Book Review: Elegy to a Rapidly Vanishing Lake

In “Troubling the Water,” Abby Seiff chronicles the threats to a vast Cambodian lake and the people who live there.

According to Cambodian lore, the ocean was once ruled by the king of the Naga empire. The Naga were an amphibious people who made their home between land and water. A prince discovered this underworld when he traveled to an island and met its princess on the shore. Naturally, they fell in love. After the prince proved his mettle, the king blessed their marriage by swallowing the ocean, revealing the land below. “The land born of water was Cambodia,” writes journalist Abby Seiff in her new book, “Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia.”

Cambodia’s deep connection to water — culturally, ecologically, economically — is at the heart of Seiff’s book. It’s an elegy to Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest body of freshwater and one of the world’s richest inland fisheries. Fed by a branch of the Mekong River, the lake is more of an inland sea, one that shrinks and swells, up to six times its size, with the dry and rainy seasons. But dams, overfishing, and climate change threaten this ancient rhythm. Fish are vanishing from the lake. On Tonle Sap, Seiff shows, this risks an entire way of life.

A unique water cycle underlies the riches of Tonle Sap Lake. The lake depends on the Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong in the dry season, itself one of the most biodiverse river basins in the world, second only to the Amazon. Twice a year, the Tonle Sap River reverses itself. It’s the only river in the world to do so, Seiff writes. It starts in May, when the rainy season kicks off. Monsoons flood the Mekong, sending a wall of water — and with it, silt and nutrients — down the Tonle Sap and into the lake. The lake swallows the land, leaving only treetops to gesture to the plain below. Residents anchor their rafted homes to the submerged tree trunks, and entire villages take float. Then, come November, the rain tapers off and the Mekong subsides. The lake, swollen with rainwater, pours into its parent river and back into the Mekong. Floating homes settle back onto their stilts.

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