A Poisoned Paradise: Cambodia's Water Crisis

In the middle of South-east Asia's largest freshwater lake -- Cambodia's Tonle Sap -- lives "Hot Sam." The 55-year-old fisherman crouches in his self-built home, a shack, buoyed on a bed of bamboo and anchored to the lake bed two metres beneath him.

As he bobs above the murky water, rickety motorboats full of tourists chug past taking pictures. Gazing across his ramshackle fiefdom, Hot Sam opens his mouth and flashes a brown smile of rotten teeth.

The grinning gaze takes in the remarkable scene of the floating villages of Chong Khneas, one of the highlights of the country's burgeoning tourist industry and a natural, watery spectacle of abundance. On the surface, Tonle Sap and its natural resources ought to be a rich provider for its residents. And unsurprisingly for a fisherman living in a floating village, water is at the centre of everything in life for Hot Sam and his sizeable family. Their drinking water comes straight from the lake and the fisherman describes their little precautionary ritual before they drink it. The family collects the water, they then let it settle and drink it.

This is the same water in which they freely defecate, the same water in which they wash and the same shrinking body of water upon which they depend for livelihood. The population pressure which he has helped to create -- with 11 family members -- is making the pollution problem worse and helping to drive down the fish stocks on which they all rely. The spectre of climate change is starting to make itself felt in the low water levels and the precariousness of life is starkly apparent -- even the houses' anchor lines are shaken as they get snagged in the propellers of passing boats.

"The weather now changes every year and we have no idea what to expect," bemoans Sam. "The rainy season is much more irregular than it was 15 years ago. Our catch of fish is worse than ever. We have less to sell on once we have fed ourselves, and we have to go further to get the same amount. Everything is getting harder and harder."

The floating villages which were originally set up as a place of refuge from the genocidal madness of the Khmer Rouge find that their fate has come to reflect the less gruesome but nonetheless deadly challenges facing Cambodia now.

Hot Sam is living in the wrong half of the developing world. He is one of the 2.6 billion people on the planet who live without access to basic sanitation. Last Saturday was World Water Day, a UN-backed initiative which aims to highlight this. But sometimes the impact of such campaigns can be diluted through their over-use of meaningless jargon. The truth on the ground, or rather on the water, is that in Cambodia -- one of the poorest countries in the world -- its population of 14 million cannot get access to the basics: latrines, clean water for drinking and washing. If this continues, its high mortality rates, which mean some 83 children out of 1,000 perish before they are five, are destined to persist.

Such a bleak situation may surprise the tourists who pay a handful of dollars to take a tour around the floating villages. The 800-odd households, which accommodate some 6,000 people, can look bewitching to a newcomer. The truth is bleaker still. The eight floating villages were set up in the 1970s by farmers seeking refuge from the Khmer Rouge, who had confiscated their land. Added to the mix are a plethora of illegal Vietnamese immigrants (who make up a third of the population); they live separately and are often blamed for the overfishing problem (throwing dynamite into the lake is a common accusation).

Floating past houses, villagers can be seen listless, dozing in hammocks or on straw mats. Their homes, often used to accommodate as many as a dozen people, are no bigger than your average European kitchen. The walls are cobbled together using anything that lies, or floats to hand -- and need to be replaced regularly once the rot sets in. Once spent, they can be stripped off and used for fuel.

When fish stocks dwindle, some opt to sell batteries as a source of income, which their neighbours can use to power their televisions or music equipment. Or they can sell kerosene lamps, still used by the majority of people in the country for night light. Fish are held in place in specially-crafted pens, which are hammered to the shallow bed by men stripped to the waist, seemingly oblivious to the film of murk through which they break every time they dive.

But, despite the villagers' apparent success in adverse conditions, fresh obstacles are never far away. For one, Hot Sam's attitude towards drinking and allowing his children to play in the lake-water seems to be common among many of those living here. The area is woefully under-resourced -- there is apparently only one school and one health centre -- and there is little evidence of the educational work and resource provisions which organisations such as the British Red Cross are carrying out in more remote parts of the country.

Lach Mean, a 72-year-old who lives in a shack in which some of her grandchildren sell batteries to the surrounding villagers, shouts over the roar of a motorboat which has become entangled in the anchoring rope of a nearby house. She says that three generations of her family have lived here, but admits to defecating directly into the water because there is no access to a latrine. That is the way it's always been done, she says. But this takes its toll. She adds: "Our life is very difficult. Often our skin is itchy and this can become infected for days."

Indeed, while hygiene is being taught by the local school through the simple message of "don't swim in the lake," it is doubtful how much is sinking in.

Anchored to the banks of the Tonle Sap, is the Chong Khneas primary school, which teaches 528 students in a country where almost half the population is under 15. Many of the pupils here know they should not play in the water but do so anyway.

One of their teachers, Ean Sophon, 30, says: "Many of the children suffer from fever and sometimes diarrhoea from playing in the water either during school hours or when they are at home. We see kids with scabies and itching, and they are often off school for up to five days at a time with such problems. We try to teach them the difference between dirty and clean bath water, and the basics of personal hygiene. But it is hard."

The repercussions of swimming in or drinking dirty water is the entrance of disease-causing bacteria into the food; one of the most common afflictions caused is diarrhoea, and if this is not properly treated it can lead to dehydration, and even death. Those working in a health centre on nearby dry land say that of the 200 people they treat every month, around a quarter are suffering from diarrhoea or skin disease; the next most common problems are colds and tonsillitis.

The lack of fishing is also becoming a distinct problem; both Hot Sam and Lach Mean complain that catches are poorer than ever. One of the reasons for this is that the system of traditional flooding of the Tonle Sap by the Mekong river has been upset.

In times past, the melting peaks of the Himalayas and wet season monsoons (which normally end in October) forced the level of the river to rise so quickly that the flow of the river reversed at Phnom Penh, filling up the Tonle Sap by five times its original 2,500sq km size every wet season. After this, its level drops gradually until the wet season begins again the following May. At the end of this wet period in November, the floodwaters have panned out to the forest surrounding the Tonle Sap, carrying fertile sediment and fish larvae with them, and populating a natural nursery ground. As the forests drained, the fish migrated back to the Mekong, via the lake, and this was when the floating villagers got their catch. But a spate of dam building on the Mekong in China is blamed for diminished flows downriver; and the reduced dispersal of fish. The effects are everywhere.

And then there is climate change. Villagers such as Hot Sam normally move their residences up to a dozen times annually to avoid damage from changing water levels. But in a year when he says the water is lower than it has been at any point in the past 20 years, such regular disturbances are beginning to reach crisis point.

The slow-moving process of migrating from one spot on the lake to another is estimated to consume up to a fifth of residents' income. Grim, considering that three million Cambodians live on under a dollar a day.

Elsewhere in the country -- for example in the remote northern province of Oddar Meanchey -- the effects of global warming are more profound. Farmers are complaining of their worst rice harvests in decades.

Hot Sam lights up a cigarette and smiles at the world. Even while the future looks muddy, he greets future vagaries with typical Cambodian diffidence. It is common to see such optimism in a country that has seen great hardship in a variety of forms for many, many years.

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