Sitting in her father’s shop, Din San Tana, 10, speaks softly when she’s asked about the forest fires last year that threatened her village and shut down school for 10 days.
“I was afraid to go to class,” she said. “I was afraid it would burn my house.”
Tana and all 2,619 families in Prek Toal village in Ek Phnom district’s Koh Chivaing commune live on floating homes. Located 25 kilometres from Siem Reap on the estuary of the Sangke River, which flows through Battambang town and spills onto the Tonle Sap lake, the floating settlement is at the heart of what is – or was – the most important breeding ground for water birds in Southeast Asia.
Brought on by a record-breaking El Niño that precipitated drought, heat waves and low water levels last year, unprecedented fires ripped through the seasonally flooded wetland forests that surround the great Tonle Sap lake. From March to July, when late rains finally arrived and extinguished the blazes, the fires consumed an estimated third of the 640,000 hectares of the Unesco designated wetland conservation area known as the Tonle Sap Biosphere.
The 21,342 hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary – designated a “core area” of the biosphere – was not spared. Some 8,000 hectares of forest was lost. The fires, which began largely on the edges of the forest where people annually set fires to convert land for farming, spread towards the lake, pushed east by hot, dry winds. NASA satellite imagery over that time period shows that at their height, the fires generated plumes of smoke that concealed much of the Tonle Sap Lake from space.
A year later, the far-reaching effects of the devastation to the ecosystem on fisheries and wildlife are just beginning to be felt locally, but experts warn the consequences may have national implications.
“What can I say? We live on the water, but we are scared of fire,” said Tana’s father, Soy Vandin, 40. Last year, he said, villagers poured water onto their roofs for protection from the flames, which came within 50 metres of their homes.
“When the rains came it was as if the angels and the gods came to help us,” he said.
The ad hoc effort to fight the fires shows just how unexpected an occurrence it was. Before the rains offered deliverance, nearly every able-bodied man in the village, along with monks from the local pagodas, joined the 40-some Ministry of Environment rangers stationed in Prek Toal in a desperate effort to control the fires.
Chhurt Soven, a 20-year-old monk at the Anglong Sakor pagoda who helped fight the fires, remembers the experience.
“We gathered 10 monks, but the more we tried to extinguish the fire, the more it seemed the fire kept burning and coming back,” he said. “This was my hardest ever experience … we did this from morning to evening.”
In nearby Por Village, he said, the monks had to flee their pagoda for several days due to the smoke.
“We never expected to have such a forest fire,” said Kim Chan, a 43-year-old ranger who has worked in the area for over 12 years.
But the rangers and villagers faced the conflagration alone. Calls for aid and additional resources by then-area director Long Kheng to the Environment Ministry in Phnom Penh went unheeded. Only the Ministry’s partner in Prek Toal, the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, provided a handful of water pumps, tubing and petrol to keep the pumps running.
“Only WCS helped us,” said Chan, adding that with no professional firefighting training and equipment, the danger to the rangers and those who volunteered was palpable. Four rangers – including Chan – fell unconscious in the field when a wind shift left them momentarily surrounded by the blaze.
When Post Weekend witnessed the efforts to fight the fires in May last year, the difficulty was apparent. The normally flooded wetlands are tricky terrain, and the dried-out peat meant the ground itself fuelled the fire, often spawning new blazes in unforeseen places, all while shifting winds fanned the flames in unpredictable directions. Volunteers were ill-equipped, often wearing flip-flops and making do with cut-out plastic jugs to dump river water onto the scorched earth.
“Honestly I’m ashamed to say they were a surprise, not just to me, but to everyone,” said WCS Senior Technical Adviser Simon Mahood.
“Nobody had a point of reference for this.”
Fires burn at the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary last year:
Rangers and conservationists reckon the forest will take at least 30 years to recover. But the extreme conditions witnessed last year may not be an isolated event.
“We can prepare, but our best bet is to hope that it’s not gonna happen … but it will happen,” said Mahood.
“The chances of another big El Nino are increasing all the time,” he said. “The results of a similar fire to last year would be dire.”
The 2015-2016 El Niño is matched in strength only by the episode beginning in 1997. While meteorological data are lacking from those years in Cambodia, a comparable drought occurred throughout Southeast Asia, yet there were no fires.
The difference this time around may be attributed to the country’s rapid deforestation since the ’90s, conservationists say. The degradation of “water catchments” – the forested mountain ranges that surround Cambodia’s floodplain – has in turn made the flow of water into the Tonle Sap during the dry season irregular.
Making a firm conclusion is tricky, as drought, climate change and changes to the Mekong’s flood pulse – caused mostly by upstream dams – all likely lead the forest to dry out.
“The fires in some way were caused by a perfect storm of events,” said WCS’s Mahood.
Environment Minister Say Samal acknowledged this explanation to Post Weekend, noting the Mekong’s flood pulse is the most critical variable to the health of the system.
“The season[ally] inundated floodplain – its function is providing structural habitats. But overall ecological function is subjected to the Mekong flood pulse,” he said. “Everything depends on that.”
Despite the remaining threat to the area, in the past year the rangers in the wetlands have received no training or firefighting resources from the ministry.
“We don’t have enough funding,” Samal wrote in a message in response to this concern.
If nothing is done, the rangers in Prek Toal fear, another fire within one or two decades would spell the end of the forest.
“It will burn it all,” ranger Chan said. “We have to preserve it. When the forest is gone so too will be the lives of the people.”
Guided by rangers, reporters visited the site of a previously forested section of Prek Toal. A few charred skeletons of once-proud trees dotted the landscape, and while some shrubs remained, creeping vines now dominate the plain. Even this growth, Mahood said, endangers the sparse saplings pushing through the charcoal remains of the forest.
“I was expecting a sort of normal process of succession . . . One year some nice tall grass, then some scrub, and gradually some trees,” Mahood said. But the vines cut out the light and rapidly draw nutrients from the soil, all of which may handicap the growth of trees.
The situation is bleaker outside of the Prek Toal core area, he said, where community forests cleared by the fire are now simply being ploughed up for cultivation by locals who are turning to farming – either out of desperation or opportunism.
“The forest won’t grow back … It’s going to be completely stalled by the plowing and cultivation,” he said.
The process of land conversion for agriculture that was already taking place is now “vastly accelerated”.
“We talk about potential habitat changes in the Tonle Sap because of dams and climate change and all these things … but that’s a process that’s going to take place over decades. But what we’re seeing is a process that’s happening much quicker,” Mahood said. This bodes ill for the future.
“The problem is at the moment we’re heading for a double whammy – dams are ongoing and Tonle Sap flooded forest destruction is ongoing,” he said.
Conservationists, rangers and villagers interviewed in Prek Toal this week all noted that fewer birds had returned this year to nest in the trees that remain. Other wildlife such as snakes, turtles and monkeys have also become scarce.
But the biggest concern is the damage to the habitat in which fish spawn, for which the trees play a crucial role. The Tonle Sap fishery is considered among the most productive in the world. It accounts for 75 percent of the Kingdom’s protein intake, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Nou Sarim, a community coordinator for Siem Reap and Battambang provinces with the Fishery Action Coalition Team (FACT), said the animals that managed to survive the fires by fleeing have not returned.
“The fire last year destroyed a large proportion of flooded forests, and most of them do not grow back, causing fish to lose their habitats, which are needed for their reproduction and food sources. This led to a grave loss of biodiversity,” she said.
Migratory birds, for their part, have largely moved to protected areas near Siem Reap that were less affected, such as Boeung Peariang and Chreav, she said.
While there are no statistics on the loss of wildlife, the damage, she said, will affect the tourism income for locals, as well as cut off vital income supply for honey harvesters and fishermen, all of whom rely on the wetland’s bounty.
But this only compounds the problem.
“If the fisheries are declining then people are forced to look for alternative things to do… if you switch from fishing to agriculture and clear land, you destroy the flooded forest, which makes the situation for people who are still fishing even worse,” said Mahood.
For the environment minister, the central concern is land-clearing for rice cultivation. “Intrusion by people for the fertile land is my biggest headache,” he wrote. Yet enforcement, he said, has proven futile. “We’re cracking down but [with] not much effect,” he noted.
He believes the economic motivators that push people to burn the forest – namely rice cultivation – needed to change.
“If there is a new source [of income] I don’t think people would pick to destroy the forest,” he said.
But Prek Toal residents, whose lives still depend on the water and surrounding habitat, want to see the government get more involved in protecting it.
Hoksan An, 32, a Prek Toal native who operates Prek Toal Tours & Travel, said that the outlook for his hometown is rather grim – in large part due to the loss of economic prospects.
“People in the village were feeling very sad and depressed about their future. The young people are difficult to motivate and encourage to keep studying and working for a better future,” he said.
An has been leading a project to plant trees in the area surrounding the village – all with private, donated funds. But the project covers just 3 hectares out of the over 7,000 burned.
“There has not been any official recognition or support of these issues, either repair of the environment or prevention of future fires,” An wrote. “Not only has their village been badly affected, their whole future livelihood has been taken away.”
San Tana’s grandmother, Moun Rurm, 52, said her entire family – including her four children – are all fishermen.
“It’s hard to collect fish… Before in the forest we could collect 10 fish for example, but now we could only get five, because there is no fish breeding,” Rurm said. “Floating fishermen like us are all dependent on fish.”