Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake is facing an emergency as its delicate ecosystem is being damaged by a combination of the climate crisis, overfishing and upstream levees.
Many of the surrounding communities of Tonle Sap Lake depend on the water source for their income. However, according to the Mekong River Commission, the lake’s volume has fallen below its historical average.
Each year the lake relies on the Mekong to reverse its flow to replenish water supplies and provide fresh fish that feeds much of the country.
Recently, however, water levels on the Mekong have dropped significantly due to shorter rainy seasons. This has left many families poorer and unable to buy drinking water, forcing them to rely on the already diminished lake for supplies.
It has also meant that the combination of increasing drought, pollution and declining fish stocks has pushed many families into poverty.
Singaporean photographer Calvin Chow spent 16 days traveling on a “small boat” with a translator through some of the 170 lake communities to photograph ongoing ecological insecurity.
He has dubbed this project Once Beating Heart to reflect the delicate ecosystem that relies on the ‘pulse’ of water from the Mekong to Lake Tonle Sap.
While shooting the series in the peak of the rainy season, Calvin met Mr. Ta, who lives in a floating house with his three-year-old daughter. Without a regular income from fishing, he cannot afford clean drinking water and gets his supplies from the lake.
Meanwhile, other families can’t afford decent toilets, and many tell Calvin that installing a permanent latrine is “unimaginable.”
“The lives of these families are overshadowed by a complex web of circumstances,” says Chow. “I feel the Tonle Sap is at a tipping point now, climate change is seriously impacting those who rely on the lake. Ultimately it all boils down to people having less income to afford basic necessities like water to drink when there are fewer fish.”
Calvin partnered with WaterAid on this project in the hope that his photos will tell the stories of families directly affected by climate change and inspire people to take action.
WaterAid says it is working in Cambodia to ensure communities have access to sanitation, hygiene and a reliable water supply that floods, droughts and natural disasters keep pumping. With clean water, decent toilets and hygiene, people can stay disease-free, go to school and earn a living.
“This partnership has given us a platform to showcase new voices telling powerful stories about the impact of climate change on people’s access to clean water,” says WaterAid’s Sophiep Chat.
“Calvin’s captivating photo series, which begins and ends with images of webs, conveys a sense of connectedness but also hints at captivity. Life on the Tonle Sap is both extremely complex and very simple, but all depend on the water.”
By photographing fishing nets dangling from dead trees and shrines used by fishermen along the lake to pray for a good catch, Calvin emphasizes how important the lake is to these communities and how desperate the situation is slightly can be.
For residents of Tonle Sap’s many floating homes, like Mr. and Mrs. Paen, it’s something of a norm to contract waterborne diseases from unsafe drinking water.
These floating homes are often only a few feet above the lake water they rely on, but this can also be a source of reduced sanitation and sanitation.
The delicate balance between people and the environment reflected in Calvin’s photographs shows how sensitive the Tonle Sap Lake society is to the drastic climate change and how desperate it is helpless to stop it.
Calvin Chow‘s Once Beating Heart was commissioned by WaterAid and 1854/British Journal of Photography.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/photography/cambodia-fishing-communities-prolonged-drought-climate-crisis-b2072111.html How Cambodia’s fishing communities are threatened by prolonged drought due to the climate crisis