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POST TIME: 7 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Floating Villages of Cambodia
By Quamrul Haider

Floating Villages of Cambodia

Recently, I was at Siem Reap in Cambodia to attend an international conference on physics and engineering. The organisers of the conference were kind enough to take us on a tour of some of the most incredible sites I have ever seen – the temples of Angkor, including the iconic Angkor Wat. We were also entertained to an exquisite Apsara dance performance by terrestrial nymphs and let loose on Pub Street which defines the creative vibe of the city.

However, Siem Reap isn’t all about tantalising tales of its ancient kings written on the walls of the thousand-year-old temples, or the Apsara dance that transports tourists to a state of blissful happiness, or the streets that come to life in the afterhours with their trendy clubs, cocktail lounges, restaurants and karaoke joints. It is also about thriving communities of floating villages on the Tonlé Sap Lake, located 15 km south of Siem Reap.

A UNESCO-designated biosphere, Tonlé Sap Lake is large enough to be mistaken for an inland sea. Fed by the Tonlé Sap River, which joins the Mekong River, the lake is the largest seasonally inundated chocolate-coloured fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. From the dry season to the rainy season, the size of the lake fluctuates from 2,700 to 16,000 square kilometres and its depth from around one to 10 metres. The floods that pulse through the lake during the rainy season have earned it the nickname ‘Cambodia’s beating heart’. Interestingly, the flow of water in the Tonlé Sap River changes direction depending on the levels of rainfall.

The characteristic wooden, stilted houses of the floating villages built on the lake are designed to withstand enormous seasonal fluctuations in the size and depth of the lake. Despite being built on the water, the villages operate like villages on land. There are shopping malls, convenience stores, fish and produce markets, restaurants, cafes, schools, hospital and temples, barber shops, gas stations, basketball court, and even a soccer field on a wooden platform with an artificial turf. In addition to the hospital, there’s a mobile NGO-run clinic – a ship that transports medical team and supplies to provide primary care to the residents of the floating villages.

The mode of transportation for the villagers is motorised boats, with waterways clearly marked with easily recognisable traffic signs. Every errand, including dropping the children off at school, must be run by boats.

Majority of the people, nearly half a million, living in more than 170 floating villages are non-immigrant foreigners made up of mainly three ethnic groups – Vietnamese, Khmers and Chams. Cambodian law does not allow them to own land, but when it comes to water, there’s no such regulation. Hence, the floating villages are a safe haven for these stateless people. Nevertheless, most of the residents, whose primary source of livelihood is fishing, are self-sufficient, with floating vegetable gardens and floating barns where they keep goats, pigs and chickens.

Although surrounded by water, the silt deposited by the flow of the Mekong River, which nourishes Tonlé Sap’s abundance of fish, makes the lake’s waters unsuitable for daily use. Thus, residents have to get clean water from nearby ponds and wells whilefor drinking they buy bottled water.

One of the major environmental problems with floating villages is open defecation that contributes to sickness and pollution. Now, a simple two-container system that filters pathogens out of wastewater looks set to change lives.

Finally, the arduous yet ingenious life of these dispossessed people living in the floating dwellings that gently rocks and rolls with the seasonal harmonic motion of the shallow muddy waters of Tonlé Sap Lake is a modern day example of Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. n

The writer is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Photos: Writer