In this intimate account of one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries, Troubling the Water explores how the rapid destruction of a single lake in Cambodia is upending the lives of millions. The abundance of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake helped grow the country for millenia and gave rise to the Kingdom of Angkor. Fed by the rich, mud-colored waters of the powerful Mekong River, the lake owes its vast bounty to an ecological miracle that has captivated poets, artisans, and explorers throughout history.

But today, the lake is dying. Hydropower dams hold back billions of gallons of water and disrupt critical fish migration paths. On the lake, illegal fishing abetted by corruption is now unstoppable. A fast-changing climate, meanwhile, has seen a string of devastating droughts.

Troubling the Water follows ordinary Cambodians coping with the rapid erasure of a long-held way of life. Drawing on years of reporting in Cambodia, Abby Seiff traces the changes on the Tonle Sap—weaving together vivid stories of those most affected with sharp insight into one of the most threatened lakes in the world. For the millions who depend on it, the stakes couldn’t be higher.



“Troubling the Water is a haunting and lyrical eulogy to Cambodia’s once magnificent Tonle Sap Lake and the water culture of Cambodia. With precise reporting Abby Seiff reveals how centuries of rich fishing and abundant water have been depleted, replaced by an emerging dystopia. Chinese dams choked off water from the Mekong River while Cambodia’s corrupt government exploited the lake’s riches, leaving the Tonle Sap defenseless against the droughts, dry winds, and extreme weather of the climate crisis. Seiff’s is an important addition to the literature on our planet’s global warming.”

—Elizabeth Becker, author of You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War


“Abby Seiff’s groundbreaking book deals with one of the most important and disturbing ecological issues facing mainland Southeast Asia. Little noticed away from Cambodia, that country’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, is being dramatically degraded as a consequence of dams built by China on the Mekong River, climate change, and destructive human activity. There are now doubts that the Tonle Sap can continue to act as the essential source of fish, the key source of protein in the Cambodian population’s diet. The author exposes the human costs of this development with empathy and a deep understanding of the issues involved.”

—Milton Osborne, author of The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

“The destruction of human life can occur slowly, indirectly, and even imperceptibly, which makes it no less of a crime. When natural resources supporting human life are maliciously destroyed in a similar manner and on such a great scale, there is no difference than committing a crime against humanity. This book reminds us of how much our humanity is connected to our environment.”

—Youk Chhang, founder and executive director of Documentation Center of Cambodia and executive producer of A River Changes Course

“In Abby Seiff’s rendition, the Tonle Sap Lake sometimes appears nymphlike, alluring and magical, like the celestial bodies carved on the walls of Cambodian temples at the lake’s edges. It appears human at other times, meshed into the lives of those who live around it, off of it. Seiff’s Troubling the Water is a beautiful and powerful ode to an ancient but rapidly disappearing world of interdependence between people and nature. A gifted writer and sensitive observer, she re-creates a world readers will want to save. A must-read.”

—Saumya Roy, author of Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss among the Wastepickers of Mumbai

“Abby Seiff has courageously covered Cambodia’s troubling trajectory in the twenty-first century. This book is her testament to the life and death of the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, a people and way of life quickly disappearing.”

—Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy

“A powerful book that perfectly captures the vulnerabilities of one of the world’s most important lakes, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, by documenting the fragility of life for the millions who subsist on its floodplain. Seiff’s painstaking research, coupled with her years of reporting from Cambodia, gives voice to the marginalized and the unheard. Troubling the Water is a unique, lyrical, and immensely readable account of the impact posed by the building of dams on the Mekong and of the profound risks that the lake’s demise holds for a nation. Highly recommended.”

—Robert Carmichael, author of When the Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, a Daughter’s Search, and Cambodia’s First War Criminal