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Riparian Flux: Hydro-Social Relation on Koh Trong Island

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


KOH TRONG


Kao Sok is an elderly resident of Koh Trong who has lived here her entire life. Smiling, she reminisced about a lifetime living by the water. “I used to enjoy crossing the river to the mainland in my own boat,” she recalled. “But life in the past was hard. Now, I have my own house that is built on stilts. I feel more comfortable facing the floods during the rainy seasons”. During the rainy months, flooding is common and residents have, over the decades, devised various means of adapting to the unique conditions of the mid-channel island. Our visit in September coincided with the peak of the rainy season, offering many opportunities for understanding residents’ interactions with and adaptations to the local hydrology.

Kao Sok harvesting her pomelos for us


Through our research, we uncover the role of the river in the KT community as an actor that wields autonomy over social and biophysical processes as well as its response to the attempts to harness or adapt to it. Adaptation is hence a process which extends beyond the simple process of problem-solving but is in fact a constant negotiation between islanders and the non-human agency of the Mekong.


UTILISING RIVER RESOURCE



A pipe well with a blue PVC pipe attached.


In the past, drawing water from the Mekong was a laborious and timeconsuming process. Pumps had to be hauled down to the river’s edge and back, a journey made even longer during the dry season when the river level falls. With the arrival of electricity in 2017, many households now use electrical pumps connected to pipes that deliver water directly to homes.


Islanders have also dug pipe wells to have year-round access to better quality water. During our bicycle rides around the southeastern parts of KT, we noticed many pipe wells with bright blue outlet pipes. Sok Heng, a mung bean farmer living on the southeastern coast, is one such pipe well owner. He explained that the well water is better for the beans in his nursery as river water during the wet nursery as river water during the wet season is too turbid.



Interviewee's 10 year old abandoned well


However, the use of water from pipe wells - itself an adaptation to circumvent the poor water quality of river water - has been met with quality issues. Islanders report arsenic contamination in water from wells dug more than 20 metres deep. One resident living on the southwestern coast also reported abandoning his well after ten years of use as the water had developed a bad odour and taste, despite his well being only 17 metres deep.


During the dry season, the receding water level exposes the hidden sandbar, creating a seasonal beach that attracts many tourists. During the dry season, the receding water level exposes the hidden sandbar, creating a seasonal beach that attracts many tourists. The islanders seize the opportunity and transform the sandbar into a busy market of about 200 stalls to serve the visitors. This brings in significant income for the locals seasonally. Sal See, a boat repairwoman, gets visibly excited talking about the dry season. “Many people come here for the sand. The dry season is very busy,” she told us. “There used to be only 100 stalls. But even 200 is still not enough.” Business is brisk for her during the dry season, so much so that her family’s three boats were insufficient to ferry the throngs of visitors the past dry season.


ADAPTING TO RIPARIAN FORCES


However, despite the many benefits of living in such close proximity to water, the sheer scale and increasing unpredictability of the river make the Mekong a force to be reckoned with.


The sediment-rich floods that fertilise farmland are also the same floods that destroy crops and inundate farmland, disrupting agricultural activity for several months every year. Many farmers do not use synthetic fertilisers as they claim the taste of their crop is altered and hence rely heavily on the sediments brought in with the floods. Many farmers on KT thus remain ambivalent towards floods: while they acknowledge that the quality of their crops depends on the floods, they also bemoan the loss of their harvests.



Cycling on a pavement covered by water


To adapt to the seasonal floods, most farmers plant a diversity of crops, some with flood-resistant properties. One farmer, Piit De, told us that her chiyanna herb is able to resist up to three days of flooding, whilst some fruit crops, such as tomato plants, are able to grow quickly after flooding subsides.Adaptations for flood preparedness are also extended to homes. Most houses are built on stilts so that people as well as personal belongings can be kept above floodwaters. Many villagers also come up with simple yet creative ways to live with floods, such as by constructing simple bamboo and wood footpaths to avoid stepping in mud.


Walking on a plank laid by islanders to walk across mud and flood water


THE RIVER AS A MEANS OF DIS/EMPOWERMENT


Apart from being a resource and a force, the river also interacts with islanders in a continuous relationship of empowerment and disempowerment. For many families on the island, the river represents a vital pathway to social and economic empowerment. With limited employment opportunities on KT and no schools beyond the primary level, many islanders rely on the river as a pathway to access social and economic activities such as trading, education and employment.


Additionally, the river holds an added dimension of importance for a group of stateless fish farmers on Koh Trong. These fish farmers are predominantly of Vietnamese descent and the community is largely rejected by the Cambodians as “not-Khmer”.

Vietnamese floating village off KT island


They do not have the right to buy land and rarely set foot on the island, living instead in floating houses on the river attached to floating fish farms. The river provides them a place they can call home, access to means of livelihood, and a space for them to be recognised collectively as a community. The river hence empowers these fish farmers by giving them back some control over their lives and community.


Yet, despite being a source of empowerment, the river is simultaneously also a source of ongoing disempowerment for the fish farmers. During the wet season, the river is a constant source of danger as the community lives in fear of storms and rapid waters. Minh Yeun Hean, a fish farmer, told us about the ropes tying their houses to the trees on the island may rip during storms and their houses may be swept away. Throughout the year, living on the river also generates costly expenses. Replacing the bamboo that keeps houses afloat, for example, is costly, as is the fuel required to travel to and from marketplaces. As a result, many in the community live from hand to mouth and are denied the means to work towards a better life.


FLUX IN ACTION


Our visit to KT helped us appreciate and reify abstract concepts we had learnt in Geography, particularly those surrounding non-human agency and actor networks in the study of human ecology. We experienced the vibrancy of the river in shaping life on KT as well as the continuously evolving relationship between the islanders and the river. Community adaptations on KT rarely produce fixed, linear outcomes, but rather result in a continuous, dialectical process between the island community, external influences and a myriad of other biophysical factors. Considering the potential anthropological impacts on island hydrology caused by external, multilateral river management and the growing eco-tourism industry, the islanders, together with the river, will surely continue to evolve.

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