• River Wetlands

Hydro-Social Fieldwork: Exploring Floating and Riverbank Lives of the Tonle Sap and Lower Mekong

Carl Grundy-Warr & Anjana Ramkumar


Our hydro-social landscapes are changing rapidly (developmental projects, ecosystem fragmentation, long-term cumulative environmental and climate change), and with these changes come many political economic controversies and policy challenges facing millions of people in the future. As Irvine (2018) observes, multiple past and ongoing hydropower projects in the Mekong Basin are already having socio-ecological impacts, especially for Lower Mekong countries (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia), and the biggest of these impacts are on the riparian communities whose livelihoods are directly dependent upon aquatic resources.

As geography educators we are keen to reveal both physical processes that mould and shape our Earth, as well as the multiple costs and benefits that human-induced development are having on manifold sites, localities and places in our world today. Geographers are uniquely placed to uncover various socio-natural interactions that may be somewhat obscured or even ignored by other disciplines. As Murphy (2018) writes in Geography. Why it Matters: ‘of the traditional disciplines, geography today is the one that arguably is most centrally concerned with looking at the interrelations among and between natural and human processes on Earth’s surface.’ Geography helps reveal both the “hydro” and “social” dimensions and interactions that are currently shaping many parts of our world today. Our project seeks to tease out hydro-social relations and human-nature interactions in the Lower Mekong Basin and Tonle Sap (Great Lake) of Cambodia. It is simultaneously an “ecopedagogy” project that connects students to nature through immersion (Braun and Dierkes, 2017; Fien, 1993; Kahn, 2009; Misiaszek, 2015; Payne, 2006; 2016) enabling deeper appreciation of how biophysical processes of hydrology are intertwined with social ones, “life spaces” of the neak tonle (“river people” in Khmer). It is about applying class-based learning to field (and water) work, whilst attempting more ethnographically informed approaches to geography.

As geographers we study human-nature interactions, but ecopedagogy approaches seek to passionately engage geographers not only as passive learners, but as informed educators (staff), active researchers (staff and students), and Earth citizens (everybody). Thus, our exploration of particular sites in the Lower Mekong and Tonle Sap require background classes, information and readings, combined with shared experiential learning approaches (Kolb, 1984; Hope, 2009; Healey and Jenkins, 2000), aided by use of mobile devices (Jarvis and Dickie, 2010; France, et al., 2015; Welsh et al., 2013), and via home-stays and inter-cultural exchanges, empathetic learning and local encounters may help foster critical thinking about particular geographic problems (Golubchikov, 2015; Wright and Hodge, 2012). Our students became temporarily immersed in their “floating” fieldwork, living for a short intensive period in a water-based community in the Tonle Sap and then in a Mekong riparian community near the Cambodia-Laos border. Only through “submerging” ourselves within wetlands and riparian lives did the dry classwork become palpable, visceral and meaningful, making geography come alive in the sense that we connect abstract concepts to everyday existence and particular cultural contexts.


Bringing a group of 16 Singaporean geography students alongside ten Cambodian students, studying a mix of environmental studies and ecological engineering, for immersion and short-stay projects in contrasting riparian and water-based sites were part of a module (GE 4221: Field Investigation in Human Geography). The essential aims of this module were: (1) To complement and build upon students’ class-based studies, particularly in areas such as nature and society; natural resources: policy and practice; environmental courses; hydrology; and political ecology. (2) To expose students to real and everyday water issues and riparian cultures of the Lower Mekong and for them to work on appropriate small team-based projects. (3) To reveal the relevance of a major trans-border biophysical concept – the “flood pulse” (Junk, Bayley and Sparkes, 1989; Junk, 1997; Junk and Wantzen, 2004; Lamberts, 2006; Arias, et al., 2014; Arias, et al., 2012) of a monsoonal tropical river system – and the myriad social lives, ecologies, livelihoods and cultures that this essentially hydrological and biophysical concept intimately relates to (Grundy-Warr, Sithirith and Yong, 2015; Grundy-Warr and Sithirith, 2016; Sithirith and Grundy-Warr, 2013). In other words, a key component of our field investigation is the exploration of biophysical – human links as well as the ways in which humans are transforming those relations within complex “hydro-social cycles” (Budds and Sultana, 2013; Linton and Budds, 2014).

To appreciate our approach, the different field-sites and our student projects in more detail, this article relates to an online portal entitled “Rivers: The Blood Vessels of Life” ( The field investigation took place in later September – early October 2018, and involved close collaboration between the Department of Geography (National University of Singapore, Pāññāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC), and the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC). The online portal showcases student projects in two diverse wetland sites: Chhnok Tru, Boribor District, Kampong Chhnang Province, a “floating village” community, and Preah Rumkel, Stung Treng Province, along the Cambodia-Laos river-border of the Mekong.

Figure 1 (Rivers: Blood Vessels of Life): This was our Field Investigation logo-map, and a statement about water-based lives.

Critical to our field investigation are complex interactions between hydrological changes, developmentally-induced transformations to the “hydro” processes, and cumulative impacts across time and space, particularly on the intimate human-nature connections of river people. Indeed, our project title, “Rivers: The Blood Vessels of Life” draws associations between rivers as vital arteries for innumerable ecosystem functions and services within a river basin, similar to our own blood vessels which carry blood to our bodily tissues and vital organs. Just as blockages within our blood vessels can lead to coronary artery-related diseases and complications, so too can blockages and fragmentation within the hydrological flood pulse of major river systems lead to environmental damage, biodiversity decline, impaired ecosystem health and a loss of natural resources used by human populations. There are serious human and ecological security issues at stake, which were alluded to in Irvine’s (2018) conclusion about hydropower contributing to more ‘luxurious life’ (often urban) whilst simultaneously destroying more rural-based riverine livelihoods and environments. Immersive understandings, based on home-stays and living within particular places, combined with relevant background classes and references, help students connect the broader forces at work, be they biophysical processes or political economic change, with the intimate localised human-nature interactions they see at the specific hydro-social localities we visited.

Figure 2: Chhnok Tru children using their “school boat” to ride to school. (Image courtesy of Daniel Tan)


A critical biophysical and hydrological driver that is central to both ecological functions and social relations with the Mekong Basin ecosystem is the flood pulse. As Fox and Sneddon (2005:5) observed: ‘nowhere is the flood pulse more socially and ecologically critical than in the Mekong delta and the Tonle Sap ecosystem (i.e. the lowlands), where people have long since learned to ‘shake hands with the flood’ in order to benefit from its annual arrival’ (emphasis added). Large areas of the Lower Mekong Basin may be perceived as belonging to a ‘pulsing ecosystem’ incorporating multiple socio-ecological and biophysical-human relations (Grundy-Warr, Sithirith & Yong, 2015). The annual flood pulse creates spatial transformations to Aquatic-Terrestrial Transition Zone (ATTZ), and its timing and onset is critical for the delivery of vital ecosystem services and aquatic resources central to the biodiversity, food and livelihood security affecting numerous floodplain communities (Sarkkula, et al., 2009). For instance, the flood pulse is critical to fisheries productivity and food security, as Taber Hand put it: ‘In sum: monsoon-determined river hydrology with its specific, yet variable, characteristics is the major physical forcing function that enables fish production in the Mekong watershed’s Tonle Sap Lake and River. Fish provide both the dominant sources of protein and fats in the Cambodian diet’ (Hand, 2002: 4). Just as the flood pulse carries nutrients, larvae, eggs, seeds and floating plants that are part of the ecosystem, contamination of the freshwater from land- and water-sources into the rivers and lake could enter food-chains and also be transported down and upstream by the flood pulse.

In recent times, there has been increasing concern about multiple economic projects along the Mekong, particularly hydropower dams along the main river and in hundreds of tributaries, and the effects these could have on the most vulnerable socio-ecological parts of the Basin, and most populous, in the Lower Mekong (Arias, et al., 2014; Baran and Myschowoda, 2009), particularly upon ‘already impoverished communities’, such as the floating villages (Althor, et al., 2018; Kestinen, 2006). Vertical, lateral and longitudinal dynamics of this pulsing system become fragmented by multiple mega-developments (including infrastructure projects, dams, dykes, hydro-electric power dams, reservoirs, roads, enclosures of different types, etc), whilst complex aquatic-terrestrial spatial and temporal dynamics are often being side-lined, simplified or overlooked by developers, planners and policy-makers.

Our concern for hydro-social relations and the importance of the flood pulse led us to two different sites: one a large floating community of the Tonle Sap, and the other, riparian communities along the banks of the Mekong as well as islanders living in the middle of the river near to the Cambodia-Lao border. Both types of river people are living in what we consider to be critical hydro-social barometers of environment change in the region. Literally, the ecosystem flows into the Tonle Sap are absolutely vital for biodiversity (Campbell, et al., 2006) and the socio-economic well-being of about 1.2 million people who live in the floodplain. Along the Mekong River and tributaries, there are literally tens of thousands of villages relying upon farming and fishing along the rivers, banks and floodplains. We chose to visit Preah Rumkel in Stung Treng Province primarily as it is just opposite the controversial recent Don Sahong Dam (Baird, 2011), and these people are impacted by all manner of trans-border flows and relations with neighbouring Laos.

Hydro-social relations are pivotal to the ways we read, interpret and understand our physical and human landscapes. The following section shall discuss the relevance of water-based ethnographic approaches to geography, followed by some discussion about learning outcomes and our online exhibition. Finally, we shall give thought to water-based and riparian futures and why geographers should be at the forefront of research, teaching, and engagements with these vital currents, flows and relations.


Ethnography has been a key method in human geography and a particularly valuable tool in investigating socio-natural interactions in the contemporary world. Within the discipline, ethnography has been used to understand processes such as ‘place-making, inhabiting social spaces [and] foraging local and transnational networks’ as seen through the lived experiences of people (Watson and Till, 2009: 121-122). In the quest to sneak a peek into the worlds of water-based communities in Cambodia, ethnographic methods, with their innate emphasis on the insider’s perspective (Fettermen, 2008: 289), laid the foundation of investigations in the field. The water-based ethnography that students conducted was not only rigorous as an academic exercise but also truly one of its kind for it offered them the first-hand experience of how intricately the lives of their hosts were tied with the waters of the Cambodian Mekong.

The need for field-based work was extremely crucial for a module like this for two reasons. First, the subject and objects of study in the module are embedded in contexts far removed from the urban environment of Singapore. The ways in which the lives and livelihoods in water-based communities are so intimately connected with the biophysical processes in the river system is one that can only be appreciated by being there. Second, being present in the physical environments of study is essential in identifying and understanding how bio-physical changes in a given environment impact the social worlds of its inhabitants. For instance, the extent to which the lives of families living in Chhnok Tru revolve around the annual flood pulse can only be appreciated by being in the space. While in the field, students got a sense of the phenomenal transformation of ways of living and livelihoods between when the lake is inundated in the wet season and when the water recedes in the dry season. Roads on the lake bed and lampposts emerging from the lake surface hinted at how much life at Chnnok Tru would change in merely half a year. In order to fully appreciate the relevance of the flood pulse to the community, plans are in the pipeline for a segment of the class to return to Chhnok Tru in late-February 2019 to experience life in the dry season. When the students were there we were clearly able to see how the annual flood pulse had submerged a road and created patches of “flooded forest” (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Drone image of road submerged near floating houses and flooded forest (Chhnok Tru, September 2018. Image courtesy of So Bunheng)

The application of ethnographic methods in this module was carried out in two phases. First, students stayed at Chhnok Tru, a “floating Village” in the Kampong Chhnang province of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. Subsequently, the field site shifted to Preah Rumkel, Strung Treng Province, a riparian community along the Cambodia-Laos river border of the Mekong. Working in groups of 2-3, students paired with their Cambodian buddies to work on a variety of topics ranging from youth aspirations to waste management. Interviews and observation served as the main modes of data collection in the field. Each group stayed with exclusive hosts who served as both informants and their network to the larger community in Chhnok Tru.

In the fieldwork process, the Cambodian buddies were primarily involved in the projects as translators while also contributing ideas to project development. Their presence in the module was particularly key given that the success of ethnographic methods lie predominantly in the forging of good inter-personal relationships between the researchers and the subjects (Walsh, 2012). The Cambodian buddies contributed to this aspect by serving as cultural interlocutors, bridging the differences between the Singaporean students and the members of the community.

The ethnographic methods deployed during fieldwork also varied between groups depending on the nature of the projects. Notably, some groups went beyond conventional methods in exploring novel ways to collect data. For example, a project seeking to find out Youth Aspirations in Chhnok Tru involved the group asking children to draw out their career ambitions. These pictorial expressions served to be a very effective form of data in understanding the children’s perspectives and desires, especially given that they might not have been to articulate them eloquently in interviews. [More details about the project can be found here:]. Fieldwork in water worlds was also gave space for students in the module to exercise methodological creativity in carrying out their projects. This was made possible by living on home-stays, developing rapport with host families, and working alongside Cambodian buddies (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Student group and their home-stay in Chhnok Tru. (Image courtesy of Daniel Tan)

The value of adopting an ethnographic approach in the module was also evident in the work produced by students. Several projects were able to challenge commonly held notions about rural communities in the global south. For example, a study on the female mobile sellers in Chhnok Tru revealed how unique gender roles of these women, devised partly in response to their unique environment, empower them. This is in sharp contrast to dominant narratives of the patriarchal hegemony among communities in the global south. Doing fieldwork in water worlds thus gave the students an opportunity to rethink and challenge what they learn in the classroom, drawing on their own research and experiences in the field.

(For more project details see here:

Figure 5: Female mobile seller, Chhnok Tru. (Photo courtesy of Anjana Ramkumar)


Engagement within hydro-social relations entails vital “eco” dimensions of eco-pedagogy, through proximity to, observations of and research within biophysical environments. One example was an investigation of ecosystem services within a Mekong River RAMSAR conservation site #999 near to Stung Treng’s borders with Laos.

(For details refer to:

The student team were accompanied by a wetlands conservation specialist from PUC who introduced them to rapid environmental assessment techniques at various locations. Through mixed methods, including studying available maps and baseline data provided by RAMSAR rangers, through photographs and drone images of areas of erosion and deposition (see Figures 6 and 7), the students were eventually able to generate useable maps utilising GIS and image processing methods to help identify and classify different parts of the riparian ecosystem. It is hoped that this initial investigation will provide helpful data and images for future work in relation to issues of conservation, protection of ecosystem services, and understanding processes and patterns of erosion and deposition in relation to the Mekong islands and riverbanks. Indeed, documenting what the projects and experiences of our students is central to the whole idea of setting up the digital exhibition, and the next section briefly examines the educational rationale for this effort and some outcomes of it.

Figure 6 here. Exposed tree roots in area of bank erosion. RAMSAR 999 site, Stung Treng (Image courtesy of Claudia Gee)

Figure 7. Aerial image taken by drone of part of RAMSAR 999 site. (Image courtesy of So Bunheng)


One of the most important purposes of the digital exhibition was to pave the way for the fieldwork of students to amount to something more than grades in their undergraduate education. In its essence, the digital exhibition provided a platform to bring the fruits of this module to the wider public. The stories collected by the students about life in the water-based communities of Cambodia are of interest to non-academics as well given the fascinating and the somewhat ‘exotic’ environments that they are set in. In this regard, the space provided by the digital exhibition to communicate students’ projects through different modes is valuable. The images and the videos in particular are powerful in creating an extended impact on the audience – an impact that is likely to be lost when telling these stories in prose alone. By visually capturing the experience of the students in the field, the images and videos bring the water worlds of Cambodia to the audience, allowing them to live through the students in learning about the environment and its people.

Beyond providing an engaging intellectual experience for its users, the digital exhibition serves the water-linked communities by bringing their stories to a larger audience. As mentioned earlier in this article, the responsibility of Geographers lies not only in studying the interface between humans and nature but also in engaging with human-nature relations as global citizens. In alignment with this belief, one of the main aims of Field Investigation was to get students to think about action-oriented research and how knowledge produced within the academy can translate into social change for the people and environments of study. The digital exhibition speaks to this aim by raising awareness of the complex and imminent challenges faced by the water-based communities in Cambodia. This is a first and important step in mobilising support for change at the international scale.

It is our hope that the digital showcase of the module will sow seeds of inspiration among two groups. First, we believe that it may inspire its authors, the students from this module, to further their interest and training in the study of nature-society relations by illustrating how their work can be made meaningful beyond the requirements of their degree. Second, we see the exhibition inspiring some members of its audience in wanting to contribute to efforts carried out to assist these communities in adapting to the environmental changes that they have to contend with. In this regard, the digital exhibition, while currently an informative platform, is likely to evolve into a connective one that brings together actors across scales in working towards change.


“Living on water is better than being on land. This has been my life. When the water levels rise we simply move our (floating) house further in, and when the water falls, we move out to deeper areas. I think I will always live on water.” (Kim, Tonle Sap Fisher, 58 years old, Chhnok Tru, interview notes, September 2018).
“I worry I am not in control of conditions. In ten years from now there may be no more fish to eat. Where will we go?” (Jon, Tonle Sap Fisher, 46 years old, Chhnok Tru, interview notes, September 2018).
“The first problem for me is what is happening to all the migratory fish? Where do they go? Fishers in Laos and here (Preah Rumkel) have to pressure themselves to find fish. I am concerned that we will have no more fish in future” (Bunthan, resident, 52 years old, Preah Rumkel, interview notes, September 2018).

Visiting two different field locations in the Lower Mekong Basin enabled our students to appreciate various ways in which rivers affect livelihoods and community life in the region, and also to understand that there seem to be common ecological and social stresses that connect diverse sites and locations. One of the biggest issues was about the future of food and livelihood security for the communities we visited. It is clear that fisheries are struggling for multiple potential interlocking reasons: the fragmentation of migration routes due to hydropower dams (many fish species migrate up and down the Mekong, and many migrate from transborder tributaries to the Tonle Sap); uneven over-fishing practices (including the use of illegal technologies and fine mesh nets that catch juvenile fish); disruptions to fish habitats and breeding sites; problems of water quality with increasing sources of pollution from urban sites, industry and agriculture; and long-term environmental and climate change influences. Fishers report to us a loss of certain fish species in their catches, reducing sizes of fish, and having to put in a lot more time, effort and ingenuity in order to catch fish. Freshwater fisheries are critical to the Cambodian diet, and hydro-social relations are recorded in the ancient Angkor Kingdom (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Bas relief from the Bayon Temple, in the Angkor Wat complex, revealing ancient hydro-social relations. (Courtesy of Carl Grundy-Warr)

Talking with local villagers in the two different riparian sites made us realize that they have so many things in common that are linked to critical issues of livelihood, ecological and food security. Are we going to witness a very vicious cycle of socio-ecological decline leading eventually to a mass exodus from environments such as the Tonle Sap, and a distancing of humans in relation to vital river systems because of degraded and diminished environmental resources? Are we going to see in our lifetimes hundreds of thousands of people abandoning their life worlds and becoming environmental refugees or migrants? Geographers have unique lenses that enable us to investigate human-social relations intimately, employing different methods, linking class and field, and through an empathy for both the physical environment and the societies, as well as trying to understand the processes that are fundamental to our changing earth systems. Geography literally can ‘open people’s eyes and minds’ in ‘making sense of our increasingly connected, crowded, environmentally fragile, and rapidly changing world’ (Murphy, 2018: 132). More than this, geography is an awakening and a challenge to deeper research and educational investigations so that we may give voice to both biophysical and human matter as inexorably entwined phenomena. By exposing some of our students to hydro-social life worlds in the Mekong, we are making an infinitesimal drop in a huge, deep and rich arena of potential educational projects and future research. We see our field investigation and digital platform as a “window” into hydro-social lives of the Mekong, but we hope it may become a platform for future investigations and educational exchanges to “wet” appetites of young geographers to become more engaged in the realities of socio-ecological changes and eventually in seeking solutions to grounded geographical problems.



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