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The University of Southampton

GEOG3069 Water, People and Environment: Cambodia Field Course

Module Overview

The major river systems that drain the Himalayas provide water that sustains the lives and livelihoods of a significant proportion of the global population, but a variety of pressures, including population growth, the motivation to stimulate economic development to alleviate poverty, and multinational corporate ‘land grabs’, have done, and will continue in the future, to place these resources strongly under threat. Furthermore, through processes of flooding, erosion and sedimentation, the Asian ‘mega-rivers’ also present a hazard to which riparian peoples must adapt. Water, People and Environment is a module designed for students who are interested in understanding firstly the relationships between processes of environmental change and their impacts on key resources (water, food, energy), but secondly the impacts of these complex changes on both the river environment and the people it sustains. The module is delivered as a residential field course and as such has a specific focus on an exemplar mega-river system - the Lower Mekong in Cambodia. Draining parts of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and fed by the Asian Monsoon, the Mekong’s annual monsoonal flood pulse transports large volumes of water, sediment and nutrients that sustain (i) the Mekong Delta, SE Asia’s rice basket, and (ii) the most important freshwater fishery on the planet (the Tonle Sap Lake). These water and sediment flows therefore underpin the lives and livelihoods of well over 50 million people, many of whom are living in poverty. Yet the Mekong, like other rivers in the SE Asia region is undergoing unprecedented environmental change. Global climate change is affecting the river’s hydrology through an intensification of the monsoon and shifts in the tracks of tropical cyclones that pass over the basin. Population growth and urbanization, rapid economic growth, as well as controversial ‘land grabs’ that convert natural forest cover to rubber and palm oil plantations, are influencing catchment land cover (the vegetation cover of the Mekong’s drainage basin, which affects water resources and soil erosion). Meanwhile, the growing populations and economies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are providing an impetus for the large scale development of hydropower. This is in turn regarded as a profitable opportunity by powerful (Chinese) hydropower construction companies which have already built large hydropower dams in other poorer countries. In tandem, scholars argue that the Chinese government is seizing a valuable opportunity to address the rising energy needs of China in order to continue the exponential industrial and technological growth. The construction of numerous large dams is already underway, and these structures threaten the Mekong’s biodiversity and ability to transmit sediment and nutrients to its delta. Projections of the impacts of these environmental changes are enormously troubling – the development of hydropower has the potential to reduce, by as soon as the 2050s, the freshwater fishery (the main source of protein for 3 million people) by half, while disconnecting the flows of sediment from the river basin upstream to the Mekong delta downstream may result in the delta sinking into the South China Sea as a result of rising relative sea-levels, affecting the lives of the 17 million people who live there. The implications for regional, and indeed global, food security as a result of these changes are uncertain, but significant. Understanding the complexity of these processes would be partial without the inclusion of the human factor. The module, therefore, places equal emphasis on exploring the ways in which the riparian population interacts with their environment and in turn responds to environmental change. While these populations have shown remarkable resilience and adapted to regular seasonal variations, the processes discussed earlier magnify these challenges, risking stretching their adaptive capacity to the limit. For many, the key pre-occupation is survival. Migration is one way to adapt to the changing environmental challenges posed in this region, and migration can, therefore, be viewed as part of a livelihood diversification strategy and a means to enhance individual and family resources. However, it is widely acknowledged that migratory options and outcomes differ for poorer and more affluent people. For example, international migration is often out of reach for many poor people, who typically migrate internally instead. Such internal migration is closely linked to urbanisation and Cambodia is no exception. Rapid urbanisation in the global South with associated poverty and exclusion, along with environmentally induced migration and sustainable livelihoods feature as key concerns in the current – and, most likely, future – development agenda of policy makers at a global level. This module places such concerns at the heart of its content and practice, seeking to equip students with the knowledge, as well as the practical tools that will enable them to engage with, and influence, such debates as part of their potential future careers. This module will, through a combination of tutor-led discussion and group project work in the field, cover topics that are central to understanding these complex issues; issues that are faced by other river environments in rapidly developing regions. Starting in Phnom Penh, at the apex of the Mekong delta, and travelling upstream overland to the city of Siem Reap, close to the UNESCO-protected Angkor temples, we will: • Explore the relationship between environmental change and the physical response of the Mekong River (i.e., undertake impacts analysis to establish historical changes in water flows and patterns of erosion) • Consider how the shifting course of the river affects the lives and livelihoods of riparian populations through processes of river bank erosion • Seek to understand how individuals and communities may adapt to changing environmental hazards, including processes of migration • Observe the ways in which local populations shape their environment • Explore the political, socio-economic and cultural dynamics of local and regional development (e.g. through observation, key interviews) • Employ models to investigate the impacts of future environmental change on water and sediment flows to the Mekong Delta, and the implications for the lives and livelihoods of the Mekong’s riparian peoples.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • At the end of this unit, students will be able to display an in-depth knowledge and understanding of: the relationships between physical and human processes in shaping large river and deltaic environments; • past, present and future variability in riparian environments, with in-depth competence and detailed knowledge of specific local (SE Asian) contexts; • a substantial range of analytical, modelling and observational strategies, with specific emphasis on geomorphological and social sciences research techniques; • the theory, acquisition, analysis and interpretation of geographical data across a range of applications • the complex relationship between migration, development and climate change • the ways in which structure shapes development, and the role of individual agency
  • display an advanced grasp of a range of subject specific intellectual skills, including the ability to: • use geographical science principles, theories and methods to design and undertake primary research of field phenomena in SE Asian environments; • analyse and critically interpret primary and secondary geographical data; • structure conceptual and empirical geographical material into a reasoned argument


The syllabus will necessarily be flexible, given that this is a field course in a developing country and the precise subject matter that it is possible to cover will depend on weather and water level conditions amongst other factors. Nevertheless we can expect the cover the following topics, while noting that the precise syllabus content can be tailored to fit the interests of individual students (i.e., physical geographers may elect to follow mostly physical projects and human geographers may focus mainly on projects addressing the social and cultural aspects of the module): 1) Principles of impacts of damming on river hydrology and morphology 2) Awareness of climate change impacts projected for the local region 3) Awareness of river response projections to climate and environmental change 4) Use of remote sensing and GIS to establish historical trajectories of change 5) Use of secondary data sets, particularly around demographic data, to establish historical trajectories of impacts on riparian populations 6) Key debates in the migration, development and climate change nexus 7) Geographies of development with specific reference to the Mekong Delta 8) Doing research in cross-cultural setting: practical and ethical implications 9) Field practicals based around 1. Bank erosion processes 2. Flow velocimetry and sediment transport measurements 3. Physical habitat assessments and quantification 4. Assessing impacts on local communities and peoples 5. Understanding how individuals and communities may adapt to environmental hazards 6. Use of remotely sensed data in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to understand the shifting locations of hazards, risks and vulnerabilities. 7. Use of visual ethnographies for social research 8. Understanding the role of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change: rural-urban migration (situated in the capital)

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

The teaching and learning methods employed on this module are as follows: 1) Pre-departure orientation lectures, seminars, films (e.g., to better understand the country’s history under the Khmer Rouge, as well as the country’s culture) and reading. The lectures/seminars will be used to familiarise students with the country, introduce the potential research topics, as well as highlight health and safety and research ethics issues. There will also be practicals/workshops to demonstrate the use of fieldwork equipment to students (physical geography projects), and practice selected research tools and techniques (human geography projects). Students will be expected to engage with a series of set readings prior to departure to ensure that they are familiar with the history, geography and socio-economic context of the region and background issues of environmental change, particularly hydropower development, within the Greater Mekong region. 2) Field-based learning. During the fieldcourse teaching and learning will comprise two main methods. First, lecturing staff will offer guided walks and talks to transfer key background knowledge and to stimulate discussion. Next, students will be able to engage with an in-depth project focusing on the issues raised in the preceding. During the project work students will learn through active hands on work (i.e., they will increase their knowledge and understanding of field based research skills), while the data gathered will develop their knowledge and understanding of the topics involved. Students will be able to select one from a range of projects covering a wide range of topics such that students can choose from projects that comprise subject matter focusing either on the environmental processes shaping the Mekong or the human responses to those processes. 3) Field trip conference. At the field trip conference peer-peer learning (moderated by input from staff) will be enabled – the students will learn from the project work presented by the other student groups on the course. 4) Post field trip seminars and assessment. The issues developed during the field course will be synthesised and developed in post-field-trip group tutorials designed specifically to offer support for the process of writing the research project report.

Independent Study82
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

All necessary staffing resources and field equipment resources are already available.. 


Assessment Strategy

A combination of group work during the fieldwork (with a group oral presentation) alongside individual research report writing on return to Southampton.


Reflective diary


MethodPercentage contribution
Individual project report  (3500 words) 75%
Presentation 25%


MethodPercentage contribution
Individual project report 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External


Costs associated with this module

Students are responsible for meeting the cost of essential textbooks, and of producing such essays, assignments, laboratory reports and dissertations as are required to fulfil the academic requirements for each programme of study.

In addition to this, students registered for this module typically also have to pay for:

Travel Costs for placements

This is an optional Level 3 residential field course and as such costs will incurred consistent with G&E policy on charging students for such courses – specifically, the student will pay for the cost of their travel (including airport transfers), subsistence and accommodation, plus in-country transportation

Please also ensure you read the section on additional costs in the University’s Fees, Charges and Expenses Regulations in the University Calendar available at

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