In Cambodia, ecological innovation walks on water

Cambodians often live right above water in houses perched on stilts—and those that do, often grow gardens on rafts. Inspired by these floating gardens, Osmose and Aster, two Franco-Cambodian NGOs, came up with the idea of building several floating platforms on the Tonlé Sap lake, using local building techniques for inspiration.

The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonlé Sap—which was designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1997—is host to a unique hydrologic phenomenon that causes massive seasonal flooding to create an “inundated forest.” Three million Cambodians depend on the lake for resources, particularly fish, which accounts for 70% of their protein intake.

Osmose and Aster wanted to highlight this unique biodiversity and support the lake’s central role in local life by using their project to introduce a sustainable tourist economy to the region. At the heart of the floating village of Prek Toal are a garden, restaurant, school, artisan shop, and bathrooms with recycling-composting toilets. The rafts are interconnected; litter from the toilets is eventually used as fertilizer for the garden, and plants filter wastewater before releasing it into the lake.

Despite winning “Certificates of Excellence” from TripAdvisor in 2016 and 2017, the project is more than an eco-village aimed at hosting tourists: it also brings an education component. More than 600 schoolchildren from nearby villages are brought to the eco-village by Osmose every year to take part in nature excursions and to learn about the plants, birds, fish, and other wildlife that are native to Tonlé Sap.

The importance placed on education is also evident in the Prek Toal floating village’s approach to tourism. A day-long eco-tour includes an environmental education class and a trip to discover how a local family live on a floating house. It also includes a visit to crocodile and fish farms, as well as the floating gardens.

Osmose has since expanded on the initial success of Prek Toal. The organization now runs a women’s weaving cooperative, whose members use the lake’s invasive water plants to create rugs and bags. Tonlé Sap is being looked at by local activists as the future site of new projects as well. Ouk Vanday, a former hotel director who started a recycling education program for children in Phnom Penh, is planning to open a floating school built with recycled waste on the lake in 2022.