Cambodia is a country whose very origins are connected to water — specifically, the Tonle Sap Lake, along whose banks Khmer civilization sprang. The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat rose near its northern shore some 900 years ago, and its abundant biodiversity has long bewitched observers, such as Zhou Daguan, a 13th-century Chinese diplomat who described the Tonle Sap as being home to “giant soft-shell turtles,” prawns “a pound-and-a-half or more each,” and “crocodiles as big as boats [that] look exactly like dragons except they have no horns.”
He’s far from the only documenter to be floored by the sheer size and abundance of life in Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, which has more than 300 fish species and was recognized as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997. But Senglong Youk, the Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper, and the first Waterkeeper in Southeast Asia, does not get starry-eyed about it. He’s too busy trying to save Tonle Sap’s once-fecund waters from rampant destruction caused by overfishing, climate change and development, in particular, massive hydropower dam construction projects on the Mekong River and its tributaries, including the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong (3S) river basins, much of which is being funded by China.
The lake still yields 500,000 tons of fish annually and provides more than 75 percent of Cambodia’s freshwater-fish catch, but, Youk says, “the people cannot really depend on fishing anymore. There are not as many fish, and the human population is continuing to grow, and now it’s more competitive.” Nonetheless, the Tonle Sap, a vast inland sea that is commonly referred to as “the Great Lake,” is known as Cambodia’s beating heart. Senglong might be its soul.
Senglong was born to poor farmers in the northern province of Kampong Cham toward the end of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s four-year reign of terror, during which three million Cambodians – 25 percent of the population – were systematically exterminated. Pol Pot’s communist revolutionary government was contemptuous of intellectuals, such as Senglong’s eldest brother, whom the regime seized and who never returned. When it was overthrown in 1979, all of the country’s schools and universities were gone, along with nearly everyone who taught in them.
Pol Pot was also determined to entirely stamp out the country’s Buddhist temples, but did not quite succeed, and after his fall they revived, once again a respected haven for intellectual thought and study. Senglong’s parents were determined that he receive an education, and when he was eight years old they sent him to live in and study at a nearby temple.
“It was,” he said, ”really the only chance for most poor Cambodian children to get an education.”
He may have begun his studies out of necessity, but he soon became enraptured by the teachings of the Buddha, and, an excellent student, learned Sanskrit, Pali and English. At age 14 he made the decision to become a monk, and spent 18 years in that calling. Buddhism’s teachings are predicated on a concern for all living things, and one of its basic tenets is that human beings live in harmony with their natural surroundings, something that resonated deeply with Senglong.
During Senglong’s years as a monk, Cambodia’s environment was quickly becoming imperiled. Timber was in high demand domestically and internationally, and loggers were eager to fell the country’s magnificent forests in exchange for the substantial profits. Accelerated by government concessions that allowed local and international corporations to log in protected areas, Cambodia rapidly lost more than half of its forest cover and had one of the worst deforestation rates in the world. The expansive forests that once abutted Senglong’s parents’ farm receded at an alarming rate. Once he’d needed only to walk half a kilometer to reach the treeline. Now it was four kilometers or more.
“I started to be aware that someday all of the forest might be gone,” he says. In Cambodia, as virtually everywhere else on earth, the fates of forests and water are deeply connected. During the wet season, the size of the Tonle Sap balloons from around 1,000 square miles to more than 6,000, inundating the surrounding forest, which becomes a crucial reproductive habitat for multiple species of fish, and is a haven for creatures such as phytoplankton and zooplankton. In the upper parts of the watershed, the forest slows water run-off and reduces erosion. Senglong understood that preserving one demanded preserving the other.
Senglong, along with the other monks at his temple, decided enough was enough, and in 1998 they formed the Buddhist Association for Environmental Development (BAED). Initially, their goal was simple: replant the trees that had been lost.
Cambodia is a poor country, and the waking hours of most rural farmers are spent trying to put food on the table. “Most villagers didn’t really care about the environment,” he says. “They cared about what they could put in their stomachs.”
But now, in part because monks are highly respected in Cambodia, the group was able to mobilize members of the community. Seedlings were donated by the government’s forestry department, and villagers not only showed up to help replant, but also offered aid from their minimal resources, be it a boat, a truck – or even food to share.
“We started with around 20 people,” Senglong recalls. “Then it increased from 20 to 50.”
When they invited the provincial governor to a replanting event, Senglong was amazed to find that 500 people showed up, ready to work.
BAED continued to expand its reach, and Youk continued his education. After finishing primary school in the town of Kampong Cham, he moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, to pursue his studies, ultimately earning a degree in business administration at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia.
He also continued to work on his English, a skill that made him invaluable to BAED, and Senglong took on many of BAED’s administrative duties, including the writing of reports and proposals, and communicating with the local people.
Youk’s outward demeanor is deeply humble. But his reserved personality belies a powerful drive and sense of purpose. He was inspired particularly by a famous monk named Maha Ghosananda, who, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, led peace marches across mine-riddled terrain, a powerful campaign that was instrumental in restoring the country’s demolished spirit.
“I thought maybe, someday, I could have an impact like his.”
Still, Senglong’s ambition began to chafe against his service as a monk. He wanted to attend graduate school and to work internationally with NGOs. In 2005, he decided to leave the temple. “Disrobing the monkhood,” he says, was the hardest choice he’s ever made, but the only one his conscience would allow.
In fact, BAED began to flag without his gift for mobilizing the local populace, and in 2010, Senglong did return to help it. But by 2013, he knew it was time to take on a new challenge: Not only did he want to continue to “upgrade himself,” as he puts it, but he also needed a salary in order to support his mother and siblings. “I was not a monk anymore,” he said. “I have to live, I have to survive.”
As the English-speaking member of BAED, Senglong regularly had attended the conferences and events of larger NGOs, including the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a collection of Cambodian NGOs focused on empowering local fishing communities around the Tonle Sap, the Save the Mekong Coalition, a regional NGO network working on mega-dam development issues on the Mekong’s mainstream, and Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, working on dam-development issues on major tributaries of the Mekong. When an opening for a program manager at FACT became available, Senglong took it. (He now serves as deputy executive director.) Soon after, he heard about Waterkeeper Alliance from a fellow advocate, and the idea of founding a Waterkeeper organization to protect the Tonle Sap immediately piqued his interest. He reasoned that as a member of the Alliance he would be able to connect with Waterkeepers in other parts of the world who were engaged in similar struggles, and acquire new tools and learn new approaches for his own work. In 2015 Senglong founded Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper, under the auspices of FACT.
In his work as a Waterkeeper, he has focused on empowering community fisheries, making sure locals know their rights, and helping to open channels of communication with government agencies. “This,” he says, “represents the best chance of protecting the lake against the threats of overfishing, pollution and other harmful practices.”
Despite the size of the task, Senglong’s efforts have yielded results. Local stakeholders have started to take charge and “to declare their rights.” He has also helped forge relationships with the government. “In the past we were like the enemy,” he says. “We always fought, and we did not have a chance to sit together to identify the issues. But now we have a platform where we can discuss issues peacefully.” As the Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper, Senglong has helped orchestrate meetings between the government’s fisheries administration and dozens of NGOs and community fisheries, as well as three annual national public forums with stakeholders covering issues like illegal fishing, land encroachment and the impact of climate change on fisheries resources.
His focus as the Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper, however, still involves tackling several daunting, often dangerous challenges.
The old Khmer Rouge still casts an ominous shadow over Cambodia. Hun Sen, the country’s prime minister since 1985, is a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, and under his rule some of Cambodia’s most prominent environmental activists have been murdered.
Senglong’s work and that of other environmental NGOs hardly seems controversial on the surface – their day-to-day efforts involve empowering local stakeholders, assuring that they’re aware of their rights, and educating the populace about alternate sources of income besides fishing. Yet, while Senglong has said that he has personally never been threatened outright, he knows that the government has kept its eyes on the work that he and other NGOs are doing, and that it regularly flexes its power against movements it doesn’t like. He reports that, during elections in 2013, the regime accused FACT of supporting the country’s main opposition party, which was ultimately dissolved by the Supreme Court.
The government’s fisheries administration, however, has supported Senglong’s work, and attempted to protect Senglong and his colleagues from further criticism by the regime. But major challenges persist. Illegal fishing remains widespread, and the proposed Chinese-backed hydropower dams are dire threats to Tonle Sap’s struggling ecosystem. Flash storms, a relatively new phenomenon thought to be caused by climate change, stir up mud from the lake’s bottom and suffocate fish. Thousands of hectares of flooded forest have been unwisely destroyed by wealthy commercial interests and replaced with rice-growing operations.
In the face of these major obstacles, why does Senglong keep at it? He may have left the temple long ago, but he answers like the monk that he was for almost half his life. He cares about the people who rely on the Tonle Sap for their livelihoods, feeling that if he doesn’t, who will?
“The government has shown concern but has limited human and financial resources,” he says. “And there are even some government officials who seem to care more about their pockets. The people have no place else to turn. So I, myself, and also the other organizations, have to care about them. We are their last, best hope.”
Lauren Evans is a freelance writer who covers the environment, gender, and the developing world. You can follow her on Twitter at @laurenfaceevans.