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Little recourse for Cambodians living adrift

Villagers cope with ever-shifting lake environment

CHONG KNEAS, Cambodia -- Every year, Tonle Sap lake expands into a small sea with the onset of the monsoon season, then shrinks when the rains end. It makes nomads of the people of Chong Kneas, a sprawling community of houseboats and thatched huts at the lake's northern end.

When the rains begin, drivers struggle to steady their trucks on muddy trails leading to the villages as they haul away residents and their ramshackle shelters and meager belongings on an unwanted but necessary seasonal journey.

Although two of its villages sit on dry land, the other five are floating communities of houseboats on which people live and run businesses.

Classrooms sit on floating platforms, and children row themselves to school on small sampans, the same means by which vendors go ``door-to-door" to sell vegetables or noodle soup.

But it is the villagers' lives that are really adrift at Chong Kneas. Its 5,800 people, like most of those in rural Cambodia, live at subsistence level, and it is a heavy burden to pay to move every year when the lake's edge pushes north as much as 4.5 miles, then moves back as the waters recede.

About 70 percent of the villagers earn only the equivalent of 70 cents to $1.90 a day, said Em Mann, the Chong Kneas community leader. Each move costs a family up to $14.40 to transport their shelter and belongings, leaving many in debt year-round to moneylenders.

``Every year, they have to move and buy clothes and kitchenware to replace that blown away by the storms of the monsoon," he said. ``We are fed up with this way of life but have no alternative."

He said life would have changed for the better had Cambodia's government not scrapped a plan conceived by the Asian Development Bank to move Chong Kneas to a permanent settlement on high ground, with a clean water supply, sanitation, roads, schools, and medical clinics.

Neou Bonheur, the Environment Ministry's coordinator of the Tonle Sap environmental management project, said the government couldn't afford the move -- which would cost millions of dollars -- or the land acquisition and employment issues it would entail.

``All these issues are quite complicated" for the government to pursue, he said.

Em Mann, the community leader, complained that some tour companies also argued against moving Chong Kneas because tourists like to visit the floating community.

``They must be really thinking we are animals in a zoo here," he said.

It is a quirk of nature that dictates the fate of these villagers, many of whom rely on fishing to make a living.

Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's biggest freshwater lake, alternately feeds, and feeds from, the Mekong River.

During the May-October rainy season, the river flows north, swelling the lake to an area of as much as 5,000 square miles , and during the November-April dry season, the Mekong flows south, draining water out of the lake .

The lake long provided enough bounty to sustain those living along its shores. But many villagers say life has become harder because of dwindling fish stocks, tighter government regulation of fishing, and environmental degradation.

Pollution is threatening the villagers' health and lifestyle. With no public sewage system, they use the lake -- their traditional water supply -- as a toilet and garbage dump as well.

For safe drinking water, villagers must pay nearly 30 cents for 8 gallons of well water brought in by vendors from other villages miles away on high ground, said Ly Saloeurn, a 51-year-old fisherman who earns roughly $1.20 a day from fishing to support his family of eight.

Now that the government has spurned the plan to give them a permanent home, most villagers are resigned to living adrift.

Sia Yem Son, 70, said he didn't have the words to adequately describe the hardships.

But one thing is certain, he said. ``It will never end before I die."

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