When I first met Ly Heng in May 2016, the forest behind his house was still smoldering — the remnants of the worst drought to hit Southeast Asia in decades. Heng lived along a small river at the top of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, in a protected area known for its rich biodiversity. At 45, he had never seen wildfires, and never seen the water level of the lake dip so low. Charred sticks and leaves crunched underfoot while Heng led me through the woodland, recounting his neighbors’ efforts to keep the fire from incinerating their houses.
“This is the first time it’s this dry, and the first time the forest burned up,” he said.
Tonle Sap Lake is the largest body of freshwater in Southeast Asia. Its wetlands support critically endangered species like the Bengal florican; its sediment provides nutrients for croplands; its fisheries are among the largest and most biodiverse in the world.