Climate change

INTERVIEW - Author Addresses Issues on the Tonle Sap Lake

American journalist Abby Seiff speaks to Kiripost about her new book exploring the severe threats climate change, hydropower dams and illegal fishing pose to the Tonle Sap Lake and the millions of people who depend on it for survival.
Troubling the Water by Abby Seiff
Troubling the Water by Abby Seiff

There’s smaller, fewer fish in the Tonle Sap Lake, said the author of a new book ‘Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and A Vanishing World in Cambodia,’as she reveals a series of critical issues that millions of Cambodians face due to hydropower projects, climate change and illegal fishing that severely disrupt fishing and threaten food supplies.

American journalist Abby Seiff is in Phnom Penh this week to launch her book at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik // by YK Art House on Street 830 on Sunday. It talks about the impact hydropower dams, overfishing and illegal fishing are having on Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater body of water, which is “facing a really critical stage; facing a devastating stage”.

The book also explores the impact these factors have on the livelihoods of those who live on the lake and how they are changing their way of life, which has been sustained for many generations.

Abby Seiff
Abby Seiff

Seiff said there will be food security issues, fish will be smaller, the lake - which forms Cambodia’s beating heart - will lose its rhythm and have huge ecological impacts. These include a vast loss of paddy fields and a detrimental impact on food farms.

“It's [the lake] home to hundreds of species and home to important endangered species, you know, these species that are worth protecting. It's important culturally and it's kind of a valuable lake,” Seiff said on Friday.

Seiff is from New York and loves fish. She was based in Southeast Asia for nearly a decade, having mostly worked in Cambodia.

Seiff’s book title derives from a Khmer proverb, which refers to upholding the boat without leaving tracks, fish without troubling the water, and that the idea to write the book came during a field trip to Tonle Sap in 2016. That year brought with it droughts and a raft of wildfires.

Seiff’s trip was also to study the impact on people. While conducting interviews, she found many people saying there were fewer fish.

She said she does not think the lake will disappear and added there is no data on the number of people affected by the dramatic decline in fish.

“I don't think the lake is going to cease to exist, maybe it’s just not going to have a flood pulse anymore. It's not going to have many fish. It’s hard to get a precise figure but there are roughly a million people who directly depend on the lake and that's a huge number.”

Seiff wanted to capture and document events, with more attention paid to the lake. She said the government’s crackdown on illegal fishing is targeting people who are very vulnerable and incredibly poor.

She said this crackdown is chasing small players while there is probably a lot of illegal large-scale commercial fishing happening in the shadows.

“If the government is serious, they need to really go after big actors,” she said, adding that the government needs to ensure people have livelihoods and access to arable land.

“I hope what this does is underscore the individual needs of Cambodia’s most vulnerable population and that any solution to the lake’s problems is very complicated. There is no easy solution but I would hope they really take into account what the impact is going to be on the very poor people who rely on the lake,” Seiff said.

Seiff said that some of these issues sit out of the Cambodian government’s control. These include climate change, which is the responsibility of wealthy countries, and the fact that most hydro dams are upstream in China and Laos.

“One thing that Cambodia​ can do, that we haven't really seen, is not just the dams on some of the Mekong but the tributary dams. In Cambodia, it seems, the government is willing to go ahead with tributary dams and those are really devastating, like Lower Sesan 2 has a bigger impact on Tonle Sap than any other dams at the moment,” she said.