Chum Srey Nga

A VSO project is assisting communities living on
Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonlé Sap,
to weather many storms.

Chum Srey Nga, 50, looks
around in amazement at
her floating garden onboard
the boat where she and her
family live, on southeast Asia’s largest
freshwater lake. Already vegetables
that she and many others have been
taught to plant, feed their families
with, and sell, such as Chinese
cabbage, shallot lettuce, and bok
choy, are sprouting up.
For nearly four decades, Chum and
her family drifted by on the Tonlé Sap
in Cambodia. Things were far from
perfect for them in Kampong Luong
commune in the country’s Pursat
province. But fishing put food on the
table and Chum made a living from
their small but unsteady house on
the enormous lake, where many are
forced to live permanently.
Gradually over the years, however,
things shifted, with the community
now facing challenges including
overfishing, deforestation, dam
construction and industrial and
domestic sewage.
“We were rich in fish. It has changed
a lot,“ says Chum, a mother of eight
and grandmother of three, who has
lived in a huge floating village there
since 1979. “Today, the Tonlé Sap
lake has less fish; we cannot catch
as much as before. But what should
we do?”
Thanks to a floating garden,
created via the Generating Resilient
Environments and Promoting SocioEconomic Development of the East
Tonlé Sap Lake (GREEN) project,
a collaboration between VSO and
partners, Chum now has enough
food and income to keep her and her
family secure. The four-year project,
which began in March 2021, aims
to help 4,500 marginalised people
by equipping them with technical
and vocational skills by taking up sustainable farming. GREEN also aims to
establish 50 initiatives through women
and youth-led business incubations and
develop three business plans through
community-led ecotourism studies.
After hearing about GREEN, Chum, who
lives nearly 100 miles outside Cambodia’s
capital Phnom Penh, registered for
training. The initiative, which targets
people in the Kampong Thom, Pursat,
and Kampong Chhnang provinces
of Cambodia, has three areas: water,
sanitation and hygiene (WASH), the green
economy, and education.
Through the project, which involves 20
VSO volunteers, Chum and others have
been given the knowledge, skills and tools
to plant vegetables for floating gardens.
They were taught how to build a floating
raft using recyclable materials, such as
plastic bottles, and to make chemical-free
fertiliser, promoting more agroecological,
sustainable farming.
“Before VSO intervened, my life was a
struggle,” says Chum. “I had no technical
knowledge of how to grow vegetables. But
now VSO has come in, my life is getting
better. I have gained knowledge and skills
in sustainable farming.”
After hearing about VSO and GREEN,
Kem Rai, 38, who lives in a floating village
with her mother and niece in Kampong
Luong and works in fish paste processing,
took part in workshops to hear about the
floating gardens. Kem realised that if she
learnt how to grow vegetables, she could
supplement her income from her fish
paste processing work. “VSO has guided
me to think of new initiatives of planting
vegetables. Joining this project has helped
me earn more than what I make from fish
paste processing, and my family life is now
better,” says Kem.
“I do not worry so much when I have
urgent needs.” She has now reduced her
expenses on food, as she gets this from
her garden, and can save more.
Kem’s family has also suffered because
of climate change. At one point the roof
blew off their house, falling onto another,
and they have been unable to raise fish.
“Climate change has caused us to lose
our job raising fish, because of the bad
pollution in the water. This not only affects
me and my family, but other community
members, as they were forced to stop
keeping fish because of the unclean river,”
says Kem.
“This kind of climate change is
affecting a lot of fishermen and women
in my community, who in the past few
years have reduced their fishing to half
compared to before. Some families have
no options but to stop.”
Through GREEN, the community
has also learnt to become more
environmentally aware, through the
project’s workshops, with this information
passed onto the community. “I raise
awareness amongst my neighbours
and tell them not to throw things in the water, just save it for recycling or keep
it in the bin. Our community people
have understood a lot and changed their
behaviour,” says Chum. “I am looking
forward to receiving more support to
expand my opportunities even more.”
Thanks to the GREEN project, when
there’s trouble on the horizon for these
vulnerable people on the Tonlé Sap, they
now have ways of coping. But VSO needs
to reach more people like Chum and Kem
living on the lake today.

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