15 Jan 2014 23:00
The Tonle Sap Lake, situated in the heart of Cambodia, is South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. The 1.5 million people living on the lake are an ethnically diverse population of Khmers, Cham, and Vietnamese who experience a life isolated from both the modern world and the progress that is happening in much of Cambodia. Many communities are hours or even more than a full day away from any medical care or expertise.
During Cambodia’s post UN civil war in 1994, each political party had their own army, and the country was a dangerous place to travel through. Most roads and waterways throughout the country were being closely observed by starving peasants with guns.
At that time, Mr. Jon F. Morgan, an American doctor and the founding member of the Angkor Hospital for Children, was traveling across the Tonle Sap from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.
"It was then that I had my first impression of the floating villages found on the lake,” he said. “Children were defecating into the lake’s water while others swam and some washed the family dishes. Swollen bellies either from malnutrition or worms were evident everywhere. I turned towards my wife and said, 'This is a nightmare.’”
As a result of these discoveries, Mr Morgan decided to found The Lake Clinic in 2007, which provides primary healthcare to people who would otherwise have little or no access to medical assistance. The Lake Clinic consists of three floating buildings that are totally self sufficient running on Solar energy, and for 3 days a week doctors, dentists and staff from Siem Reap bring much needed care to the people who spend the majority of their lives afloat on the Tonle Sap.
Life in these remote villages can be precarious, and for many people this is the only access to medical provision that they have. Last year the Lake Clinic reached over 14,000 people living in the surrounding villages, and through its care program and the team’s ability to identify potentially disabling conditions early on, treatment could be provided before irreparable damage was done to their patients.
Poverty and illness are clearly evident in the communities of the Tonle Sap, and residents survive predominantly on what the lake has to offer. A lack of fresh drinking water and basic sanitation are major factors of disease within these floating communities, and over 10,000 children die each year in Cambodia as a result.
Without any water management systems in place, the growing populations on the lake still do not have toilets, and defecate through holes cut out of their homes directly into the lake in which they wash themselves, their food and throw all other waste into. Skin diseases are also very common in built up areas due to leaking gasoline from the engines of fishermen’s boats. This increasing build up of ever-greater quantities of waste from these communities means the environment is ultimately paying the price.
Traditional remedies and beliefs are still prevalent within the isolated communities living on the lake. Depending on the ailment, Cambodians believe that placing burning incense or cigarettes onto the bare skin of the chest and stomach will cure virtually all related illnesses to the head and body. When babies are born and show their first signs of sickness, (usually stomach pains and diarrhea) a mixture of rice wine, clay and the bark of a tree believed to cure various ailments is plastered to the head of the suffering infant.
Further upstream along the Mekong river, a more imposing threat lies; more than a hundred hydropower dams have been built or are in the process of planning further up the Mekong river that feeds the lake, disturbing the ecosystem and depleting fish numbers.
Every year, the lake produces around 300,000 tons of fish, making it one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems. Hydropower dams being built on the Mekong River are going to be extremely harmful to the communities that rely on fish as a way of supporting their families. The Cambodian Fisheries Administration reports that due to mainstream dam development on the Mekong, the country may lose up to 42 percent of its freshwater fish by 2030.