If the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, then the Tonle Sap is its heart. It is the biggest lake in the region and its waters pulse through the seasons. For most of the year, the Tonle Sap is a round, shallow body of water covering less than 30 square kilometres. But as we journey along its length from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the new rains are beginning their swell. From June until November, the Mekong ushers in gallons upon gallons of flow, swelling the Tonle Sap to more than 50 times its normal size: 16,000km2 and 9 metres deep. The floodwaters refresh ponds and inundate forests, proving a vital breeding and nesting grounds for the fish that migrate up the Mekong.
By November, the end of the rainy season, the brimming lake actually causes the river to flow backwards. This annual flow reversal is cause for great celebration in Cambodia and occurs in the stretch outside of the King’s palace to much festivity.
The Tonle Sap is the most productive inland fishery in the world, supporting up to 4 million people and providing three-quarters of the country’s fish catch.
On our journey to the capital, we pass a few floating and stilted houses, their vegetable gardens suspended above the water. But most dwellings seem land-based here, with people making forays to the lake for fishing and to collect weeds.
Blake Ratner, director of the World Fisheries Center, is a mild mannered American with a tired, pale face. He is jetlagged and meeting me out of kindness on the day he returns from a trip to the States. His office in the centre of Phnom Penh is chock full of reports on the Tonle Sap fisheries, on the livelihoods that depend on the lake and the Mekong and on their threats from dams to pollution. And yet there is little real data available either for the river, the lake or the fish. He can only advise the government on ways to reduce the impact of potential threats – whether the government is interested in this advice, is another matter.
We leave Blake and head to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in a beautiful French villa overlooking the river. I have an overpriced but delicious lychee martini and luxuriate in gossip of scandal and politics with fellow journalists. I hear black stories of murder, such as that of the young family of a justice minister who let slip that judges are paid off, only to have his error (in causing embarrassment to the government) brought home in the most horrifying way. And tales of corruption, greed and malpractice that would blanch an African despot. I am not optimistic about Cambodia’s future.