After 20 years of living on a five-meter boat, Yousuf and his wife Isma have never seen the fish stocks so low. Only a few years ago the family was able to earn more than twice as much as they do today. With their current daily income of 5 – 10 dollars, Yousuf and Isma support their nephew as well as their three sons, two of whom live with their grandmother in the family’s home province of Kandal. “The fish stock are lower because the water is shallow” Isma explains, “when the water levels are high the fish migrate to the shallows, and when the water drops again the fish migrate back. If the water levels are shallow, the fish do not migrate.”
Yousuf and Isma live a semi-nomadic life moving around the Tonle Sap and Mekong river area from shore to shore. They used to dock their boat permanently on Koh Pich Island before investors decided to develop the island. The community, made up of approximately 20 boats, was forced to move. At the moment, the manager of a ferry terminal allows them to stay nearby for most of the year. “We are often told to move from here,” says Isma, “especially during the water festival and when high-ranking officials visit the area.”
They live in the area where the two rivers meet, and fish in several different shallow parts of the two waterways, occasionally moving to follow migrating fish and staying a couple of days in different areas.
Yousuf and Isma along with the 20 other boats that make up the community are all Cham, a South East Asian ethnic group. With roots in the ancient Kingdom of Champa, the Cambodian Cham are mainly Muslim. Islam makes up less than one percent of the Cambodian population, which is predominantly Buddhist. The Cham tend to live in their own towns or areas within larger cities.
Though they are happy in the constant motion of the waves and travelling everyday in their floating home, raising a family on a boat is not easy. Yousuf and Isma lost two children who drowned after falling off the boat. “That is why I don’t want to live on the river” she says. She would also like to live in the same place all year round and see her children grow up and go to school like other children. In the mean time, they fish many different areas around the Mekong and Tonle Sap, where the two rivers meet.
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