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Floating Church and schoolhouse in Kompong Kleang Credits: Campeau/Caritas

Floating Church and schoolhouse in Kompong Kleang
Credits: Campeau/Caritas

By Christine Campeau, Climate and Food Security Advisor, Caritas Internationalis 

Working on climate justice issues over the past few years, I spend a lot time learning how people around the world are adapting to climate change.

I was recently fortunate to experience a unique example of adaptability in Southeast Asia, where I took a trip to the floating villages of Kompong Khleang to see how a local community in Cambodia has dealt with the constant shift in water levels upon which they live.

Kompong Kleang is a fishing village that sits on the Tonle Sap Lake, which stretches across the northwest portion of the country. During the rainy season, this lake swells fivefold, flooding the surrounding forest floodplains and supporting an extremely diverse eco-system.

This phenomenon is natural and has nothing to do with to the effects of climate change. However, the floating village could be used as a lesson on how to live amidst the drastic sea level rise that scientists have foreseen for this century. It provides a great learning opportunity for us to see how a community has befriended the forces of nature.

In harmony with this distinct eco-system, the Vietnamese community that moved into the area during the war has built their houses to be prepared for the water to come. This has either been done on a permanent basis using 6-10 meter stilts or through a more temporary method using bamboo base, which allows them to float and be anchored to the shore or to another structure depending on where the family wishes to settle down.

As fishermen, their economy is entwined with the cycles of the lake. This working community trades their goods by transporting them from one place to another by boat. The children also navigate between the schoolhouse, the church and the floating recreation centre (which includes a basketball court), all by boat.

When the lake fills, the men of the community will move their huge fishing traps and shrimp harvesting to where the conditions are more favorable. When the lake shrinks, the building of their villages tower on top of the 6-meter stilts upon which they are supported.

Since 1995, Caritas Cambodia has been involved with the Chong Khnies community of floating villages similar to Kompong Kleang and accounts for over 5,000 people. The Chong Khnies health centre was burned down by the Khmer Rouge in 1988. Caritas built a Floating Health Centre and trained the health staff provided by the Ministry of Health to provide services such as the vaccinations to children and maternal care.

In 2002, Caritas developed a “Home Care Program” to help the people affected by HIV/AIDS and extended its program to all floating communities including Kompong Kleang.

Ms. Bernadette Glisse, Caritas Cambodia Health and HIV and AIDS Coordinator feels privileged to work with these communities. She explains that solidarity is a real fact since fishermen use to face and manage forces of nature. They move their community together according to the level of the water from low to deep and going fishing in far away areas together leaving the entire family behind at the care of the other families remaining on shore.

Kompong Kleang has become a bit of a tourist trap over the years but the village provides an excellent perspective on how to make low-lying areas habitable.

It also highlights the need for cooperation within communities. While it does not solve the land issues needed for agriculture and food production, it could help relieve some of the overcrowding in urban areas close to the sea.

Given the importance that adaptation will have in reducing poverty, this affordable, low-tech approach will reduce the vulnerability and enhancing the resilience of this community.