2017-18 CISSR Faculty Fellows Alan Kolata and Sabina Shaikh have been conducting fieldwork for their project to measure human activities in the Cambodian Region of the Mekong River floodplain and examine how those activities may change given climate change and other human-made developments. In December 2017, they visited Cambodia as part of their CISSR funded research, and provided this photographic account of their journey and observations so far...

The rich ecosystem of the Mekong River has supported dense human populations for millennia. Today, traversing six nations, the river underwrites the livelihood of 70 million people. In Cambodia, the river’s watershed, sustained by the unique flood-pulse system of the Mekong’s connection to the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia's largest fresh water body, provides ecosystem services and rich areas of biodiversity for farming, fishing and other productive activities for nearly two million inhabitants. 

Following the collapse of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Cambodia’s path to modern urbanization began with the repopulation of cities in the early 1980’s and accelerated over the past 30 years from massive rural to urban migration.  As regions in Cambodia become more connected to the global economy, employment opportunities in cities have expanded and natural resource-dependent livelihoods in rural areas face new economic, social and environmental challenges. 

With the support of our CISSR fellowships, we are identifying the existing hydrologically-based human activities in Cambodia’s Mekong River floodplain and examining how those activities will be affected under a range of climate change and human development scenarios. Through our field work, we investigate the relationships among ecosystem services, economic livelihoods, and cultural adaptations of floodplain inhabitants in order to derive possible adaptive pathways for human populations. 

Street scenes upon arrival in Phnom Penh.

In December 2017, we traveled to Cambodia along with Mike Binford, one of our research collaborators from the University of Florida and the National Science Foundation, to conduct focus group and key informant interviews with residents of villages located outside of Phnom Penh.  The villages were selected within a 100 km rectangle around Phnom Penh based on varied degrees of flood exposure, determined by remote sensing data from 2000-2014.

Sample villages were chosen from a larger sample within 100 km of Phnom Penh, by environmental stratification based on flood exposure.

We began with an intense planning session at the offices of our local partner, the Cambodian Development Resource Institute (CDRI) in Phnom Penh, where we met Monin Nong, our local research team leader, along with our focus group facilitators and translators.

Research team at the offices of the Cambodian Development Research Institute in Phnom Penh.

We then traveled for 12 days, staying in provincial towns in Kampong Cham and Prey Veng Provinces and taking day trips into villages by van and ferry boat.

Our first stop was Kampong Cham province where we spent the night right on the Mekong River. From here we drove over the Kizuna bridge that arcs across the river and later crossed the Mekong again by ferry to five villages over three days.

The Kizuna bridge built in 2001, funded by a grant from the government of Japan, was the first bridge built across the Mekong River in Cambodia.
Boarding the ferry boat to cross the Mekong in Kampong Cham province.
Motorbikes and ferry boats facilitate frequent travel from the villages to cities in Cambodia.

We met with residents who recounted the history of their villages, described the effects of recent droughts and the unpredictability of floods and reflected on the future challenges they will face as the water system upon which they rely changes. Young children chatting excitedly among themselves and running back and forth to play and to have their pictures taken with the team accompanied almost all of our interviews.

Sabina Shaikh with the friendly children of Kg Sdei Krom village in Kampong Cham.
Children in Phum 56 village welcoming us as "friends" and proudly providing a tour of their village.

Historically, these villagers depend on rice farming and limited fishing for subsistence with some involved in supplemental artisanal activities, such as weaving, to sell products in local markets.

Rice fields in Kampong Cham province.
Monument dedicated to weavers in Botsrei Antung village, where many residents still produce popular scarves to sell at local markets.

But traditional sources of livelihoods are changing as villages become more connected to cities via new roads, as foreign investment and land sales increase and as environmental change affects agricultural and fishery productivity. Some villages we visited had access to wells to pump water during low flood years, but these are insufficient in drought years.

Certain villages, like Tuol Kdol had wells to ensure some water during low flood or drought years.

Relatively new large-scale tobacco farms and rubber plantations reveal significant change in agricultural practices in the rural landscape.

Village headman and his granddaughter leading a tour of a large tobacco farm in Tuol Kdol village.
Rubber plantation outside of Botsrei Antung village, where villages work seasonally to support declining farm incomes.

Before leaving Kampong Cham province, we stopped at Wat Hanchey, a temple complex dating back to the 8th century Chenla period. Over the centuries, different religious practices have always been an important part of Cambodians’ lives who are now predominantly Theravada Buddhists.

Research team at Wat Hanchey, a temple complex dating back to the Chenla period of the 8th century in the province of Kampong Cham.

We drove next to Kdei Doung village in Prey Veng Province, southwest of Kampong Cham, along National Highway 1, a major road that connects Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. Here we met with government ministers, village residents, the commune chief and village headman.  The focus group and key informant interviews in this village were held at the offices of the commune chief who was present during the interviews.

Facilitators from the Cambodian Development Research Institute interviewing residents of Kdei Duong village at the Prey Veng provincial office.

The village was closer to the national highway than others we had visited, and had noticeably new road and water infrastructure.  The villagers cited the construction of an irrigation canal as a means for livelihood stabilization during drought years.

A large irrigation canal in Kdei Duong village in Prey Veng province represents the changing rural landscape.
Canal infrastructure in Kdei Duong village.

Our final excursion in Prey Veng was a surprise sunset boat trip arranged by our local team to view a stunning, isolated bird sanctuary on the preservation community of Tuol Paen Taley.

Sunset boat ride on the Mekong in Prey Veng province.
Boat ride to view the bird sanctuary at the preservation community of Tuol Paen Taley in Prey Veng.

Our interviews concluded via day trips from Phnom Penh to villages in Kandal and Takeo Provinces. Preak Kmeng in Kandal Province was of particular interest because it was the first village visited on our trip that relied almost exclusively on fishing and small-scale fish farming.

Fish trap near Preak Khmeng village in the province of Kandal, where fishing is the main occupation for residents.
Fish from Preak Khmeng village, where men do the majority of fishing and women manage the processing of fish into smoked, salted and paste products.

The residents of the village explained that they took out loans to pay for fishing and processing equipment and spent the off-season growing lotus plants and reeds for artisanal production. Although the previous fishing season had been particularly productive, the villagers were concerned about toxic runoff from construction contaminating spawning grounds as well as the ongoing effects of the changing water system on fish habitat.


One of the most striking observations throughout all of the villages was the absence of young adults in their most productive years. Migration from the countryside to urban centers for seasonal or permanent employment has left villages with populations consisting primarily of young, school-aged children and grandparents.

The village headman (left), a resident and their grandchildren in Kg Sdei Krom village in Kampong Cham province.

These patterns were observed especially in the critical demographic of adolescents and young adults (16-35 years of age), including women and young mothers.  Grandparents were the primary caregivers for children in the villages.  

Villagers described migration for seasonal or permanent work as essential to earn income in order to offset the low agricultural commodity prices that they receive. Lack of farm productivity due to droughts and extreme floods and the debt burden of repaying microfinance loans taken in poor agricultural years also contributed to the need for off-farm income.  We did not have the opportunity to speak to family members who were in the cities, but plan to do so with our CISSR renewal grant for 2018-19. 

The villagers we spoke with have significant understanding of the changing water system and its ecological effects.  They referred to climate change and diversion of water for hydropower in other Mekong countries as the main drivers of water variability. Their intimate experience with the land and water made them aware of the beneficial effects of the annual flood pulse on soil fertility and water supply in agricultural fields.  Farmers in our focus groups often said that they did not need to buy commercial fertilizer when regular seasonal floods deposited organic-rich sediments. But, during frequent droughts and low flood stands, they were required to purchase costly chemical fertilizers which contributed to a decline in farm income. Likewise, they have to pump water from irrigation canals into their rice fields when the river does not flood sufficiently.  Many villages currently lack this hydraulic infrastructure. 

One of the most likely consequences of ongoing hydropower development upstream is a reduction of the magnitude in the flood pulse, reducing the hydro-period (amount of time any area is flooded) in agricultural areas, consequently decreasing nutrient and water supply. The loss of these ecosystem services is a cost to riparian inhabitants that has not yet been quantified.  This will be an essential step in understanding the environmental drivers of migration. 

Future Research

To complement our social science research, we will work with our local partners to begin estimating these ecosystem services by measuring the nutrient and water inputs to floodplain agriculture through analysis of sediment deposits. In May 2018, we will host a workshop at CISSR for all team members, including researchers from Cambodia and other invited scholars to discuss our research agenda, present our preliminary findings, and plan the next round of data collection.  We will use the one-year renewal of our faculty fellowships from CISSR to return to Cambodia to conduct life history interviews in Phnom Penh with migrants from the villages visited on this trip. 

Through this work, we hope to gain further insight into the interacting environmental, economic and social drivers of migration to urban centers, particularly among women who constitute a significant proportion of rural-to-urban migrants and have left traditional roles of agricultural household management and child rearing. We will also travel north to expand our sample of key informant and focus group interviews in villages near Siem Reap (near the ancient Khmer temples of Angkor) to capture regional variation in migration patterns, livelihoods and adaptations to biosocial change. 

For more on our project, please visit our CISSR page.