Life on the Lake

By Whittaker, Terry | Geographical, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Life on the Lake

Whittaker, Terry, Geographical

The Tonle Sap (Great Lake) is part of a unique freshwater system essential to the economy of Cambodia. At the height of the rainy season, overflow from the swollen Mekong river flows north through the 100-kilometre Tonle Sap river, flooding the lake with an estimated 73 billion cubic metres of nutrient-rich water. During the dry season the flow of the Tonle Sap river is reversed, slowly releasing the water back into the Mekong. Incredibly rich in aquatic life, the lake and river system supports a huge commercial and subsistence fishing industry producing 80 per cent of the protein consumed in the country. As the vast lake shrinks in the dry season from around 10,360 to 2,700, the enriched land is planted with rice, and the floating villages along its shores move with the water level -- the lives of the people inextricably bound to the lake.

A commercial fish trap at Prek Toal, Tonle Sap. The area of the lake around the floating village of Prek Toal is divided into commercial fishing lots. These areas are allocated by public auction, but practice large amounts of money change hands to ensure the lots stay under the control of powerful businessmen. The lot holders employ well-armed guards to protect the fishery from poaching. A the water recedes from the flooded forest, the lot holders erect large net traps at the lake's edge

A floating house at Siem Reap. As fertile land, enriched with silt from the floodwater, becomes exposed it is planted with rice to be harvested before the next rainy season. Since the Angkorian period of the 9th to the 15th centuries this area has provided the people of Cambodia with ample food. Now, billion-dollar projects to dam the upper reaches of the Mekong river and its tributaries are threatening the survival of this ecosystem

Family fishing operations for small-scale commerce and food are allowed in designated public fishing areas but many also buy or rent rights inside the commercial lot. Most of this fishing is done with 100-metre long gill nets catching large numbers of small species. Annually 15-20,000 tons of these fish are made into prahok, a fermented fish paste

The flooded forest at the northern end of the lake is an important breeding ground for water birds. It's the last major colony in Southeast Asia for the endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelicanus philippensis) and a regionally important breeding site for the endangered greater adjutant stork (Leptotilus dubius), white-winged duck (Cairina scutulata) and several other threatened species. The area was proposed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997

As the water in the lake falls, a fish trap is exposed at Prek Toal, Tonle Sap.

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