In Cambodia, Environmental Challenges Mirror the Past

It’s an amazing sight to see one of the world’s greatest man-made monuments slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.
I’m in Cambodia, at the site of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. Its most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is impressive to be sure, but my favorite temple is Ta Prohm, where the roots of giant trees called spung (Tetrameles nudiflora) creep over intricately carved doorways, columns and spires. Parakeets and cicadas punctuate the humid air with their shrill calls.
As I walk through this centuries-old ruin, I imagine what the scene would look like in a time-lapse video, with tree roots wrapping around ancient stones like snakes and squeezing them until they crumble.
Thousands of people wander through Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples every day — snapping photos, following umbrella-carrying tour guides — yet I wonder how many of them stop to think about why the people who built these architectural marvels abandoned it in the first place.
There are many theories, of course, but one that has gained recent traction is that deforestation in the ancient city — the largest city in the world at the time — led to flooding and increasing sedimentation of the Khmer Empire’s elaborate rice irrigation system.
Rice was a critical food staple that sustained Angkor’s population of more than 1 million people; in fact, it was so essential that it also served as currency. The sedimentation of the waterways and resulting decline in rice production may have caused the abandonment of Angkor by its people and the relocation of its rulers to an area near modern-day Phnom Penh.
In short, the fate of Angkor might have looked different if some of nature’s most important services — erosion prevention, freshwater provision — had been better managed.
Not surprisingly, threats to these services continue to impact Cambodia’s people today. A series of dams, currently in various stages of construction on three tributaries of the Lower Mekong River known as “3S,” is predicted to increase sedimentation levels in the rivers, which will likely have severe impacts on fish populations that provide a critical protein source for all Cambodians. Deforestation continues to plague areas of the Cardamom Mountains, whose rivers drain into the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake, which make up Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater fishery. And lack of access to clean drinking water has led to high levels of water-borne diseases in Tonle Sap’s floating villages. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, infant mortality around the lake is among the highest in the world.
As I look up at the trees encroaching on the remains of Ta Prohm, I’m conflicted. It’s tragic to think of the continued damage these trees will likely inflict on such a stunning cultural site, yet I’m comforted to see that despite the environmental destruction of centuries past, nature has bounced back.
Looking hundreds or thousands of years into the future, I’m sure that some form of nature will still exist on Earth. The question is: Will we be here to witness it? After all, unlike during the time of the Khmer Empire, the population density of the planet today — home to more than 7 billion (and growing) — means there isn’t anywhere else for us to go to escape these issues.
CI is undertaking ambitious efforts to fight the biggest environmental challenges that Cambodia’s people face, many of which are slowly but surely restoring ecosystems and improving the lives of communities. (My colleagues and I look forward to sharing some of these projects with you in future blogs.) However, it seems to me that what we ultimately need is a global shift in understanding of the links between nature and our daily lives — one that learns from the past.
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.