Every afternoon and evening in this floating village just north of the Tonle Sap, Kuy An looks out at the clouds of smoke rising ominously in every direction. Everything here in Prek Toal Village and neighboring Anlong Taour depends on water, and the effects of a year with too little of it are wreaking havoc on the floodplains of the lake. Fishing yields are down, the water is at historic lows and the flooded forest is on fire.
“In 60 years, I’ve never seen the water this low,” says Kuy An, who was born in Anlong Taour Village. Over the last decade or so, fishermen on the Tonle Sap have noted falling fish yields, but this year’s El Nino has created a literal firestorm that is likely to impact the area for years to come. Kuy An and his son Hoksan, who runs a tourism company that brings visitors to the village, lead us up to a viewing platform to survey the landscape. With the exception of the village below, a tightly packed collection of wooden and tin homes on the river, scrubby forest extends on all sides. To the southeast, the trees eventually give way to the Tonle Sap, the massive “beating heart” of Cambodia. In the rainy season, all of this will be flooded, but so far this year it is bone dry. As has been happening since early April, flames are beginning to shoot up in the mid-afternoon heat. From our vantage point we can see three separate fires spewing smoke. The villagers have been pumping and spraying water when the flames get too close, and they have cut back the brush on the riverbanks that lead up to the homes. Still, last month one of the homes in the village was destroyed by fire, and Kuy An is clearly uncomfortable with the ever-present smoke. He also fears the long-term impact.
The flooded forest is an essential component of the ecosystem, as a home for fish spawning and feeding. Before heading down into the lake and the country’s myriad downstream waterways, many of the fish start their journey here. For a community nearly entirely dependent on fishing, the forest is crucial. “There are less and less flooded forests and less fish so the local community can’t earn income for their fishing activities,” says Long Kheng, a Project Manager for Wildlife Conservation Society. “It will impact the economic health of the local community and national as well.” Kheng is the director of the more than 21,000 hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, which is 6 kilometers from the village. In December 2015 it was declared a Ramsar Site, a prestigious designation in the birding world. According to WCS, it hosts more than 50,000 waterbirds and attracts Spot billed Pelicans, Milky Storks, the Black headed Ibis and many others. At the time of the designation, WCS Country Director Ross Sinclair announced that the decision had “restored Prek Toal to its place as a natural wonder of Cambodia.”
Birds on the bank of the Tonle Sap.
Just six months later, at least one-third of the sanctuary has been destroyed by fire, and Kheng expects more destruction before rain finally arrives. Although Prek Toal residents say the fire started because of the heat and dry conditions, Kheng suspects they were the result of fishermen clearing land to set up nets in the forest. “This year is a very terrible year,” Kheng says. “I am very concerned about the bird colony because Prek Toal is the central nest of waterbirds in the area.” It is also a crucial source of income for residents. Fifty residents from the three villages in the area work as rangers in the sanctuary and a few homestays, restaurants and souvenir stores have opened to cater to tourists.
One of the rangers, Mia Rotha, has been patrolling in the sanctuary for the last six years. Before it became a protected site, he says poaching was rampant in the wetlands. Now, he and his team observe the birds from 21 viewing platforms – many of which have now been destroyed – and prevent potential hunters. With their habitat now under threat, it is unclear what will be left to protect. “We want to rebuild the trees but I don’t know if the birds will come back,” Rotha says. “If I lose my job I guess I might go to Siem Reap [city].” According to Kheng, the government and the German development bank KfW have already pledged funds to replant trees in the sanctuary next year but he is unsure if this year is an indication of threats to come. “We’re not quite sure what will happen to the birds,” he says. “We don’t know for sure whether or not the habitat will burn in the future.”
Prek Toal resident Moern Sarem, whose hands are black from collecting burnt wood for charcoal.
While tourists flock to the Tonle Sap to observe the area’s traditional and unique way of life on the water, residents are feeling pressure to look elsewhere for a living. “I think the people here would like to change but they don’t have a choice,” says Kvan Thya, Chief of Koh Chhiveang Commune. “They don’t have land titles and they don’t have other skills besides fishing.” He would like to see the government help villagers to build fish farms and to raise other animals like chickens and ducks.
Kuy An agrees, but is skeptical about what’s to come. “Before the village life wasn’t poor or rich,” he says. “It was in the middle. Frankly, now people are leaving to work in the city.”