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In Cambodia, a case for localizing climate-change research

Researchers know global temperatures are rising. Now scientists from as far away as Finland are studying what that means for the 1 million floating residents of the Tonle Sap Lake.

Living on water: Tonle Sap Lake’s 1 million residents have floating homes, schools, and even gas stations. But life is harder as water levels fall.

David Montero

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Nam Lai, a carpenter in this remote corner of Cambodia, remembers when it was easy to park his movable houseboat on the Tonle Sap Lake where he lives. But now, it’s getting harder to find a suitable spot for his small barge. “I have to move the house farther and farther from the shore,” he says.

For years, the 1 million inhabitants of the lake – Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater body – have lived a mobile existence to keep step with the seasonal ebbs and flows brought on by monsoons and melting Himalayan snows that expand the lake to five times its normal size. But many villagers say the deeper waters needed to park their houseboats are harder to find as the summers get hotter and the lake’s water level drops.

Lai’s observations, together with evidence of climate change’s impact on other fisheries around the world, has scientists deeply concerned that Tonle Sap Lake – one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems and one of its most productive fisheries – is also under threat. The lake is essential to Cambodia’s food supply, its fish providing 60 percent of the country’s protein, while supporting the livelihoods of about 12 percent of its people.

The problem is, nobody knows the impact of climate change for sure – even the teams that have come to find out from as far away as Finland – since scientific inquiry has only just begun. Observers say that the uncertainty underscores that better understanding of local scenarios, not just global modeling that looks at steady increases in world-wide temperatures, is needed to pinpoint climate change’s impact on people and livelihoods.

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