Going With the Flow

Living with water

The miserable truth is that while some of our Earth bakes in unrelenting drought, many of us will soon be living in a wetter world, and in which water will take centre stage. Rising sea levels, devastating storms, flooding rivers, and reappearing lakes are a fact of our future. The question is no longer about how to stop it. The question is how to live with it.

Two linked world views are among the meta-causes of climate change: that humans are separate from everything else on the planet, and that everything else is ours to use and to use up. While these ideas were not unique to Europe, the current human global systems are undeniably outgrowths of European culture, colonization and economic imperialism over the past many centuries.

This way of thinking is so ingrained in the contemporary world that we seldom challenge the idea that the earth and everything and everyone on it is a resource: a rarely acknowledged belief system furthered by capitalism. With clever hands and clever inventions, we make many of our lives ever more secure, comfortable and healthy. We tame plants for agriculture and animals for labor and food. We harvest from the oceans and the land with ever more sophisticated tools. (The fish have no place left to hide!) We dig into the earth to extract minerals and energy. In pursuit of more of everything—and more wealth for a diminishing few—we ignore both immediate and long-term consequences.

And so human numbers have grown and grown and grown to the point where we have overrun our planet with 8 billion of us … and counting. In Darwinian terms we are on top of the evolutionary heap; a species so successful that we have now named a geologic era after ourselves: the Anthropocene.

Living surrounded by water.

Life with the water: the varied cultures of Tonle Sap thrive in collaboration with nature. Photo © Lisa Findley

We are a species so successful that even the technologically altered systems that have sustained us have reached their limits. While the consequences were at first barely detectable, they have now undeniably tipped us into crisis. As we scramble to try to escape the momentum of impending collapse we have triggered, we cast about for tools, strategies, hope of some kind. Each day brings a cascade of change. As for our wetter future, there is no longer a debate: the glaciers are melting at an exponentially rapid rate. Warmer temperatures are binding more moisture in the air which falls as rain and snow. All of that released water has to go somewhere.

Architects, urbanists, and a vast array of policy experts are urgently pursuing solutions to living with these rising waters that threaten millions. Floating houses, floating villages, floating cities, floating agriculture. Much has been made of recent projects and proposals of how to live with all this water. Yet, these answers have been around for  thousands of years and suggest more than just structural strategies: they also demand a profound change in attitudes.

We are fortunate that in small pockets of our planet there are human cultures whose unique knowledge of living with water persist. These cultures, sometimes indigenous to a place prior to European or other colonial or imperial incursion, almost universally view themselves as integral to their natural context rather than separate from it. Among these are the Vietnamese, Cham and Khmer people who dwell on Lake Tonle Sap in present-day Cambodia.

Floating villages for protection from the action of water.

Tonle Sap: floating allows villages to relocate easily when the water rises. Photo © Lisa Findley

As the largest lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap hosts one of the most diverse ecosystems and one of the largest inland fisheries in the world. It is also subject to astounding changes in volume during monsoon season: quadrupling its surface area and adding up to 10 meters in depth. This seasonal swing has resulted in two distinct strategies for living: floating and stilts. Floating villages have the advantage of being able to move, and usually anchor in shallower water in an inlet or near to the ever-changing shoreline where they are more protected from the winds and waves of the lake. Stilt villages, while stationary, are connected to land during the dry season, and the agricultural and economic opportunities this connection provides.

For the more than 1.5 million people who live on the lake, this annual change of water level is a fact of life. But let’s not use the word “gracefully” to describe this way of life, since living on and with Lake Tonle Sap is not to be romanticized. Though the lake provides fish and other food, almost everyone here lives in what the UN and World Bank would term “poverty.”

A village on stilts during a low water season.

Tonle Sap: a stilt village during the dry season with low water. Photo © Lisa Findley

There is much we can learn from the techniques of floating dwellings and of houses on stilts. However, the specifics of surviving in the constantly shifting landscape of Lake Tonle Sap—and many other wet environments—can never be scaled up to encompass the billions threatened by rising seas. What is more important to learn from these cultures is the mindset of adapting to a huge natural system with low-impact strategies that deal with fluctuating water levels: the recurring shifts from wet to dry to wet again.

In the end, our very lives rely on rejecting the out-of-date and wrongheaded attitudes of human separation from “nature” that arose in the Enlightenment and persist today. Instead, the Indigenous knowledge that has survived into the twenty-first century—despite attempts to the contrary—holds a precious lesson: we must see ourselves as integral to a staggeringly beautiful, complex and wetter planet. Like the residents of Lake Tonle Spa, to survive we have to go with the flow.

Main image: Tonle Sap stilt village during rising water. Photo: takepicsforfun