A wetland laid to waste

The Phnom Penh Post

Fires tore through the Tonle Sap wetlands last year, destroying an estimated third of the seasonally flooded forests that surround the lake. The loss of the trees, which are breeding grounds for freshwater fish, poses an existential threat to the area’s ecology and to the livelihoods of local villagers, who are taking stock a year after the disaster.

Sitting in her father’s shop, Din San Tana, 10, speaks softly when she’s asked about the forest fires last year that threatened her village and shut down school for 10 days.

“I was afraid to go to class,” she said. “I was afraid it would burn my house.”

Tana and all 2,619 families in Prek Toal village in Ek Phnom district’s Koh Chivaing commune live on floating homes. Located 25 kilometres from Siem Reap on the estuary of the Sangke River, which flows through Battambang town and spills onto the Tonle Sap lake, the floating settlement is at the heart of what is – or was – the most important breeding ground for water birds in Southeast Asia.

Brought on by a record-breaking El Niño that precipitated drought, heat waves and low water levels last year, unprecedented fires ripped through the seasonally flooded wetland forests that surround the great Tonle Sap lake. From March to July, when late rains finally arrived and extinguished the blazes, the fires consumed an estimated third of the 640,000 hectares of the Unesco designated wetland conservation area known as the Tonle Sap Biosphere.

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