Lagos and the Floating Village of Cambodia
So many similarities exist between Nigeria and the Kingdom of Cambodia, which is swaddled in gulf of Southeast Asia’s peninsula and bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
But where the poor country differs from Nigeria is how it has managed to rise and slowly evolve from the ruins of its dark past on the plank of tourism with the sparsely natural resources at its disposal. Today, it has become a major tourist destination where visitors from across the world are introduced to the country’s majesty, tragedy and rebirth.
The hideous past of their genocide inflicted by the dictator, Pol Pot, in what is now known as the Khmer Rouge era between 1975 and 1979, has been well documented for posterity at the Genocide Memorial and Killing Fields, Genocide Museum and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
Also, a 12th Century Buddhist temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, has been preserved as the Angkor Wat temple complex and is today the largest religious monument in the world and currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors, drawing more than three million tourists every year.
During a three months course on Peace and Conflict at the Rotary Peace Center in Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand in 2015, I went on a nine-day field trip to Cambodia, where in the short space of time available, I had a first-hand experience of the country’s post-conflict rehabilitation, an exercise that left lasting impact.
Like Abraham Lincoln once said: “God must have loved poor people, because he made so many of them.” The streets of Cambodia were littered with child beggars, but what is, however, remarkable is the resolve of a new generation propelled by survivors of the genocide to step out of the ashes of the past and build a new future of the country they all cherish.
One of the interesting sites visited was the Floating Villages scattered across the Great Lake Tonle Sap in Siem Reap, which is everything beautiful about our not-too-desirable Makoko, creating an eyesore on the Lagos lagoon.
The notion of living on water isn’t an entirely new one. People in Venice, Italy, and at the Bangkok Floating Market, in Thailand, have been doing it for centuries. At the Floating Village in Cambodia, schools, temples, a church, shops, homes, aquatic zoo and even a basketball court are all built on water, creating floating communities of self-contained futuristic-looking pods, which create their own energy.
Many would wonder that floating structures that lack concrete foundations and, which are exposed to the elements might seem more vulnerable to natural disasters, but long-term floating villagers say the opposite is true.
“Cities are often located near water and therefore at risk of flooding. Static buildings made from bricks and mortars are almost totally unable to respond to climate change. But if your development can react and move according to the rising or settling of the tide, it provides greater opportunity for protection,” a tourist guide told me.
On board our vessel on Tonle Sap, making our way to the village, we rode for nearly 30 minutes, gliding over the calm water, taking in the unique landscape around us. The guide explained that the village we were visiting was one of seven in the area, inhabited by more than 6,000 families in total.
As the water levels would change throughout the year, the villages would be forced to relocate, meaning peoples’ houses were never in the same location. As they would move, certain sites would become more popular than others, and there were often disputes in the village over who would get to settle where.
In some ways, the Floating Village was just like any other township, but how do the people of Tonle Sap live? I was informed that due to the lack of power lines in the middle of a lake, every household used car batteries to power their cell phones and other electronics. The little affluent install solar panels or use generating sets powered by hydro.
“But what about water?” I inquired. “Where does their drinking water come from? Do they bathe with water from the river? How do they wash their clothes?” “It’s all the same,” my guide told me. “All of their trash, scraps and waste become pollution in this water, which is the same water they use to drink and clean their dishes.”
It’s the same water they go to the bathroom in, the same water they clean themselves with, and the same water they drink to survive. I was floored. I had never quite grasped the reality of the situation or come face to face with a people who literally did not have access to clean water.
And, what was even harder to wrap my head around was the fact that the village had greater access to electronics like cell phones and satellite television than they did to clean water.
The huge lesson for the aquatic city of Lagos, which is below the sea level, is instead of pushing the sea even further out, we could embrace it by establishing several water-borne communities — where people may live, work, play and learn on floating structures.
New water towns can grow and connect to the original economic waterfront centres of commerce to effectively form a waterborne-urban “molecular structure” that organically evolves over time into mature communities, that is immune to natural disasters.
While we have embraced land reclamation as a method of “interacting” with the waters around us, it is not the only means of urbanisation in the foreseeable future. Perhaps, it is time to consider the element that constitutes two-thirds of the earth’s surface area and look into constructing alternative floating spaces that will not only save money and be able to support our growing population, but also cope with the challenges of climate change.
Olaiya is the Metro Editor, The Guardian.