In Central Cambodia lies Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, home to vibrant communities living in floating villages and drawing that living from the lake’s waters. In self-contained villages where one can be born and die without touching dry land, these floating settlements support schools, clinics, markets, animal husbandry, and gas stations. While in recent years tourism has brought in some money the traditional fishing economy still dominates the lives and fortunes of those living on the lake, a living increasingly threatened by social and environmental pressures beyond the lake’s shores
Many diverse ethnic groups call Tonle Sap’s floating villages home but the majority are ethnic Vietnamese who trace their history in Cambodia to the 17th century and the period of French colonial rule. Today they are Cambodia’s largest minority group with a population of 2.2 million, but they are also the most vulnerable and historically have found themselves victims of discrimination, rights violations, and violent attacks. While the roots of Khmer-Vietnamese tension are buried in centuries of rivalry, it remains a contemporary problem. Destruction of identity papers during the Khmer Rogue’s reign of terror makes it difficult for ethnic Vietnamese to prove their citizenship and keeps them marginalized and exposed. Cambodia’s constitution only grants human rights protection to citizens. In 1993 Khmer Rouge guerrillas were blamed for the deaths of 47 Vietnamese in two separate attacks on Tonle Sap’s fishing villages. In 2003 ethnic Vietnamese were prevented from voting and 2006 saw state officials accused of evicting Vietnamese residents from the floating villages and destroying identity papers establishing them as Cambodian citizens.
The lake’s waters define the lives of the floating villagers and will determine their future. Tonle Sap is among the world’s most productive inland fisheries supplying three quarters of Cambodia’s freshwater fish, over half the nation’s protein intake, and its bounty supports some three million people. In the monsoon season the lake swells from 2,700 square kilometers to 16,000, flooding the surrounding fields and forests and provides an ideal breeding ground for fish. Fishermen from the floating villages could once ply the lake’s waters for days at a time and return laden with enough fish to pay for food, fuel and children’s education, but today the catches are diminished. Growing populations and increased fishing are not the only factors stressing the lake’s resources as the floating villagers face threats beyond their control and Cambodia’s borders. During the monsoon season the Mekong River feeds into Tonle Sap and nutrient-rich water supports the lake’s fisheries, but this is under threat. In Yunnan Province, China, newly constructed hydroelectric dams use the Mekong to power their industrial growth but inhibit the flow of necessary sediments, reduce flooding, and lower river levels. To the ethnic Vietnamese who call Tonle Sap their home the future is uncertain as fishing boats return with ever lightening loads.
Despite ongoing tension with their Khmer neighbors and a diminishing fish catch, the ethnic Vietnamese of Tonle Sap continue their lives on the lake’s waters as they have for generations. With environmental and social pressures placing escalating strain on the floating villages only time will tell if this unique way of life can be sustained in decades to come.