Looking out over the Mekong River in Phnom Penh you will see what appears to be floating villages. The “villages” are actually groups of fishing boats—they look like long rowboats with a cover over the mid-section. Families have built their lives upon these boats, joining together their home and their livelihood. Our team spent the day on the river meeting and speaking with some of these families about their life on the river.
Families who make their living fishing on the river seem to be somewhat more secure in their economic position in the sense that at least they have a meal to eat every day.Anything extra that they might catch can be sold to acquire some additional food, such as rice, but fish is their primary source of protein. Everything they own is with them on the small boat; they have no other home. An entire family eats, sleeps and works on the boat to survive. This means the loss of a family member due to illness or injury also means losing a breadwinner. Also, the children are not in school and are working alongside their parents every day in order to have food to eat and perhaps to earn a dollar or two at the market.
The livelihood of subsistence fishing families, like that of subsistence farmers, depends largely on environmental factors. If the river becomes so polluted that fish cannot survive, the families also cannot survive. In times of flooding or drought, again they are affected. Even the sanitary conditions of the water can lead to illnesses since the river water is what they eat and drink from. Also, unregulated industry can have an effect on their precarious situation since over-fishing by large commercial boats can threaten the basic food supply for the individual families.
With so many factors affecting the health of the rivers and the daily lives of these families, it is a struggle to get through each day, and it will be harder still for future generations. Because the children grow up on the boats, fishing is the only way of life they know. Certainly the work these young kids do every day is difficult and dangerous, but it is also robbing them of an education, such that their options for the future are limited and the cycle of poverty continues.
Certainly the river is beautiful, and to some this may seem like a simple life free of many of the modern complications of our Western city living, but with no social safety net, such as education or basic healthcare, these families and their way of life will always remain vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is far too regular for communities like these, and a situation we hope to shed light on.