Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia.

AuthorYong, Ming Li

Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia. By Abby Seiff. Lincoln, Nebraska: Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2022. Softcover: 130pp.

Troubling the Water is a timely and important account of the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, where a unique and critical ecosystem in the trans-boundary Mekong River Basin directly supports 1.5 million Cambodians and one of the world's largest inland fisheries. Abby Seiff is a journalist who worked in Southeast Asia for almost a decade, serving as an editor at Cambodia's two main English-language newspapers at the time, The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post. Based largely on reporting trips undertaken between 2016 and 2017, her book investigates the deterioration of the Tonle Sap Lake's ecosystems and natural resources, telling a story that rings familiar with researchers who also study the lake: "Everyone told us the same thing: the water was lower than ever, the fish were smaller than ever, there seemed to be none in the lake" (p. 9).

The scale of the problems faced by Tonle Sap Lake inhabitants is immense, and these problems are deep-rooted and intertwined in complex ways. Chapter One demonstrates the centuries-old significance of water around the lake and its floodplains. It also shows parallels between how extreme drought contributed to the decline of the Angkor kingdom and the contemporary decline of the lake's fisheries. Chapter Two traces a lost age of fish abundance, and the impact of the French and Khmer Rouge regimes on fisheries management. Chapters Three and Four explore the drivers of fishery decline, dissecting the complex interrelationships and tensions between conservation, commercial fishing, illegal fishing, deforestation and corruption. The trans-boundary dynamics and implications of hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin are also examined. Chapters Five to Nine explore the challenges that various vulnerable and marginalized communities face in adapting to these environmental changes. In these chapters, the author highlights the vicious cycles of debt and precarity arising from the lack of alternative and sustainable water-based livelihood options, social safety nets and government support.

The strength of Seiff's book lies in her evocative, poignant and immersive descriptions of people, their stories and life that takes place in tandem with the Mekong's flood pulse. This allows readers to clearly visualize and empathize with the struggles...

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