Climate Lessons From the Floating Villages of Cambodia
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Lake Tonle Sap is a part of Cambodia’s inland water system that’s connected to the flooded forests that purify water and buffer communities from storms—an important benefit as climate change makes extreme weather more frequent. Every year from June to November, the Mekong Delta backs up into Lake Tonle Sap, creating water-depth fluctuations of up to 10 meters. The result is that land-based buildings are inundated during the rainy season, then refurbished and reoccupied again after the water recedes.
The 2,000 residents who live in the village of Mechrey have solved the problem in a different way—by creating a floating village that can migrate from place to place. Every person, young and old, plays a part in the daily and seasonal demands of this nomadic community life. As planners, we often focus on the more concrete physical and economic domains of climate adaptation, but there’s much to learn from the softer and more elusive side of community-centered planning, where the cultural, social, educational, and organizational characteristics of community life create a sort of intrinsic resilience.
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The entire village consists of buildings that float on bamboo rafts or metal barrels, each one hand crafted with its own distinctive layout, style, and colors. There are few windows and doors to open, as most sleeping occurs in hammocks and all aspects of personal and social life are, except for an occasional hanging blanket, laid bare for community interaction.
While formal K-8 schooling takes place in a row of floating school buildings, it’s clear that learning is a much more visceral and integrated element of community life. One of my favorite observations came from watching children, who don’t appear to be treated with the same level of exclusion as in other cultures. Instead, kids of all ages appear to be invited, and perhaps even expected, to help with grown-up chores, like the piloting of boats, where they seem to learn as they go. I watched with some trepidation as one young boy, whose only form of transit was a large metal cooking pot, happily paddled with his bare hands across the python-infested waters. My first reaction was the false assumption that no one was looking after this child, but I soon realized that the opposite was probably true—that, in fact, everyone was looking after him.
Here’s a video of his tube journey: Cambodia boy
There is only one way to get around in Mechrey: by boat. Each craft is outfitted with a small gasoline engine and an extended propeller system designed to function safely and efficiently at a variety of water depths.
The community works and survives together: in good times on a menu of seafood, and in hard times with additional protein from eating crickets, snakes, snails, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, and even butterfly cocoons. Additional food is produced on floating farms. The harvest, which in abundant times is also sold to produce additional income, includes things like shrimp, crocodile, and catfish. Vegetable crops are also grown and harvested in floating greenhouses.
Other provisions, such as gasoline and blocks of ice for refrigeration, are purchased in a nearby land-based village, transported by motorized tuk-tuk tractor carts to a makeshift port, where they are then ferried 2 kilometers by boat to the floating village. Also located in the port is a makeshift seafood farmers market where the floating islands’ goods are exchanged for Cambodian currency.
One of the most compelling components of Mechrey’s community life is its rich cultural identity. The only land-based buildings in the village are a Buddhist pagoda and a crematorium that are located on small artificial islands. Other cultural facilities include a floating Christian church and a Korean dining barge. And while all cultural and religious beliefs are acknowledged and respected, the dominant one is Cambodian Theravada Buddhism, with its divergent views of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Here, the core principles of community culture are depicted through the four moderating faces of the smiling Buddha: Karuna (compassion), Upekkha (equanimity), Mudita (joy with others), and Metta (loving-kindness). Two of the country’s most popular Buddha poses are the “no fear” peaceful Buddha, and the “calling the earth to witness” pose, which is meant to take the demons’ flooding away.
As with many of the other land-based villages I visited in Cambodia, a communal spirit seemed to permeate Mechrey. This is not surprising, given that survival in these difficult conditions means that everyone is at times a fisherman, at times a parent, at times a caregiver. When resources are limited, people working together are always stronger than any one person working alone.
Mechrey is only one of more than 170 floating villages across Cambodia that house a total of more than 80,000 residents. Most of the villages remain stationary during monsoon season but move to deeper waters during the dry season, when water levels are significantly lower. Experiencing it firsthand, it’s easier to understand why everyone must share in the same set of community-centered solutions to the impacts of nature’s changing weather patterns.
And the bad news keeps coming. In the last month alone, we’ve learned that the West Antarctic shelf is in worse shape than most scientists had predicted, and that if—or, more likely, when—it collapses, it will create an immediate global impact of 7 meters in sea level rise. In Sudan, floods are creating vast issues around food insecurity; wildfires are popping up in Virginia, a state not known for such things. The list goes on and on.
So all of this leads to the question: What can we learn from less-developed countries and communities, from indigenous thinkers who understand that equanimity and joy with others are real tools with which we can address the impending challenges of climate change? That a commitment to compassion and kindness may turn out to be critical components in the list of long-term solutions?