Part of the Mekong Delta – home to 20% of Vietnam’s population and 50% of its rice production – is at risk of disappearing as sea levels rise.
In fields across Vietnam’s Ca Mau Province, one of the country’s most important agricultural regions, wispy rows of rice struggle to grow in dingy yellow water.
“This year’s crop is totally lost,” explained Bui Van Sim, a farmer in the province’s Le Giao village. “Saltwater has appeared everywhere. There is no rain; almost 100% of the rice has died.”
Ca Mau is a low-lying coastal region that sits along Vietnam’s southernmost tip, so flooding and seawater encroachment happen frequently. But with an average elevation of approximately one meter above sea level, Vietnamese officials say that global warming and subsequent sea level rise threatens to submerge an estimated 40% of the province.
Locals like Sim used to be accustomed to two seasons: one that allowed them to grow rice and another to farm shrimp. The rainy season, which lasted from June to November, flooded river banks and desalted the fields to create ideal conditions for producing rice. After the rice harvest, farmers would let the fields dry before pumping saltwater into them to breed shrimp. However, these traditional practices are slowly changing.
Tran Thi Diep, who also lives in Le Giao, said that this year has seen little rain, despite the abundant downfalls that usually take place between July and August. With no freshwater to flush the salt from the fields, the rice crop is suffering.
Of the 13 provinces in the Mekong Delta, Ca Mau and Kien Giang are two of the most seriously affected by the impacts of climate change.
According to official estimates, 80% of Ca Mau is at risk of submersion. The province already has nearly 10,000 hectares of its agricultural land affected by salinity. Moreover, sea dikes that slow encroaching waters and prevent erosion are seriously degraded.
In recent years, Kien Giang has experienced heavy flooding that has devastated the province’s people and economy by destroying property, rice fields and fish farms. Regional officials estimate that if the sea level rises about 85-105 centimeters, most of Kien Giang province will also be submerged.
Erosion along riverbanks, islets and coastal areas is causing great difficulties for people and local governments. In 2009, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved plans to fund more than VND 1 trillion (over $44 million) for 51 provinces to upgrade their dyke and embankment systems. Kien Giang province has also implemented numerous action plans since 2010 to protect the coastline, including the replanting of about 430 hectares of forests.
A few months ago, Long Khanh islet in nearby Dong Thap province eroded almost completely and water invaded residential areas, endangering people’s lives. Hundreds of people still need to be relocated, pushing the government into the uneasy situation of finding funds for new land.
Early in September, a surge in the river washed away a home in Cha La village. Luckily, locals say the family was away that night, so no one was hurt.
Boating along the Nam Can River and Ganh Hao River of Ca Mau, one can see that many houses, including those made out of concrete, have collapsed along the eroding banks.
In addition to the issues of rising sea levels and erosion, the ground of the Mekong Delta is also in danger of serious sinking, a risk that could lead to the “disappearance” of these important fertile fields.
According to the Wetlands Management Research Center at Ho Chi Minh City University, the average level of sinking measured in Can Gio District, Ho Chi Minh City is 26.3 millimeters per year (mm/year); at the estuary of the Hau River (a branch of the Mekong River) in Can Tho, it is 14.2mm/year, while in Ca Mau it is 23.4mm/year.
As a result, seawater has slowly seeped into the coastal region’s rivers, canals and ponds, rendering the groundwater system undrinkable. Some districts such as Bien Bach and Thoi Binh in Ca Mau province, and An Bien and An Minh in Kien Giang province also suffer from chronic water shortages.
Although they live their lives surrounded by water, the residents of the Mekong Delta are thirsty.
Mr. Nguyen Van Cuong, who lives in Thoi Binh, is lucky enough to have a rare freshwater well, but he worries that this resource will soon be exhausted. Many people who live here must abandon wells because of saltwater intrusion.
“Nowadays, it is harder for us to pump water by hand,” Cuong said. “In the last two years, we couldn’t pump water by hand as the water was depleted. The depth of the well is also increasing.”
During the rainy season, people can collect rain water or share a groundwater well. In the dry season, however, water scarcity becomes a major problem and the price to transport freshwater to the Mekong’s depleted regions is expensive: VND100,000/cubic meter (approximately $4.50), a hefty sum for the many earning only VND20,000 per day.
“Previously, we could find freshwater after a few tens of meters of drilling,” said Cuong. “At present, finding water at more than 100 meters of drilling is still hard; if they drill at a shallower level, there is only salty water and alum.”
According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Mekong Delta could see a rise in its average temperature by 1.3 to 2.8 degrees Celsius and a rise in sea level by 66 to 99 centimeters by the end of this century. Though rain has been scarce this year, the Ministry estimates that the region could see an increase in rainfall of 4-8%, which could increase the risk of severe flooding. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report showed that a one meter rise in sea level could result in 22 million Vietnamese people left homeless and a loss of up to 10% of Vietnam’s gross domestic product.
In an attempt to mitigate these impacts, many studies and projects on climate change in the Mekong Delta region have been launched worldwide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change (IPCC), for example, has recommended measures for countries facing similar predicaments: upgrade dike systems and coastal construction, and switch to more resistant crops and livestock.
In 2014, Kien Giang province approved a VND390 billion (nearly $20 million) project to build a sea dike system along the coast of the city of Rach Gia. This is a part of a larger project to upgrade the dike system from the central coast province of Quang Ngai to Kien Giang under the orders of the Prime Minister. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.
But this progress also bears potential risks. Interference to the natural flows along the Mekong River may have unexpected consequences downstream.
In early September, the Lao National Assembly officially approved the Don Sahong hydropower project, which is set to be built on the Mekong River starting in late 2015, less than two kilometers from the Laos-Cambodian border. Environmentalists fear it will have a disastrous impact on the Delta’s key fishing industries.
When a large area with many residents is affected, many people are forced to migrate and seek assistance. This is a grave problem for land management and social security – a problem that worsens in the Mekong Delta with each passing year.