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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Water, water everywhere...

Rob Sharp

Phnom Penh, March 23: In the middle of South-east Asia's largest freshwater lake ~ Cambodia's Tonle Sap ~ lives “Hot Sam”. The 55-year-old fisherman crouches in his self-built home, a shack, buoyed on a bed of bamboo and anchored to the lake bed two metres beneath him.

As he bobs above the murky water, rickety motorboats full of tourists chug past taking pictures. Gazing across his ramshackle fiefdom, Hot Sam opens his mouth and flashes a brown smile of rotten teeth.

The grinning gaze takes in the remarkable scene of the floating villages of Chong Khneas, one of the highlights of the country's burgeoning tourist industry and a natural, watery spectacle of abundance. On the surface, Tonle Sap and its natural resources ought to be a rich provider for its residents. And unsurprisingly for a fisherman living in a floating village, water is at the centre of everything in life for Hot Sam and his sizeable family. Their drinking water comes straight from the lake and the fisherman describes their little precautionary ritual before they drink it. The family collects the water, they then let it settle and drink it.

This is the same water in which they freely defecate, the same water in which they wash and the same shrinking body of water upon which they depend for livelihood. The population pressure which he has helped to create ~ with 11 family members ~ is making the pollution problem worse and helping to drive down the fish stocks on which they all rely. The spectre of climate change is starting to make itself felt in the low water levels and the precariousness of life is starkly apparent n even the houses’ anchor lines are shaken as they get snagged in the propellers of passing boats.

“The weather now changes every year and we have no idea what to expect,” bemoans Sam. “The rainy season is much more irregular than it was 15 years ago. Our catch of fish is worse than ever. We have less to sell on once we have fed ourselves, and we have to go further to get the same amount. Everything is getting harder and harder.”

The floating villages which were originally set up as a place of refuge from the genocidal madness of the Khmer Rouge find that their fate has come to reflect the less gruesome but nonetheless deadly challenges facing Cambodia now.

Hot Sam is living in the wrong half of the developing world. He is one of the 2.6 billion people on the planet who live without access to basic sanitation. Today is World Water Day, a UN-backed initiative which aims to highlight this. But sometimes the impact of such campaigns can be diluted through their over-use of meaningless jargon. The truth on the ground, or rather on the water, is that in Cambodia ~ one of the poorest countries in the world n its population of 14 million cannot get access to the basics: latrines, clean water for drinking and washing. If this continues, its high mortality rates, which mean some 83 children out of 1,000 perish before they are five, are destined to persist.

Such a bleak situation may surprise the tourists who pay a handful of dollars to take a tour around the floating villages. The 800-odd households, which accommodate some 6,000 people, can look bewitching to a newcomer. The truth is bleaker still. The eight floating villages were set up in the 1970s by farmers seeking refuge from the Khmer Rouge, who had confiscated their land. Added to the mix are a plethora of illegal Vietnamese immigrants (who make up a third of the population); they live separately and are often blamed for the overfishing problem (throwing dynamite into the lake is a common accusation). Floating past houses, villagers can be seen listless, dozing in hammocks or on straw mats. Their homes, often used to accommodate as many as a dozen people, are no bigger than average European kitchens. The walls are cobbled together using anything that lies, or floats to hand and need to be replaced regularly once the rot sets in. Once spent, they can be stripped off and used for fuel.

When fish stocks dwindle, some opt to sell batteries as a source of income, which their neighbours can use to power their televisions or music equipment. Or they can sell kerosene lamps, still used by the majority of people in the country for night light. Fish are held in place in specially-crafted pens, which are hammered to the shallow bed by men stripped to the waist, seemingly oblivious to the film of murk through which they break every time they dive.

But, despite the villagers' apparent success in adverse conditions, fresh obstacles are never far away. For one, Hot Sam's attitude towards drinking and allowing his children to play in the lake-water seems to be common among many of those living here. The area is woefully under-resourced n there is apparently only one school and one health centre and there is little evidence of the educational work and resource provisions which organisations such as the British Red Cross are carrying out in more remote parts of the country.

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Cambodian king to visit Brunei Shell Petroleum refinery

Phnom Penh - Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni is scheduled to receive a guided tour of the Brunei Shell Petroleum complex during his official visit next week, according to an itinerary received from a palace source Sunday. Sihamoni is scheduled to arrive in the oil-rich sultanate at the personal invitation of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Monday for a three-day visit.

Brunei, a fellow member of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, has said it is advising Cambodia on management of potentially rich offshore oil reserves which the currently impoverished nation expects to tap by the end of the decade.

The royal visit is reciprocal after the sultan's visit to Cambodia last April.

Brunei Shell Petroleum Sdn Bhd in the oil fields of Seria is a company jointly owned by the sultan's government and Royal Dutch Shell, according to the Brunei Petroleum Unit website.

The government site says the Petroleum Unit acts on behalf of the Brunei government "as a regulatory body prudently monitors and oversees all activities that are carried out by concessionaires holding concession areas in Brunei Darussalam."

Sihamoni is scheduled to end his visit Wednesday after a series of engagements featuring meetings with Brunei Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtader, a banquet hosted by the sultan in his honour and meetings with various officials expected to further focus on oil and gas.

Donors have voiced concern that endemic corruption may turn Cambodia's potential oil wealth into a curse.

Brunei, however, has been very supportive of Cambodia in its bid to use oil to assist it in shrugging off its donor dependency after 30 years of civil war.
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