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Once Beating HeartA way of life threatened by climate change






Once Beating Heart

A way of life threatened by climate change





Photography by Calvin Chow

The stunning Tonlé Sap is the beating heart for communities living on this freshwater lake in Cambodia.

For generations, the lake has provided both a home and livelihood for the villages that float on its surface.

Fishing is the main source of income for many. 

But a deadly combination of climate change, overfishing and the construction of dams is threatening the ecology of the lake and livelihoods of the people who depend on it. 

Photographer Calvin Chow from Singapore, spent 16 days living on a boat, documenting how the lake’s communities – some of the most marginalised in Cambodia – are coping with these unprecedented changes.

A view of Kampong Luong Floating Village from Mr. Ang’s church on the Tonlé Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

A view of Kampong Luong Floating Village from Mr. Ang’s church on the Tonlé Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 

A view of Kampong Luong Floating Village from Mr. Ang’s church on the Tonlé Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 

A shrine for fishermen on the Tonlé Sap, Cambodia. Dotted along the Tonlé Sap, shrines serve as landmarks and places where fishermen can pray for protection before setting out into the open lake.

A shrine for fishermen on the Tonlé Sap, Cambodia. Dotted along the Tonlé Sap, shrines serve as landmarks and places where fishermen can pray for protection before setting out into the open lake.

Fishermen untangle their fishing nets on the boat after a long day of fishing out on the Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 

Fishermen untangle their fishing nets on the boat after a long day of fishing out on the Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 

Fishing nets hang from a dead tree on the lake.

Fishing nets hang from a dead tree on the lake.

Fishing nets hang from a dead tree on the lake.

"In this project, I wanted to explore these themes of inter-connectedness, of access to basic human necessities like water." says Chow.

"I feel that the Tonlé Sap is now at a pivotal point, with climate change seriously impacting those depending on the lake. Ultimately it all boils down to the fact that when there’s less fish, there’s less income for people to afford basic necessities – like water to drink."

Watch the video below to see Chow's experience meeting the many people who've relied on the lake their whole lives.

Once one of the most vibrant ecosystems in the region, the Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Over generations, millions of people moved to its floating villages, attracted by its abundant fish and wildlife.

The lake operates on a unique ‘flood pulse’ system, like a beating heart. Each year, it relies on the Mekong River reversing its flow to replenish supplies, providing most of the country’s fish.

In recent decades, developments along the Mekong River have been sapping up precious water supplies. According to a report by the Mekong River Commission, since 2018 the volume of the Tonlé Sap has dipped below its historical average.

Along with droughts and overfishing, this lethal combination is weakening the lake’s once lively pulse.

A rainbow over the water in the Tonle Sap lake

Mr and Mrs Paen’s floating home, Phat Sanday commune, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

Mr and Mrs Paen’s floating home, Phat Sanday commune, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

"During these past 16 days, I’ve learned that climate change has affected the lives of people here," says Chow.

"People who depend on fishing for a living cannot afford basic necessities, such as access to clean water."

Mr and Mrs Paen, pictured left in their floating home, have already seen their 15 children leave the floating village to work in cities like Phnom Penh.

Mr Paen, a religious teacher at the local temple, no longer makes a living from fishing due to his age and health.

The couple are now happy to live out the rest of their lives in their floating home, although Mrs Paen occasionally falls ill with water-borne diseases like diarrhoea.

During the dry season, the lake’s water quality deteriorates and the couple can’t afford to buy clean drinking water or access basic facilities like a latrine for their home.

Without their livelihoods, people are unable to buy clean water, leaving them with little choice but to drink from the diminished lake itself during the now-extended dry season.

As Chow puts it: "Everybody in this lake is connected by an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is its dependence on fish, dependence on water."

Up until 20 years ago, the flow of water would bring hundreds of kilos of fish every day – 20kg Mekong catfish were the norm.

Now communities spend much of their day preparing hundreds of tiny fish, which is all they can catch.

For Ms Koem, Mr Seng, and Mr Thanh, pictured right, life on the Tonlé Sap has been a long, complex, journey.

Ever since the 1950s, their families have called the lake their home, and they have lived through some of Cambodia's darkest periods.

Their fragile economic situation means they can't afford a decent toilet – with some telling Chow that installing a permanent latrine is "an inconceivable solution".

Mr Ta, pictured right with his three-year-old daughter, told Chow that fishing has been his family’s source of income for generations; without it, he is unable to afford clean drinking water.

He relies on water from remote areas of the lake, hoping it's safe for his family to drink.

Ms. Koem, Mr. Seng, and Mr. Thanh, Kaoh K’aek village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia, 29 October 2021

Ms. Koem, Mr. Seng, and Mr. Thanh, Kaoh K’aek village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

Ms. Koem, Mr. Seng, and Mr. Thanh, Kaoh K’aek village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

Mr. Ta with his three-year-old daughter Ra Nee in their floating home in Phat Sandaong village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Mr. Ta with his three-year-old daughter Ra Nee in their floating home in Phat Sandaong village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

Mr. Ta with his three-year-old daughter Ra Nee in their floating home in Phat Sandaong village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

For fishermen like Mr Lim, pictured right, fishing is no longer a viable profession and not a vocation he wishes for his children.

Still, his quality of life has improved somewhat since he built a latrine in his home – a rarity in the village.

Now, he, his three daughters and son no longer have to venture into the forest to relieve themselves.

Mr Lim believes in a better future for his children, telling Chow he wants them to be well educated and get good jobs in the city.

Mr Lim Ny on his boat in the backyard of his home, Phat Sanday floating village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia.

Climate change is affecting the lives of many people all over the world. Only when we take the time to look at and listen to real stories can we truly understand what's happening.

The Tonlé Sap lake is a central force that binds a huge diversity of people whose lives are shrouded by a complex web of circumstances.

Calvin Chow's captivating photo series, featuring nets and people, instils a feeling of inter-connectedness, but hints at entrapment too.

"Humans cannot live without water, and yet humans have also caused climate change. This is a complicated relationship that is filled with nuance and ironies that I hope my images illuminated," says Chow.

"[These families] need this lake to restore itself to its former days so that they can not only survive, but flourish in this world."

WaterAid in Cambodia continues to work with the government and local partners to promote the most marginalised people’s access to sanitation, hygiene and a resilient supply of clean water, able to withstand both drought and flood.

With proper investment and people-centred policies we can ensure that people's lives, livelihoods and access to clean drinking water aren't hampered by climate change.

→ Find out more about how WaterAid works with communities and governments to adapt to climate change