BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 2: Living with the flood: A political ecology of fishing, farming, and migration around Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Publication date:
December 2017

Living with Floods in a Mobile Southeast Asia: A Political Ecology of Vulnerability, Migration and Environmental Change

Carl Middleton and Borin Un

Carl Middleton, Rebecca Elmhirst and Supang Chantavanich

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For over 1.7 million people within the floodplain of Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia, living with floods is both a way of and a source of life. Farmers and fishers benefit from the natural resources that the lake’s flood regime sustains, albeit in different ways. Fishers benefit from flooding for productive capture fisheries; and farmers benefit from the fertile soils nourished by the floodwaters, and the availability of water itself for their agriculture. Irregular flooding, however, can be detrimental or even disastrous, generating vulnerability: flooding that is too low or of too shorter duration results in less productive fisheries, shortage of water for agriculture and high pest incidence for dry season rice farming; whilst flooding that is prolonged or arrives too early shortens the farming season, and damages infrastructure, crops and livestock, although increases fish productivity.

This chapter shows how small-scale farmers and fishers around Tonle Sap Lake have been relatively resilient to flooding. However, changing flooding regimes have created more regular shocks for farmers, whilst declining fish stocks are increasing fishing households vulnerability. These flooding-related shocks and associated vulnerabilities link to the creation of debt for farmers and fishers, which influences the decision to send household members to migrate. Whether the incentive for migration is livelihood diversification or debt repayment, the influence of the Tonle Sap’s flood regime from year to year is significant as it is generative of the viability of farming and fishing livelihoods. Household livelihood viability and associated vulnerabilities, however, is in turn determined by social factors, such as the politics and contestations over access to resources in the village, as well as national level policies on fisheries and farming and transboundary water governance.

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