Angkor Wat, the famous temple and Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction could never have been built without the water of the Mekong River. The different civilizations that ruled Angkor and the Southeast Asian region throughout hundreds of years depended heavily on fishing and the irrigation of rice fields through ponds that annually filled up when the Mekong water level rose in the monsoon season. Some of the ponds are still visible in the region, though most have dried up. One of the reasons the empire’s power receded was an increased salinity of the fields and reduced efficiency of the irrigation system.

Nowadays Cambodia still suffers from the same problem. When driving from Siem Reap (near Angkor) to Phnom Penh, the capital, you cross miles and miles of rice fields. But at the end of the dry season most look barren and unused. Unlike in Vietnam, where the fields produce 2 or 3 crops a year, the fields in Cambodia are only harvested once a year. One of the reasons is the lack of a good irrigation system. Canals were dug, but many stay dry. During the rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime the infrastructure was neglected and canals dried up. Empty concrete hulks of pumping stations are left scarring a landscape of bristly weed filled rice paddies.

Perhaps Cambodia needs to seriously invest in the development of its rice industry. Especially since the fishing population is going down due to the same problem of reduced flood levels (more about this in future blog posts). If Mekong flood levels will stay low in the future more than one rice harvest a year will be possible so more people will be able to work in agriculture. A prospect not (yet) cherished by the (fishing) population around the Tonle Sap Lake.


Scenes on the walls of the Bayon Temple show fish which supply 80% of all the protein Cambodians consume today.

Published by Ronald de Hommel

Ronald de Hommel is a Dutch freelance photojournalist based in Paris, France. He specialises in global social subjects relating to environment, development aid and conflict. He is one of the initiators of Disputed Waters. He works for a wide variety of Dutch and international publications and NGO’s. His work is represented by ANP Photo (Netherlands), Babel-Photo (France, Lightmediation (France) and Nazca Pictures (Italy). Website:

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