2011 Tonle Sap & Mekong River Flooding Disaster in a Year of Tragedy

2011 was a hard year for the many people who depend on the Tonle Sap and Mekong River.

Major flooding occurred across Mekong Delta including Thailand, Laos and in Cambodia during the monsoon / rainy season with a peak in September and October.

Torrential rains causing the Mekong River and Tonle Sap to overflow and burst river banks with the highest levels of flooding in 11 years being seen in provinces surrounding the lakes and rivers in Cambodia.

Thousands of homes and farms were seriously affected with many soon to be harvested rice, cassava and other crops becoming completely obliterated by the far reaching flood waters.

Not only did it prove a disaster for farmers and fishermen but even the main tourist city of Siem Reap near Angkor Wat was impacted as the city centre became submerged.

Lives were lost, businesses and livelihoods destroyed, schools closed and sickness became rife in the worst hit areas.

While the wet season flooding generally has a positive effect on the Eco-system by enriching flooded land with nutrients the sheer scale of the 2011 floods led to devastating impact in many provincial areas which normally remained far from the rising waters.

El Niño, global warming and a number of controversial dam projects were raised up as possible contributing factors however 2011 soon proved to be an Annum Horribilus for Cambodia as one disaster was tragically followed by a much more unexpected and far reaching tragedy.....


Introduction to the Largest Freshwater Lake in South East Asia

The Tonlé Sap is combined lake and river system in Cambodia that is also the largest body of water in South East Asia.

The Reversing River

The Tonle Sap remains relatively small for most of the year, measuring about a meter in depth and covering around 2,700 square kilometers.

However, the river that connects to the lake starts to swell during the monsoon season as water that flows from the Mekong river reverses, helping to expand the Tonle Sap up to 16,000 square kilometers with a depth up to 9 metres deep.

Surrounding fields become flooded with the floodplains acting as the core breeding ground for the Tonle Sap’s plentiful supply of fish.

The seasonal flow from lake and river are responsible for creating more than 75% of Cambodia’s fresh water fish catch and are estimated to directly support more than 3 million people.

Tonle Sap Statistics

  • Surface area of 2,700 km² (normal)
  • 16,000 km² (monsoon)
  • Designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997
  • Supports more than 3 million people
  • Responsible for with 75% of Cambodia’s annual inland fish catch
  • Provides around 50% of the flow to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

Siem Reap Floating Village

The Tonle Sap is also home to many ethnic Vietnamese who have emigrated to Cambodia over the last 50 to 100 years, often to the consternation of the native Cambodian population.

Despite the local ethnic tensions the Vietnamese Floating Village on the Tonle Sap in Siem Reap has become one of the areas more popular attractions with tourists touring the area on boats.

Cambodian Water Festival and Boat Racing

For three days each year the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh is home to Cambodia’s most famous sporting event.

The Water Festival is held to celebrate the reversal of the waters back into the Mekong and normally takes place in October or November.

Millions of people travel from the provinces to Phnom Penh so they can participate and watch the boat racing.

Teams from every province and many villages compete against each other in canoe style boats that they make themselves and decorate to represent their homeland.

During the first two days the boats race in pairs but on the third day all the boats join together for a mass race.

The festival and the boat racing is all done in order to pay respect to the river god who in turn will provide the country with a plentiful bounty of fish and rice for the rest of the year.

During the week of the festival the entire country stops working and Phnom Penh fills up beyond capacity with people sleeping in the streets and cars unable to drive anywhere near the river.

Singaporean Dragon Boat Tragedy

Surprisingly the boat racing normally proceeds without many problems.

But on 23 November, 2007 a tragedy occurred when five members of the Singapore Dragonboat drowned.

The dragon boat carrying Chee Wei Cheng, Jeremy Goh, Stephen Loh, Reuben Kee and Poh Boon San overturned and the Singporeans were trapped beneath a pontoon and could not escape due to strong river currents.

The drownings made international newswires and in Cambodia much sadness was expressed by the government and the public.