Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake is running out of fish

While a dwindling number of people continue to eke out a life fishing in Cambodia’s once bountiful Tonlé Sap lake, many more have been forced to leave for the sweatshops of nearby Phnom Penh or hard labour on plantations in Thailand.

It’s early morning in the village of Oakol on Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap lake and the chatter of children’s voices mingles with the rhythmic swish of paddles in water as the sun’s rays creep over the horizon. School is about to begin and a small flotilla of wooden boats helmed by children as young as six is converging on a pair of classrooms floating on oil drums in the middle of the village.

The children’s families have lived on the lake for generations and its muddy waters are deeply woven into their identity. Yet now, their ancient way of life is hanging by a thread. Over the past decade, a devastating combination of climate change, illegal fishing and a dam construction spree on the Mekong River and its tributaries has plunged the lake, and the tens of thousands of people who live on it, into crisis.

‘This used to be an easy place to live,’ says 37-year-old Keng Srey Mom, who has spent her whole life in the village. ‘The fish used to literally jump onto our houses and often they weighed two or three kilos, but they’ve been declining for 20 years now.’

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