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floating houses on a river bank
Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Livelihoods Dry Up Due to Pollution in Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake

Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, is facing a water quality crisis, forcing villagers who have lived in traditional floating houses to consider making new lives on the land. But their resettlement can come with costs and livelihood changes.

Despite his family living in a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake for generations, Chhun Channy now yearns for a new life on dry land.

“The water is not as good as it used to be. About eight years ago, when it rained, you would see fish everywhere. It’s nothing like that now,” said the 43-year-old fisherman from Number 2 Village in Kompong Luong Commune, Pursat province.

A map
Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces in Cambodia / Credit: Mapbox.

Channy is one of about 80,000 people in the floating villages whose lives depend on the ebb and flow of the Tonle Sap Lake—a part of the Mekong River’s flood pulse system that sustains the fishery sector and provides incomes for millions of people.

And he is not the only one thinking of abandoning a life on the water—other residents in his village are also pondering relocation. This is because they can barely make a living out of the lake due to dwindling fish stocks—a staple of their livelihood.

Cambodia relies on inland fisheries perhaps more than any other country in the world. Officially, Cambodia’s inland fisheries produce about 400,000 tons per year, the world’s fourth-largest inland fisheries production, after China, India and Bangladesh, countries with much larger populations, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Fish is a major part of the Cambodian diet, accounting for 61% of households’ animal protein intake and is the second-most consumed food after rice.

However, the Tonle Sap Lake’s deteriorating water quality, along with overfishing, is one of many factors harming the fish stock and making people move to dry land.

A 2018 scientific study highlighted the growing impact of unsustainable human activities on the Tonle Sap floodplain, leading to health issues, ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has monitored the water quality and found that nitrogen and phosphate levels in some parts of the lake exceed water quality standards.

These contaminants can adversely affect fish development and growth by disrupting their organs and reproductive systems—leading to gill damage, neurotoxic effects and other severe health issues.  

Due to the lower fish catches, Channy has been forced to shift from being a fisherman to raising fish and poultry for a living, building animal cages under the water and on his floating house made of pieces of wood and metal sheets.

He has seen the changes in the water’s appearance, noting that it sometimes looks black, similar to oil mixed with water, particularly when the temperature rises.

His wife sells fruit and is the primary income earner for the family. But their incomes are insufficient, particularly for their children’s education, making them look for a new place to live on dry land.

floating houses on the lake
Some of the remaining floating houses on the Tonle Sap Lake, where the water quality has declined, partly due to wastewater released from the floating villages and the lake’s surrounding communities / Credit: Sokom Kong.

Sources of wastewater

Due to its high biodiversity, the Tonle Sap Lake was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997. But in the past 10 years, it has been under pressure from a growing population and human activities, including infrastructure development, deforestation and climate change.

The decline in the water quality in the Tonle Sap Lake has impacted villagers in multiple ways, from lowering incomes from the fishery sector to poor sanitation which degrades health.

The government’s report says one of the causes of water pollution in the lake is the lack of effective waste management and proper disposal facilities in the cities and communities surrounding the lake, as well as on the floating villages.

Collaborative research by the Institute of Technology of Cambodia said more than 234 tons of feces was discharged into water sources daily, and 77 tons of it was discharged into the lake every day.  

In Kompong Luong floating village, Channy witnessed many residents dispose of their waste directly into the water. Households, many of which are impoverished, commonly use an open toilet system that directly discharges waste into the lake and contaminates the water they rely on for daily consumption.

This polluted water has affected fisherman Suy Seth, who spends about 10 hours a day in contact with the lake water, while fishing and at home.

This prolonged exposure has resulted in skin diseases for him and his family, as they are often in contact with water containing toilet, kitchen and other wastes. Their children sometimes have stomach problems and diarrhea.

Research in 2019 observed that villagers on the Tonle Sap Lake faced a high infection risk from waterborne pathogens, especially during the dry season.

Despite these conditions, Seth and his family continue using water collected from beneath their house, which they store in plastic tanks to let any debris settle. It is used for bathing and sometimes even cooking. They must buy drinking water, a costly necessity for the family.

a woman sitting on a floating house with her dog
A resident of a floating village near the bank of the Tonle Sap Lake does her chores during the day. Since 2015, the Cambodian government has relocated some floating villagers to dry land as part of its effort to improve water quality and the environment / Credit: Sokom Kong.
an elderly woman sitting on a float house on the river banks
An elder resident rests in the floating house near the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake / Credit: Sokom Kong.

Some contaminated water also comes from external sources surrounding the lake, including from households and the industry, agriculture and livestock sectors.

Farmers around the lake raise livestock like cattle, chickens and ducks, and these animals’ manure is a significant contributor to water pollution in the lake, said Chen Rorthy, an official with the General Directorate of Animal Health and Production under Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

He explained that it was common for cattle to graze in the lowlands surrounding the lake during the dry season. The arrival of the rainy season, which raises the lake’s water level, sweeps the accumulated animal waste into the lake.

Adapting to a new lifestyle

Cambodia’s population census for 1998, 2008 and 2019 indicated a decreasing population in “water-based villages”—which refers to a floating community where fishing is the main source of income.

This is due to a government policy of relocating households from floating villages to dry land since 2015, as part of an effort to reduce pollution and protect the environment in the rivers and the Tonle Sap Lake.

But many villagers also left the water voluntarily because of better opportunities on land.

In December 2022, news reports said the government moved the last remaining floating village, with about 520 families, from Kampong Chhnang province south of the Tonle Sap Lake to dry land.

People living in nearly 200 floating houses in Prek Pnov district, on the border between Phnom Penh and Kandal provinces, were also relocated in June the previous year.

Ma Bong, an elder and former resident in a floating village, was relocated to land in Boribor district in Kampong Chhnang province. She has seen significant changes in the villagers’ livelihoods. 

“We used to live on the water, but the authorities guided us to relocate here. Living on land has distanced us from our traditional fishing spots,” she said.

“One major change is the health of our livestock. We’ve seen an increase in animal diseases. Just last year, I lost about 100 chickens.” 

floating houses near a river bank
Some floating houses near the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake in Kompong Preah village in Kompong Chhnang province were demolished after the government made villagers relocate to dry land / Credit: Sokom Kong.

Fishing now requires more effort and travel to the water, forcing many villagers to seek alternative jobs. They must also learn a new land-based lifestyle, including shifting to use well water, though many of them lack the tools or machines to purify the water. 

The introduction of toilets, provided by charitable organizations, has improved the sanitation of Ma Bong’s community. However, not every household has individual access. Two to three houses share one toilet.

In the face of these challenges, some solutions are also emerging around the Tonle Sap Lake to improve its environment.

Biogas plants, which help reduce agricultural and livestock waste, are becoming popular among local farmers with support from a government initiative that offers partial funding and technical assistance.

Sem Sophal, a farmer in Pursat province, uses cow dung to produce gas for cooking and lighting.

“This biogas is a real lifesaver for my cooking, especially when there’s a power cut. And the best part? It’s all ours, no need to worry about being overcharged like with the gas we buy from the market,” Sophal said.

International NGOs like Lien Aid also play a crucial role, introducing projects like floating toilets to improve sanitation in the remaining floating villages, signifying a growing awareness and action towards improving the water quality of the Tonle Sap Lake.


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Mekong Eye on January 22, 2024. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: Residents of floating villages near the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake rest on their wooden decks. Despite relying on the lake for their livelihoods for generations, some are considering leaving the water due to declining fish catches caused by poor water quality and overfishing / Credit: Sokom Kong.