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Smoke on the Water: An ecological disaster along the Tonle Sap

A man hoses down smouldering patches of scorched earth in Battambang province after a fire ripped through a flooded forest.
A man hoses down smouldering patches of scorched earth in Battambang province after a fire ripped through a flooded forest. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Smoke on the Water: An ecological disaster along the Tonle Sap

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake has been the lifeblood of millions of people for centuries. But last year, climate change, deforestation and changing flood patterns – combined with a record-breaking drought linked to the 2015-2016 El Niño climate cycle – caused approximately 2,300 square kilometers of the wetlands surrounding it to burn. The fires caused an extraordinary ecological disaster, and the effects are only just being felt by those living along the river.

There has been practically no response to the crisis. While Environment Minister Say Samal has acknowledged the problem, solutions are beyond the scope of a single ministry, and even experts have been left wondering what can be done.

The Phnom Penh Post’s Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon has reported on the wetlands over the course of a year, and has also photographed some of the damage to the area on his reporting trips. An exhibit featuring pictures from two of his articles – Massive blaze threatens Battambang bird sanctuary and A Wetland Laid to Waste – will be on display at Meta House from 6pm on October 13 for three weeks. They show the heart of the Tonle Sap wetlands, the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, in two parts; first, during the attempts to control the fires when they reached their peak in May 2016, and then a year later, after limited efforts at recovery.

Marazzi Sassoon will also talk at the opening from 6pm tonight at Meta House.

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