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Need we prepare for tumbling temples?


Are the temples of Angkor falling down? Ken Feisel/Bloomber

Water is a great concern for Siem Reap residents. Last year we virtually had no water for more than six weeks due to the supply being cut for roadworks. Then, shortly after regular supply was reinstated, we were deluged with water during the worst floods the city had seen in recent memory.

But the world at large is also concerned about our water – the worry is that tourists are using so much that the ground table is sinking and the temples are tumbling.

This concept was raised again last week by the Wall Street Journal in an article about the celebrated Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.

The article stated, “Unchecked development in Siem Reap has led to a dramatic drop in groundwater levels, causing subsidence that has put the Bayon, one of the main temples in the Angkor area, in danger of collapse, according to experts from the Japanese Conservation Team for Safeguarding Angkor.”

The notion of Siem Reap’s temples sinking due to the ravages of tourism has repeatedly surfaced for more than half a decade, and seemed to first gain traction in a November 2006 Associated Press report.

The journalist, Ker Munthit, wrote that “some experts” fear that “unrestricted local pumping of underground water to meet rapidly rising demand may literally be undermining Angkor’s foundations, destabilising the earth beneath the famous centuries-old temples so much that they might sink and collapse”.

Ker Munthit wrote that the World Bank said hotels were pumping underground water but “no one was quite certain how this affects the aquifers, or underground layers of rocks and sand, from which it is pumped”.

But the article added, “One of Angkor’s temples is reportedly falling into a sinkhole, suggesting that the underground aquifers may be rapidly disappearing.”

The notion of collapsing temples escalated in a March 2008 article in The Independent newspaper, headlined, “Heritage site in peril: Angkor Wat is falling down.”

The article said, “According to heritage experts ... a plethora of new hotels, cashing in on the country’s near-exponential rise in tourist numbers, is sapping gallons of water from beneath nearby urban areas. They say this could upset the delicate foundations on which Angkor Wat sits and could lead to parts of it ... taking an unheavenly tumble to earth.”

Also quoted was UNESCO’s culture program specialist Philippe Delanghe, who said that if the balance between the water and sand on which the temples were built was taken away, “then we might have trouble with collapse”.

Teruo Jinnai, the director of UNESCO’s office in Cambodia, said that while the groundwater level is definitely lowering in Siem Reap town, “it is not yet considered at a dangerous level. If the water intake doubles or triples then ... this could well affect historic monuments such as Angkor Wat in the long term.”

The Independent article also revisited the World Bank’s 2005 assertion that an Angkor temple “is reportedly falling into a sinkhole”.

The article added, “The monument in question was the Bayon temple. ... It is reportedly still collapsing into the sandy ground and visitors can observe its sinking foundations and widening cracks.”

The background to that comment can be found in a newsletter about some of the proceedings of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor Technical Committee Meeting – December 12 and 13, 2002.

UNESCO noted in the World Heritage newsletter that the Bayon temple “is unfortunately in a most critical state ... the Northern Library is in danger of collapsing. ... The dismantling of its foundations in 1996 revealed that their irregular subsidence was due to the soil content which had been washed away over a long period of time.”

UNESCO then noted that in regard to The Royal Plaza and its terrace, a study of a tower about to collapse “showed that the repeated contraction and expansion of the ground caused by fluctuation in the water table has been proved to be one of the reasons for the inclination of the structure”.

But these fluctuations occurred over centuries of floods and droughts, not just in the few years that tourists have been pouring into Siem Reap.

In late 2008, some months after the Independent article, Philippe Delanghe explained to me that stories of temples tumbling due to tourism were the unfortunate result of long-term conjectures he had made to some journalists.

He claimed he’d originally said that if nothing changed over the ensuing 50 years or so, if Siem Reap’s population and tourist numbers continued to expand, and if nothing was done about the town water supply, then the temples might, with the emphasis on might, be in danger.

But he added that right now no temples were tumbling due to tourists’ intemperate use of water.

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