Tonle Sap Bottleneck comparison - Sept 2019 vs 2020
Forward by Brian Eyler Published on Sep 18, 2020
Prior to 2020, the 2019 wet season was one of the driest on record. The annual reversal of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia was severely delayed in 2019 but low rainfall plus upstream dam regulation (mostly from China's 11 mainstream Mekong dams) have totally erased the annual reversal of the Tonle Sap for 2020. This comparative image compares two extremely dry late September images. Remember September 25, 2019 was comparatively very year, so the flooding you see in the 2019 image is at a very low level compared to normal conditions. The September 16, 2020 image shows the Tonle Sap bottleneck at much lower levels - in fact, this is what the Tonle Sap bottleneck looks like for much of the Mekong's dry season which runs from December to May annually.
Geography was always my favourite subject at school. I didn't like other subjects so was delighted with my Grade A at “A” level, the university-entrance examinations in the UK. Human and physical geography have remained of great interest and relevance throughout my overseas career.
For one year on St Helena I even taught the subject to high school students. In one small island you have one of the most impressive of planet Earth's creations – a massive volcanic outcrop thrown up in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean. My geographical students there weren't so worldly. Some thought that milk was a product from a tin can, not produced by cows and farmers.*
Sundowners overlooking the Tonle Bassac Takhmau Cambodia
- In its middle life, more dams built, as it descends through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia where vast sand-extraction takes place for urban construction while untreated sewage and waste pours-in.
- In its late life in to Vietnam, with salt-water intrusion due to reduced flow and accumulation of pollution harming centuries-old rich agriculture.
The exceptionally-rare natural phenomenon of the Mekong is also at serious risk –– the reversal of the flow of its tributary the Tonle Sap and the massive expansion of its lake of the same name. Indeed this was greatly diminished in the wet season 2019-20. Drought affected growing of the staple product rice. Fish-catches were depleted. The annual bounty of the Mekong - food security and nutrition for millions - has been mercilessly sacrificed.
All that changed when Phnom Penh's building frenzy began and took off spectacularly. For over a decade, we have sand-pumping rigs and barges operating round-the-clock. Occasionally authorities have banned them. River-banks have collapsed, houses lost. The bans have never held. The images are photogenic but that is the only good thing to be said.
Over the years I have taken many images of the constant sand-pumping operations. However my colleague Nick Axelrod must be credited with one of the best. He captured sand being pumped from the confluence to fill in Boueng Kak Lake. This land dispute and terrible effect on local people has featured in many of my writings.
One of my earliest pictures is of Takhmau's oldest sand-pumping operation. It is just opposite the riverside "sundowner" bar, close to the new Takhmau bridge and 1km from Prime Minister Hun Sen's fortress on his flight-path home. Although pumping has moved a few hundred metres up-stream, laden barges are still off-loaded nearby on to waiting lorries. I once counted 8 barges lined-up. The sand is then taken to cement-works or construction sites.
* Plug for my Geography teachers, “Yogi” Johnson; Lenny Rainbow and “Killer Kirby”.
** Greatest calamity at the Phnom Penh confluence on Koh Pich island was a stampede over one of the bridges that caused 347 deaths. We had been there earlier in the day. As with the water Festival I was concerned again about the crowds - millions descend uncontrolled on such venues.
Selection of more recent articles and earlier works
10. Shankar Ganesh - Cambodia, Thailand alarmed by Laos Project
11. Luke Hunt - Praying for Rain by the Mekong as Monsoon Season Begins
Abroad I've visited some great rivers and waterfalls – Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and my favourite Howick Falls. Called after our nearby Northumbrian village but they are found in South Africa. The prettiest waterfall must be Heart-Shaped Waterfall on St Helena Island that I managed to reach after cutting through dense undergrowth. How did Maidenhair Fern get there?
|Nkhata Bay – m.y home for over two years, the base for our Likoma Chizumulu Fisheries development Project, called after the two islands in Lake Malawi|