A Heart Out of Sync at the “Chaktomuk” in Cambodia

April 10, 2022   •   By Farah Abdessamad

Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia

Abby Seiff

THE TONLE SAP LAKE is situated west of Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, below the province of Siem Reap. The Tonle Sap River connects the lake with the great Mekong River at the “chaktomuk” or “four faces,” the name of the river confluence in Phnom Penh, an X-shaped area where the Tonle Sap, the Mekong, and the Bassac meet. Yet there’s something more unusual with the Tonle Sap — it breathes.

The river seasonally inundates the Cambodian floodplains, growing 10 times in size. Twice a year, along with the rainy and dry seasons, it changes course. “Scientists call that a monotonal flood-pulsed system; poets liken it to a beating heart,” writes Abby Seiff in Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia.

This “pulse” or “flow reversal” punctuates cultural life, seasons, harvests, and festivities: “After months of rain, the river is no longer the yellowed, low-lying stillness of dry season. Now it is turbulent and swift. And the races, the floats, the fireworks, and the concerts are here to celebrate this singular fact: the river has reversed course.”

The lake is a provider of food, and so any change to fisheries in Cambodia alters livelihoods, nutrition, and food security. Cambodians consume 140 pounds of fish each year on average, compared to 44 pounds as a global average, with 80 percent of Cambodians relying on fish as their main source of protein. Indeed, it’s hard to eat anything Cambodian that doesn’t contain the taste of prahok, a fermented fish paste made from trey riel, a type of fish commonly extracted from the Tonle Sap Lake.

The Tonle Sap River and Lake are not only the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia but are also historically fecund and culturally significant — and they’re dying. This matters not just for Cambodia. Sixty million people depend on the river for their survival. In addition, the Mekong basin comes second only to the Amazon for its biodiversity.

Recent books have conveyed the significance of rivers to an alluvial socioeconomic and cultural fabric, such as Terje Tvedt’s The Nile (2021), Janet M. Hartley’s The Volga (2021), and The Seine: The River that Made Paris (2019) by Elaine Sciolino. All of them show how rivers play a historical and mythological role in shaping communities and nations, including indigenous nations. Troubling the Water is in the same vein, and also about documenting ecological devastation. The days of the Tonle Sap Lake as a provider of economic and spiritual wealth are rapidly dwindling.

Each chapter in Seiff’s book recalls traditional Cambodian proverbs that gravitate toward water and fisheries, underscoring how foundational these notions are to the constitution of the country’s identity. Among the proverbs are “where there is water, there are fish,” which equates fish with life, or “when the water recedes, the ant eats the fish,” a more cautionary saying on the need to remain alert for predatory behavior during hardships or moments of vulnerability. In Cambodia’s old tales, fantastical serpentine sea beasts, the Nagas, are half-human creatures interpreted as a bridge between realms. Their forms have layers of cultural significance. The three-headed Naga is said to populate the bottom of the sea, and in the creation myth of Cambodia, Preah Thong (an Indian prince, later known as Kaundinya I) married Neang Neak, the daughter of a Naga king, a Naga herself (later queen Soma). As a gift to the couple, the Naga king drank water and land emerged, and then from the couple’s sacred union came the pre-Angkorian kingdom of Funan. The water, then, shapes an entire way of thinking about the world. In this case, the water’s symbolic quality as a heart and lungs, a pulse, and a timekeeper echoes beyond a physical geography to fuse with the divine and what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “mental soil.”

The Angkorian Empire, which lasted from the ninth to 15th century, with a population of one million at its height (London counted fewer than 20,000 inhabitants in the 12th century), relied on water for irrigation, fishing, and drinking. Its rise was a by-product of the river’s fecundity together with new water management and distribution techniques. It was not uncommon to harvest rice three times per year, while today farmers struggle with a good single yield of rice annually. A Chinese visitor to 13th-century Angkor, Zhou Daguan, wrote of the Tonle Sap Lake as a “freshwater sea.” The temples of Angkor are still surrounded by moats. Modern archaeological techniques involving lidar reveal a maze of reservoirs, confirming French archaeologist Bernard Philippe Groslier’s 1960s description of Angkor as a “hydraulic city.” The fall of the Angkorian Empire, which many experts now attribute to ecological breakdown, is, then, an augur. Regrettably, contemporary Cambodia has ignored it.

For instance, mega-dams upstream, while responding to economic development and the need for energy, are blocking the silt that formerly nourished paddy fields. Addressing one problem is creating a bigger one in the future. In addition, China, from where the Mekong originates and where half of the river lies, has closed the tap more than once: not only does the country derive around a fifth of its domestic energy generation from hydropower but its dam policy is about leveraging diplomatic influence admixed with general mismanagement. China counts 13 dams on the Mekong (existing and planned for construction), and some can hold trillions of gallons of water. Manipulating water levels upstream sent the lake and river downstream to dangerously low levels in 2019 and 2020, which is likely to continue.

Climate change is also accelerating extreme weather patterns, which translates into ever more floods and droughts. The reversal of the river comes later than it used to: a heart out of sync, a dangerous arrhythmia. Additionally, illegal fishing depletes resources and sends fishermen to look for garment factory jobs in the cities. Children of these lake communities are encouraged to pursue other occupations: “Everyone [i]s in debt; lots of people [a]re still being forced to migrate for work; no one expect[s] their kids to grow up to be fishers,” Seiff writes, reporting in 2017.

“How is a system that worked with such precision, for such a long time, unmade so quickly,” she asks. The lake’s frail survival, such as it is, appears near-miraculous — and unlikely to last. Blending firsthand interviews, personal observations, historical vignettes, and wider perspectives on Cambodia’s socioeconomic development during the last decades, Seiff brings her embedded experience of the country to bear in a book which could otherwise have remained a dry nonfiction account of climate change and natural resource exploitation. As a resident and regular visitor, Seiff contextualizes food and culture, such as prahok (“Eat prahok with rice, at home, or dip icy sliced vegetables into it at the beer garden. Get the type that comes in blocks and fry it. Drop a spoonful of the watery version into the stew, the frying meat, the steaming greens”). Seiff insufflates rhythm, proximity, and vitality into her text, shifting from interviews to analysis to historical perspectives. For instance, in the chapter “Navigate a River by Following Its Bends,” she surveys the villages of Kompong Khleang, Kbal Romeas, and Koh Preah; discusses the impact of the dams downstream; recalls the effects of the American bombing of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge regime on the river (“[t]he river’s brief reprieve came at the cost of the region”); and introduces unfamiliar readers to prahok-related cooking and eating tips. Data and statistics come alive as she interviews fishermen, shop owners, crocodile farmers, floating village residents, members from the Muslim Cham community and Khmer Rouge genocide survivors — a diverse cast that converges in a similar prognosis: the lake and their lives are vanishing. “[H]ow could you survive in the future,” asks Cheam So Phat from Koh Preah. “We used to see them here, now there are none,” says Sok Chetra near the Prek Toal reserve, of giant catfish she hasn’t seen for the last three decades. “It’s a big difference from last year,” concludes 48-year-old Los Rokeas, residing in Kok Ai in 2016.

In a chapter dedicated to the role of the Khmer Rouge in annihilating Cambodia’s social and legal fabric and ancestral livelihoods in the late 1970s, Seiff explains how over-clearing forests damaged the ecosystem, and disruptions in land tenure generated ongoing land-related disputes. Fishers forcibly became rice farmers. In addition, returnees who escaped starvation and exile came back to lake communities full of the ghosts of those who didn’t. But, paradoxically, the immediate aftermath of the Khmer Rouge was a time of plenty for the lake — rendered by a propaganda poet in 1982 — when fish could be scooped by the bucket:

Fish, fish, fish
all over the water, mud, and land.
Too many fish to eat
too many different kinds. There’s no lack

“During the Khmer Rouge, no one caught any fish — so after, there were a lot. Once I spent three days collecting fish from just one net,” recalls Horm Sok, who moved to a floating village shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. By contrast, fishermen now roam helplessly on the lake’s surface collecting empty nets. “Decades ago” thus feels like a bygone era. The big fish have vanished and, it seems, with them the mirage of a growth model, and of economic hubris.

Troubling the Water also features stunning monochromatic photo-reportage from Bangkok-based photographer and videographer Nicolas Axelrod. An aerial shot of Kampong Luong shows the expanse of a floating village and the sophistication of community spatial planning: floating houses are clustered in neighborhoods with empty space seeming to mimic streets on the mainland. Documenting prahok makers, vendors, daily workers, and other professions that rely upon the lake and its daily catch, the photos are saturated with the quotidian. One of these shows a rare moment of idleness: two fishermen on their respective boats, their silhouettes suffused with longing, gaze at the far distance during the rainy season, backs turned to the camera; a dead tree protrudes from the water. There is no way forward, it seems.

Almost one-third of Cambodia’s total population live in the Tonle Sap region. Seiff notes that between 2008 and 2019 — dates when I, too, lived in Cambodia, and saw firsthand how poverty reduction initiatives did not in fact suppress rising inequalities — the population density of the Tonle Sap region grew by a quarter, nearly twice the overall national rate, thus placing additional strain on dwindling resources.

Seiff doesn’t romanticize the ancestral ways of rural lifestyle. I often wished, however, for more detail in her social frescoes, observations, and quotes. I wanted to understand the characters, families, and neighborhoods better, to draw out individual and collective memories, cultural lore and how historical visitors shape our understanding of the lake and, in some instances, contributed to colonial interests. We hear about characters like Chang Laom, Suon Chhoeun, and Phon Sar, but not intimately, and so I wished for the 110-page-long book to be at least twice longer.

What’s ahead then, for these disenfranchised lake communities that can’t press reset? The answer: Economic migration mostly, or fish farming, or land for those who can afford it. Competition with countries like Vietnam to access global markets will only accelerate, making conditions worse. Loss such as this can’t be captured by a physical measurement alone — it’s not just about disappearing livelihoods but about a broken bond with nature, about lives spent without the excitement of catching a giant fish weighing over 600 pounds, and the attenuation of mythical ancestors. It’s a moribund ecosystem and a fading heartbeat. We close Troubling the Water wanting a different ending.

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Farah Abdessamad is a New York City–based essayist and critic from France and Tunisia.