two Nescafe packets, three shopping bags, an empty package of instant noodles, and a cigarette butt. In total she had kept around ten fish.

We had come to the island community of Long Binh early that morning with the goal of finding at least one person who was deriving their entire income from fishing the Mekong. After nearly three weeks following the Mekong through southern Vietnam, we were running out of time to disprove what we had heard over and over again throughout our trip: that the river no longer supported a large enough wild fish population to sustain the people who lived on its banks. With just a few days remaining until we had to cross the border into Cambodia, we had agreed to give Giau and her husband Bich the equivalent of $10 to pay for the morning’s fuel in exchange for passage.

As we motored into deeper waters, the sun barely above the horizon, it was clear that the couple was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of having us on board. Bich, who was perhaps not the most talkative of men to begin with, seemed reluctant to answer any of our questions and instead silently smoked cigarettes as he worked the small boat’s engine and tended to the nets. Giau was more obliging and did nearly all of the talking, but only, I suspect, because we were seated around the hatch of the fish hold which she needed to access. If it had been possible to get her job done without interacting with us at all, I imagine she would have been all the more happy.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat's engine before heading onto the river to fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat’s engine before heading onto the river to fish. numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich's wooden fishing boat. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich’s wooden fishing boat.

That isn’t to say that Giau and Bich were inherently rude or unfriendly. They had a difficult and tiring job to do, and judging by the meagre catches they had pulled in, times were not overly profitable. The presence of two bulky foreigners on their cramped boat was likely not helping.

After two hours on the river, Bich steered the vessel back towards land, the effective window for morning fishing apparently closed. Though we couldn’t tell exactly how many fish they had caught, it was obvious that they would not be earning much from their efforts. The largest fish of the day was less than ten centimetres long. Clearly the river’s most bountiful days were over.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it's low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it’s low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning.

The End of Plenty

“Seven or eight years ago I noticed a dramatic drop in the number of fish I was catching in the river,” Ngo Than Thai told us. A fifty-year-old man with a welcoming smile, we met Thai almost immediately after getting off Giau’s boat. Spotting us walking away from the cluster of fishing boats, Thai had beckoned for us to follow him further inland. After a few minutes of uncertain walking (he had not yet told us why we should follow him), we approached a series of massive ponds. After visiting several shrimp farms earlier in our trip, we knew that the pools most likely had something to do with seafood, but nothing more certain than that.

“I started fishing when I was fifteen years old but it became impossible to make enough money fishing in the river. So three years ago I built these,” Thai continued, gesturing to the ponds. After he shouted something that we didn’t understand, two young men scrambled onto a wooden dock that extended over the surface of the nearest pond, carrying fifty kilogram sacks of fish food over their shoulders. No sooner had they set the bags down then the water exploded into life, roiling and bubbling furiously.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh.

Initially it was hard to tell what we were looking at, so frenzied was the burst of movement just below the water’s surface. As the fish started leaping a metre into the air in anticipation of the feast to come, Thai explained more fully. After nearly thirty years of fishing in the river, the catches had dwindled so low as to make it impossible to support his family. Turning away from the water that had supported him for most of his life, Thai borrowed $5000 to build his first fish farm. Three years and two more ponds later, his fortunes have soared.

“I am making much more money than I ever did before. Each of these ponds has around 45 000 fish in them, and they are much bigger than those left in the river,” Thai told us. And it was hard to dispute his claims after what we had seen on Giau and Bich’s boat earlier that morning. Thai’s fish were huge by comparison – at least a foot long, shimmering and fat.

His transition from river fisherman to inland farmer has been so profitable that his neighbours are emulating his success and everywhere around us new ponds were being excavated. Like Thai, the other residents of Long Binh were rushing away from the river to fish inland, where the money was.

“I haven’t fished from the river in years,” Thai said. “Since I started these ponds, I haven’t been back.”

A new fish farm under counstruction on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A new fish farm under construction on the island of Long Binh.

Parting Thoughts

After three weeks of exploring the relationship between the Mekong and the millions of Vietnamese who depend on its flow, this was perhaps not the most uplifting end to our time in the delta. Though over the course of our trip we had seen many ways in which people lived from the river, the overall picture was not of a healthy waterway.

From tourist ferries to brick factories to shipyards, the people who seemed to be profiting most from the river were those who didn’t rely on its natural gifts. For people who counted on an ecologically thriving Mekong to survive, the future seemed grim. The abundant use of agrochemicals had made most of the water unfit for bathing, let along drinking or cooking; eroding banks were threatening farmers near the coast; fish stocks had been decimated by the use of electrified nets. After millennia of sustaining life, it seemed as though the river was breaking under the ever growing demands of humanity.

Though the future is not set in stone and there is always hope for a less destructive relationship between society and nature, as we drove towards the border station at Chau Doc, both Gareth and I were shaken by our experience in Vietnam. While the people we had met were nearly all warm and their culture welcoming, the overriding narrative was of a waterway under siege.

With four more countries to visit and roughly four thousand more kilometres of river to travel, there was a lot more river ahead. Would we find a similarly embattled ecosystem as we headed towards the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau? Was Vietnam doing something wrong in its stewardship of the delta, or was it simply at the mercy of geography – destined to bear the brunt of four rapidly developing economies upriver? Only time would tell.

———-

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |

How A River Builds Houses

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec's brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec’s brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

With less than a week left on the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project, we left the Mekong delta’s urban heart of Can Tho for the much smaller town of Sa Dec to the northwest. We had no real idea of what we would find there, but decided that its reputation as an industrial and agricultural trading centre made it an ideal choice for further exploring the relationship between the river and its people. We were on the lookout for unexpected ways that people were able to support themselves from water, and Sa Dec did not disappoint.

As we drove into the city, brick factories defined the landscape. Stretching one after the other along the river banks, their orange kilns perpetually venting smoke, they were impossible to miss. Both Gareth and I had photographed brick factories in the past and we knew them to be highly visual places to shoot, but what we found in Sa Dec was an industry more deeply connected to the river than we could have imagined.

Houses Made from Water

Walking into the factory grounds just after sunrise, it was clear that we were too early. This had been a constant problem throughout our travels in Vietnam. Our photo-centric world view caused us to constantly chase the best light (early morning and late afternoon), but it meant that we often arrived in locations before the majority of locals were out of bed. The brick factory was no exception; other than a family of dogs who barked suspiciously at our presence, sensing that we were somehow strange or different than the people they were accustomed to seeing, there was no sign of movement.

We walked slowly among the neatly stacked rows of drying clay bricks, moving with exaggerated quietness as one might do when sneaking around a creaky house, all the while listening for the angry shout of a security guard or wary factory owner. When we did manage to find people inside the gloomy structure, however, we were met with kindly smiles and warm handshakes from an elderly man and his wife. Sa Dec’s brick making techniques, it seemed, were not top secret.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory.

The man, who did not volunteer his name, confirmed our suspicions that we were were in fact too early by over an hour. He and his wife, who slept on a bare wooden bed frame inside the factory, were preparing to stoke the kilns – but we would have to wait if we wanted to see the actual manufacturing process. As we watched him pour basket after basket of rice husks into an elevated hopper that fed the kiln fires, we took the opportunity to glean some background information from him. What we discovered was a manufacturing process that quite literally turned the Mekong’s water into houses.

It all began with water and rice, he said, hoisting a 25kg basket onto his shoulder with a strength that belied his age and slight frame. First came the rice, grown throughout the delta in some of the highest quantities in the world, all of which owed its survival to diverted river water that was diverted to farmland via Vietnam’s staggeringly complex network of manmade canals.

Once the crops were harvested, the rice grains were separated from their nutritionally useless husks before being transported to large wholesalers, who then sold it throughout the country and to the world beyond. The discarded husks were then loaded onto transport ships and delivered to Sa Dec’s brick factories which burned up to six tonnes of the material every day. With each kiln roughly 30 000 square metres in size and holding roughly 150 000 bricks each, it was easy to see how fuel was needed on such a large scale.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory's birkc kilns. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time and consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory’s birkc kilns.

Once the husks had given all their remaining energy to the hungry flames of the massive kilns, the charred remnants were shovelled into wooden carts and dumped in great black mounds behind the factory. I had already noticed the piles earlier that morning, but had wrongly assumed (perhaps because I hailed from a western country with where materialism and disposability reigned supreme, everything discarded once it ceased to be bright and shiny) that the material was useless. As it turned out, the burnt husks were destined for gardens and farmland throughout the delta where they were used enrich the soil that would give birth to the next crop of rice.

As ingenious as this organic recycling process seemed, the kiln’s fires would have been meaningless without bricks to fill them. Though there are many complex methods for creating bricks, the simplest and most economical process requires just two ingredients – water and clay, both of which were sourced from the Mekong. The soft mixture was hydraulically pressed and cut into the appropriate shape and length before being sent to the furnaces.

After a month of hardening inside the immense kilns, the fired bricks were stacked into interlocking towers before once more returning to the river in the holds of transport ships that carried them to regional construction sites. From raw materials to fuel to transportation, everything in the brick factories of Sa Dec was tied to water. In an alchemically roundabout way, we learned, it was possible to build a house out of water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory's brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory’s brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time.

 

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites.

 

 

 

 

Rice Pockets

An hour later, our foundational knowledge of brick making greatly expanded, the rice arrived. Predictably, it came by boat. Two sagging barges, their holds impossibly full of rice husks, pulled up to the factory’s concrete pier and extended wooden gangplanks to the shore. Teams of men then set about the Atlas-like task of offloading three tonnes of rice husks using nothing but woven baskets and a yoke stick. From their boats to the factory’s cavernous room that served as the fuel storage area was less than 200 metres, but within a few minutes they were all sweating profusely.

With a touch of hubris, Gareth and I decided to try and impress upon the labourers that, photographers though we were, we could still do a hard day’s work. Almost immediately after hefting the 50kg load onto my shoulder I knew that I had dramatically overestimated my physical abilities. The suspended baskets swung wildly as I took the first few steps causing me to stagger drunkenly, much to the satisfaction of the watching workers. Determined to save as much face as possible under the circumstances I tried (badly) to affect a look of relaxed confidence, when in reality my shoulder was screaming for respite and I was powerless to stop my own forward momentum. Pride, however, proved to be a powerful motivator and somehow I made it to the top of the husk pile where I gratefully dropped my load.

Vietnam - Brick Factories on the Mekong

Pretending not to notice the smirks from rest of the workers, whose faces showed none of the signs of extreme strain I was sure mine had, I walked back towards the dock to retrieve my camera. Gareth had just hefted his own baskets for the first and looked to have realized, as I had, how weak we were compared to these men despite our substantial height and weight advantages. “Did you carry yours all the way?” he asked. As I nodded my head I empathized with the look of dread that settled over his face.

By the end of the morning, the rice husks had worked there way into every possible area of our clothing. Had there been actual rice grains rather than the empty husks, I would have been able to feed a very hungry man from the quantity gathered in my shoes alone.

Though the day may have deflated our manly egos, we left the factory with a newfound respect for the ingenious ways delta residents were able to harness the Mekong’s resources.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

———-

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |

The Price of Productivity

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

When it became clear the boat was going to crash into us, it was too late to do anything but grip the ferry’s guardrails tightly and exchange a few fleeting looks of disbelief with Gareth. Had there been more time, our translator Mi, who could not swim, may have had the chance to look suitably terrified, but as it was she was barely able to fix her face with a look of mild surprise. Pablo, who held the dubious distinction of being the only member of our team to have been involved in the sinking of a boat, had already returned to Phnom Penh to start editing the footage he had shot. With him gone, Gareth and I assumed we would be safe from nautical disasters. But as the much larger vessel bore down on us, we knew we had been mistaken.

Ten metres, five metres, one metre; the closer the ships came to each other, the more unreal the situation seemed. From the bow of the approaching vessel, a sturdy looking woman shrieked curses at the pilot of our ferry – until the moment she was drowned out by the concussive thud of hull-to-hull contact and the ensuing groans as the ferry’s metal canopy twisted and warped. As the woman continued to hurl obscenities, working frantically to separate the ships, I glanced back at the driver of our ferry to see a mask of absolute calm on his face. He hadn’t even stood up from the hammock he used as a captain’s chair, a half-smoked cigarette still dangling from the corner of his mouth.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

Safely on the shore ten minutes later, we pieced together the sequence of events. The ferry captain, who successfully navigated the five minute river crossing at least a hundred times a day, had been so distracted by the presence of two foreigners in his sleepy community that he’d taken his eyes off the waterway to watch us. Not paying attention to the river traffic, he had taken us straight into the path of an oncoming boat.

I would have felt badly for the man had he not looked so utterly unconcerned. Considering the incident had been completely his fault, he managed to maintain an air of the upmost dignity as he received new passengers. Without another glance in our direction, he spun his boat around and set off again for the opposite bank, head held high.

“What just happened?” Gareth asked no one in particular.

We had come to the village of Tan Thanh on the outskirts of Can Tho to try and gain insight into the relationship between the Mekong and Vietnam’s rural poor; a boat crash had not been part of the day’s agenda.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Looking for Light

Huynh Thi Ba was 81-years-old and completely blind. Though her left eye retained some of its original dark brown colour, the right was completely clouded by an eerily vibrant blue cataract. When we entered her bedroom she seemed to sense our presence, reaching a skeletal hand towards the shadows we cast over the room. Taking her hands in turn, Gareth and I attempted to greet her, but it was obvious she was almost totally deaf as well. Yet she seemed pleased by the human touch and spent several minutes tracing her leathered fingers over our hands and forearms, confused in equal measure by both our digital watches and foreign arm hair. When she reached our faces, heavily bearded after two weeks of travel, she drew back and barked a question that needed no translation: What is this?

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years.

Ba’s younger brother Dan had brought us to the home when we’d asked him if he knew of any people in the area who struggled to find reliable access to clean water. A follower of the monotheistic Cao Dai religion who had returned to live in the faith’s nearby temple so he could be close to his ailing sister, Dan’s kindly face belied the strong emotions he must have felt at the sight of Ba’s feebleness. Through his family, we learned just how precarious water security could be, even in the heart of the Mekong delta where it seemed most abundant.

“Before the water was better. I don’t remember when exactly, when they started harvesting rice three time a year [instead of once] they had to use a lot of chemicals and fertilizers, which made the water unfit to use,” Ba’s 49-year-old daughter, Mung, told us. We had spent the last few days in rural communities and had already learned that the widespread use of agrochemicals was seriously affecting the quality of the river water, but this particular situation was more dire than anything we had previously encountered.

Fifteen years ago, the family – Ba, Mung, and Mung’s 25-year-old daughter, Mit – had been labourers for hire, living in a tent and drifting from farm to farm in search of piece work. With the introduction of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, however, rice cultivation required far fewer workers per hectare. As a result, Mung had not found regular employment for fifteen years. At roughly the same time, Ba, who had gathered taro leaves that Vietnamese traditionally used as food packaging, had been made obsolete by the introduction of plastic bags: “Before the era of plastic, we used leaves for bags,” Mung told us, “but when plastic came, [my mother] lost this job.” Shortly afterwards, she went blind.

Ba, 84, lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised.

 

Though the Cao Dai temple that Dan belonged to had recognized the family’s plight and donated enough money to replace their tent with a small cement structure, the situation remained desperate. With all three members of the household unable to earn income, Mung and Mit turned to scavenging for tin cans which they could sell to local recycling facilities for a small profit. This required both women to be out of the house for long stretches of time, leaving Ba to fend for herself in her own personal darkness.

Levels of Purity

Despite their extreme poverty, food was not the most serious problem for Ba’s family. The Cao Dai temple donated rice periodically and neighbours pitched in vegetables when they couldn’t afford to buy enough. Ultimately it was clean water – or the lack thereof – that presented the biggest challenge to their health.

“We’re not afraid of the dirt,” Mung said of the Mekong tributary that flowed past their house, “the dirt is natural. It is the chemicals [that are a problem]. A few months ago I tried to take a bath in the river and I got a rash.” When we asked her why she thought the water affected her skin so badly, she again referred to the increased use of agricultural chemicals over the last two decades.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung ranked water quality by sorting them into four categories. The highest quality (bottled and treated) was exclusively for drinking – but the prohibitively high price meant that they could not afford to buy it regularly. One level down was piped water, which, while not as pure as bottled water, was of a quality high enough for drinking and cooking. Unfortunately, the pipes required for access to such water were not connected to their house, and the $100 price tag for installation was well beyond their means. Next was well water, which was technically deemed fit for drinking and cooking, but still contained too many pollutants to be considered healthy. In theory the family had access to such a well as the government had installed a pump and tap on their property a year before, but Mung said it was often broken and that it often took weeks for a repairman to make it to their house. Lastly was the river water – judged unfit for anything other than washing clothes and dishes.

Yet though Mung knew water from the river was dangerously laden with chemicals, for most of the year she had no choice but to use it. Judging by the rashes, headaches, and stomach problems Mung told us her family often suffered from, their domestic use of the river’s water was taking a toll. And, she said, it was not just humans that were being impacted.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

“There used to be so many fish that you could catch them with your bare hands,” Mung said. “Now, even with modern equipment, you can’t find any fish.” Though she was perhaps exaggerating slightly, the conspicuous lack of fishing related activity in such a rural area suggested that she was right: the river was profoundly unhealthy.

How many other families in the area were using contaminated water for their daily needs, we wondered? If this was happening here, it stood to reason that it was happening elsewhere as well. How many people along the Mekong were being poisoned by the very river that had sustained life in Southeast Asia for millennia?

With these heavy questions looming large in our thoughts, we said goodbye to Mung and her family to board the ferry that would shuttle us back towards Can Tho. Thankfully, this time, the captain kept his eyes on the water.

———

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Toxicity of Agriculture

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

“It’s not going to be worth it,” Gareth shouted at me as I crouched unsteadily on a three inch wide bamboo pole stretched across a mud-brown irrigation canal. With barely suppressed happiness, he added “I’m going to walk just down there, where there are actually people doing stuff.” And then as a parting afterthought: “I bet your legs are getting pretty tired.”

Sarcasm aside, he was right; I had been balanced on the rickety bridge for nearly twenty minutes and had lost all sensation in my right foot as I stubbornly waited for someone to cross a similar bridge further up the canal. It was another ten minutes before anyone cooperated, and as I pushed the shutter I was pretty sure it would be an average shot – probably not worth it, though I would never admit it to Gareth.

We had driven into the countryside surrounding the Mekong delta’s economic capital of Can Tho  with the intention of exploring the relation between agriculture and the river in an area known as “the rice bowl of Vietnam.” And considering that Vietnam was the world’s second largest exporter of rice, that was quite a bowl. Arriving in the deep blue gloom of the early morning, we’d had to wait for half an hour next to a roadside vendor selling cobs of boiled corn (though who was shopping for corn at 5 a.m. we’d never know) before there were any signs of life from the surrounding fields.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

The ducks came first. At least a hundred of them poured over the earthen embankment of a rice paddy and began waddling frantically over the field’s uneven contours, their ultimate destination unknown. Behind them came a farmer, the obvious cause of their flight, unrolling long sections of plastic fencing which he assumedly planned to use to coral the birds. The indigo sky of an hour before had given way to a soft grey mist which obscured the horizon and muffled the sound from the nearby highway. Watching the farmer weave through fog, doggedly pursuing the flock as they shape-shifted amorphously like a school of sardines to avoid him, the scene was a postcard for an idealized vision of quaint agrarian life. As we shot pictures and tried to keep our feet out of the swampiest sections of the paddy, it seemed like we had found the perfect place to witness the natural and healthy connection between water and people. As we were to find out, however, this association was anything but.

“Ummm, sorry guys,” Mi, our translator, said from a few metres away where she had been talking to the farmer. “You are actually preventing them from herding the ducks. He asks if you will please stop taking pictures now.”

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

The Roundup Effect

Though this was the first time during the trip that we had actively spent time on a farm, the landscape had been almost entirely rural since we entered the country. Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, the fields of Vietnam were a vivid green instead of the dead brown of the dry season. We had attributed much of the fertility to the immense system of irrigation canals that spread the Mekong’s waters throughout the delta, but even so the harvests looked exceptionally verdant. The periodic sightings of advertisements for Monsanto’s Roundup, one of the world’s most widely used agricultural herbicides, should have given us some insight, but until we had spoken to farmers on the ground we weren’t even close to understanding the scope of the issue.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave.

“We have separate crops. One for selling, and one for eating,” said Lung, the owner of the farm we had wandered into. “The water from river is extremely important, because without it we could not farm here. But for anything else, we can’t use it – there are too many chemicals.”

Manh, a youthful looking 40-year-old man who worked in a neighbouring field despite sporting a broken arm, said exactly the same thing. The delta’s farmers, who grow nearly half of Vietnam’s rice, would not eat the crops they sold. And though it is perhaps unfair to single out Monsanto (we found a wide spectrum of brand names printed on the herbicide and pesticide packets), the widespread use of agricultural chemicals was clearly a public health issue.

At a nearby watermelon plantation we stopped to speak to another farmer, Huynh, who candidly explained the necessity of chemicals. Since Vietnam’s economic reforms of 1986 – which abandoned the communist collective farming system of past in favour of a free market that incentivized farmers to increase crop production by allowing them to keep their profits – Huynh said that farmers were routinely harvesting three rice cycles a year.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam’s irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

“Before we could use this water for cooking and drinking,” Huynh told us, gesturing to a nearby creek, “but since we have started producing so much, we cannot. We have to use chemicals to keep the crops healthy. It is necessary, but it means we can’t use the water.” All the while we were speaking to him, workers in fields behind carried 40 litre backpacks filled with pesticide which they applied liberally to the young watermelons at their feet. Each time their packs were drained, they would return to the canal to dump out the remnants before mixing a fresh batch using the same water – which was connected directly to the Mekong and all it’s associated downstream tributaries.

Necessities and Consequences

It would have been unfair for three outsiders, as we were, to sit in judgement of farmers who struggled daily to keep their heads above the poverty line. We were simply passing through and would eventually return to our reasonably comfortable lives in Phnom Penh, while they would remain to support extended families on the revenue generated by their farms. We were in no position to deliver advice or reprimand, and made no attempts to do so. Yet as third-party observers who were committed to following the course of the Mekong for most of a year, it was difficult for us to see the practice of steadily poisoning the water supply that nurtured their crops and kept their livestock alive as anything but a mistake that would have disastrous ramifications in the future.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land.

Thinking of Tan Van Vu, a shrimp farmer living far downstream who reported a 40% decrease in his productivity due to a mysterious sickness that had spread through this ponds, we left the workers to their spraying. Though we had no scientific proof that there was a connection between Vu’s poisoned shrimp and the chemical residue that floated in the water in these farms, we knew that whatever was put into the water here would inevitably make its way downriver to him.

Back on the side of the highway we sat down at a roadside cafe for a quick shot of morning coffee. When we told the curious cafe owner that we were following the Mekong from Vietnam to its source in China, she smiled reminiscently: “I used to love swimming in that river. But now it makes my skin itchy.”

——–

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

How to Recycle a Coconut

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave the to dry in the sun.

The engine had been making odd noises for roughly twenty minutes before the smoke appeared. We had been chugging against the current of the Mekong for more than an hour, trying to reach a family-owned shipyard in the maze like network of canals surrounding the city of My Tho, and it finally seemed like the boat’s aging motor had given up.

Founded in the 17th Century by Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland, My Tho was once considered the principle gateway to the Mekong delta before losing the title to the much larger and economically more important Can Tho. We had come to My Tho looking for our first insight as to how the river affected people’s lives in an urban context, but after a cursory glance we decided instead to charter a boat to explore the waterways surrounding the city. If ever there was a city symbiotically bound to a waterway, My Tho was it.

Happy Accidents

When the boat gave its first signs of ill-health we were well away from the city. First, the water pump quit. The brown, sediment-rich river water slowly seeped into the engine compartment, hissing to a boil as it made contact with the overworked pistons. Acrid yellowish steam issued from the cracks in the floorboards covering the machinery, first in small spurts, and then in great billowing clouds.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The boat driver, who had seemed mostly unfazed by the mechanical difficulties to that point suddenly sprang into action. Killing the throttle, we drifted in lazy circles while he ran back and forth between bow and stern, checking cables and connections. The ship building yard we were attempting to reach that day was still out of sight upriver and it appeared unlikely that we would be able to fight the current to reach it.

After conferring with Gareth and Pablo, we made the frustrating decision to turn back, hoping to stumble upon something of interest on our way back to My Tho. We had passed a series of what looked like coconut processing facilities earlier that morning and we hoped that by working with the river’s flow, instead of against it, we could coax the struggling engine into cooperation.

Luckily, as is so often the case with in photography and travel, the unraveling of our initial plans led us to a story we likely would never have found otherwise.

Coconuts, Reimagined

Coconut Island, as locals colloquially referred to My Thanh An, was not actually an island at all. In fact it barely qualified as a peninsula. But none of us could dispute the inclusion of coconut in the name; what seemed like millions of the green husked drupes (the proper classificatory family for coconuts, according to Internet biologists anyways) were mounded along the river’s edges to staggering heights.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets. Coconuts are one of the biggest industries near the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets.

With an abundance of choice as to where to stop, we simply pointed towards one facility at random and asked the boat driver to drop us off. As we approached it was immediately clear that the facility was not built to receive tiny boats like ours, and as a result there was no clear way for us to clamber up the four metre tall cement pad that separated the land from water. Instead we had to awkwardly climb onto a waiting cargo ship, shimmy precariously around its gunnels, and cross a thin, wobbling plank to the shore. While it is often said that the photographer’s dream is to be invisible, at that moment we were anything but. Roughly thirty workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and I suspected that at least a few of them were hoping for one of us, laden with cameras as we were, to stumble sideways into the water below.

Ultimately our steps were sure and we made it safely to firm ground, all eyes now turned towards us, wondering what on earth we wanted. Mi, our perpetually hard working translator, quickly located the operation’s manager who indicated, with a dismissive wave of his hand, that we were free to do what we wanted. The main obstacle now overcome, we were able to finally take in the scene around us.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Contrary to what we were expecting, there were in fact no whole coconuts anywhere on site; only the husks remained, piled densely on top of each other. Teams of sweating men endlessly loaded them into wire baskets, and after hoisting them onto their shoulders, carried them twenty metres over lumpy ground before dumping them into a blue steel hopper. Yet more men waited there, using pieces of scrap lumber to force the husks into the machine below where, judging from the metallic screeching noises and continual geysers of woody shavings that issued from its bowels, they were ground into fibre.

Out one end of the machine a conveyor belt carried the finer of the processed particles towards men who guided the material into cement bags, filling the fifty kilogram sacks at the rate of one every five minutes. The more substantial strands of husk travelled in the opposite direction, into a spinning steel-mesh tumbler, set at a thirty degree angle to the ground. When enough of the rough hairs built up inside the cylinder an aged looking woman, hidden under a conical hat and face mask, reached inside and pulled enormous fluffy clumps out with her cotton-gloved hands. After just fifteen minutes of being near the machinery my ankles and wrists were chaffed terribly against my shirt and socks, itching like fibreglass.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres.

Pairs of women arrived every few minutes with a cloth stretcher, onto which they piled an impressive quantity of the shredded husks before carrying it to a nearby concrete courtyard, at least a hectare in size. There, dozens more women, all identically clad in long sleeved shirts, face masks, and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats, were hunched over as they separated the wiry strands with their hands. As visually interesting as the operation was, we still had no idea what we were looking at.

It wasn’t until we located the 57-year-old owner of the plant, Nau, that we were able to fully understand. A squat, friendly woman, Nau explained that this was relatively new method of coconut recycling. While the technology had certainly been long since available, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the process became commercially viable – mostly owing to an massive increase in demand for flowers in China. The fine dust we had seen stuffed into sacks was loaded onto boats and shipped down the Mekong to distribution centres, which then exported the material internationally as a cheap plant mulch. The longer strands were either woven into mats or used to insulate soundproof walls in recording studios and karaoke bars.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres.

Though perhaps not revolutionary technology, it was nevertheless a clever commercial (and environmental) innovation. A decade earlier, Nau told us, these coconuts would have been considered useless and burned to ashes. Now, the factory employed nearly a hundred people from the island, providing a clean and cheap product for both domestic and foreign markets.

In a single day more than 120 000 hollowed coconuts could be converted into a useful commodity, where before there was only waste. With the region’s coconuts being almost exclusively watered by the Mekong, and all incoming and outgoing shipping conducted by boat along the river, in a very real way flowers on a family table in Shanghai or Kunming might owe their existence to the Mekong.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we retraced our steps across the gangplank and scuttled awkwardly back onto our boat. The engine seemingly recovered we motored back towards the city. From the brink of disasters we had salvaged a fine morning of shooting, and furthered our appreciation of just how far reaching the Mekong’s influence could be.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building.

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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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