The Tonle Sap, translated as the “Great Lake” and often referred to as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, is the largest freshwater body in the region and one of the world’s most productive freshwater fisheries.
It’s so productive, in fact, that the estimated quantity of fish caught in the Tonle Sap each year is greater than the entire recreational and commercial freshwater fishing industries of both Canada and the US combined.
The fish from the lake constitute the primary source of protein for the majority of Cambodians. As Taber Hand, founder of the non-profit organization Wetlands Work! said of the Tonle Sap, “it’s a food factory – and you don’t have to pay to plant the fish”.
Despite the creation of a 200-hectare conservation area, fishing communities on south-east Asia’s largest freshwater lake fear their way of life is slipping away.
Out past the floating villages, the day-trippers and the mangrove arcades, the brown waters of the Tahas river open into a vast, dull green lake fringed by forest and a seemingly endless horizon.
Silhouetted by a sinking afternoon sun, distant figures fish from small boats under a blue sky streaked with low cloud. It is the kind of weather that both tourists and Savon Pen prefer.
“Sometimes you look up at the sky and it’s gloomy and I worry that the boat will capsize,” says the 42-year-old fisher-woman.
“The wind blows them over and when the boats sink, they go straight to the bottom of the water. Every year, people die.” Over the past few months, two people from her community have drowned.
Tonlé Sap lake is many things to many people: a Unesco biosphere reserve since 1997; a wetland that supports the livelihoods of more than 1.2 million people; a tourist attraction; and the source of more than a third of all the protein eaten by Cambodia’s 15 million people. In the rainy season, its area can swell from about 2,700 sq km to 16,000 sq km.
But to Savon Pen, the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia is a treacherous but necessary workplace, one on which she and her husband depend to survive and to feed their six children. A good day’s work – which means spending 14 hours on the water to reach the far grounds where the fish are biggest – will net them between $8 (£5.30) and $16. From that, they will have to provide for their children, buy fuel and maintain the boat.
“It’s very difficult because if we don’t catch fish, we can’t put food on the table for our children,” she says. “There are times when I have to take the risk and go out even though I know it’s dangerous.”
Until three years ago, life around the lake was very different. Before then, much of the fishing was divided up into government-approved lots worked by commercial vessels, leaving many local people excluded. In March 2012, the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, ordered an end to the lots and opened up the waters to those living along its shores.
Although the move was well received by local communities, it has raised fears that unrestricted access could destroy fish stocks. In a bid to safeguard the lake’s population and diversity, an EU-funded programme has established a 200-hectare (494-acre) fish conservation area (FCA) close to the Kampong Phluk commune, which is home to nearly 3,900 people.
According to the local community fisheries, the FCA is paying dividends: its deputy chief claims that only 1% of the fishing in the area is illegal, compared with 30% across the whole commune.
But despite its success, some local fisherfolk worry it may be too little, too late. Vey Kuang, who has lived in Kampong Phluk for all of her 54 years, says the fish population has dwindled drastically over the past 30 years.
“When I was 18 or 19, there were a lot more fish than there are today,” she says.
“Back then, if we wanted to go fishing, four of us could catch the fish with our bare hands. There were a lot of tree branches in the water then to attract fish, but they have all gone now, so the fish population has decreased and some species are no longer found.”
The forests surrounding the lake have been denuded for decades because people rely on wood and charcoal for fuel, but Vey Kuang believes that climate change is also affecting the seasons and the fish.
“The weather is getting hotter and now even the rainy season is as hot as the dry season,” she says. “November is meant to be a cool month but this year, it’s hot.”
Ning Nee, the community’s commerce chief, agrees: “We have seen an increase in heat. It’s hotter now and we are urging people to plant trees.”
Vey Kuang has noticed other signs of climate change. She points to the water below the stern of the boat she is sitting on and says her mother has told her that, in her lifetime, the level of the lake has never been so low. What’s more, she adds, the lake has started to smell, which shouldn’t happen given the fresh downpours of the rainy season.
“I hope the fish conservation area will help,” she says. “But I am very worried about how things will be for my grandchildren. If there are no more fish, we’ll have to send people from the community to the city and then the young people will go and we, the old people, will be left here selling fish and vegetables.”
Others in the community are more ambivalent about the changing times and are eyeing ecotourism as a way to increase their income. Many already supplement their fishing activities by rowing tourists around their stilted houses and out into the lake.
Even the most vulnerable people in the village – single women without boats of their own – can earn a couple of dollars through the rotational scheme. Tourists are charged $5 for a small boat, of which $2 goes to the boat owner, $2 to the rower and $1 back to the community to fund conservation efforts.
Savon Pen is delighted at the extra income and unfazed by the tourists who cruise the river and study its people and wildlife through a camera lens.
“I’m very happy to have my picture taken,” she says. “I hope they will share the pictures and then more people will come.”
Although some of her neighbors fear that the changing weather could soon bring an end to a way of life that has endured for generations, and disperse families and communities, Savon Pen is resolutely unsentimental about the future.
“If I could choose, I would quit fishing and do tourism. Tourism isn’t difficult – fishing is,” she says.
“I’d like to live in a town because I’ve been there and I’ve seen that people there can support themselves in different ways and have time to celebrate holidays with their families.”
By Sam Jones