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Erosion gobbling up valuable farmland in Vietnam's Mekong Delta

By Cuu Long   August 23, 2016 | 06:00 am GMT+7
Erosion gobbling up valuable farmland in Vietnam's Mekong Delta
Nguyen Van Con pointed at the middle area of Hau River, where once lied Ca Doi Islet. Photo by Cuu Long.

Some of them have been wiped off the face of the map.

Having lived on Son Islet in the middle of the Hau River for 48 years, 66-year-old Cao Van Ba is now witnessing his beloved, prosperous land fall away before his eyes. His whole family live in fear of being swept away at any moment.

“This islet used to cover over 100 hectares (247 acres), but now it is only 60 hectares,” said Ba. “My family owns a two-hectare farm on the headland, but erosion has wiped out half of the farm in just 10 years.”

Formed by silt deposits from the Hau River, Son Islet is a land of fruit orchards. All the households here depend on their farms, with additional incomes made from community tourism activities

However, many families have been forced out of their own homes, leaving only 300 residents on the islet.

Pham Van Nhu, who struggled to stay on Son Islet for decades, ended up fleeing to the mainland to escape the erosion. Between 1978 and 2012, he had to move his house ten times and lost 8,000m2 (86,100 square feet) of his 10,000m2 plot of land to erosion.

“I failed to hold on to the land and had to sell the remaining piece at a low price to move my family to the mainland,” said Nhu, who now lives in Binh Tan District, Vinh Long Province.

Elders remember the islet used to stretch one kilometer further than its current headland, close to Tra Noc Ward. However, after years of excessive sand extraction on the Hau River, landslides along the bank have become more severe and more often, causing deep subsidence on the islet.

A little further upstream once lied another islet called Ca Doi in Thot Not District. Now it can no longer be found on the map of Can Tho City after erosion washed itt away.

Back in 1960, Ca Doi was four kilometers long and covered by paddie fields and sugar cane farms.

“I remember when locals from nearby areas used to row their boats to Ca Doi to take care of their farms every morning and then head back home in the afternoon,” recalled Le Van Huan, chairman of the Fatherland Front of Thot Not District. “Life was bustling on the islet in those days.”

Nguyen Van Con, a local on the neighboring islet of Tan Loc, said: “It was a vast area lying not far from my house here. People could just call over to us from there and we could hear them very clearly. Now it has vanished without a trace.” Con sadly said as he looked out across the vast expanse of water.

erosion-gobbling-up-valuable-farmland-in-vietnams-mekong-delta

Long Thu Thuan Islet in Dong Thap Province is under serious threat of erosion. A sign installed on the bank reads: "Erosion Road." Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long

A million people affected

Ca Doi's demise has worried locals on the nearby islet of Tan Loc.

In the last ten years, the headland has retreated about one kilometer, and 10 hectares have been lost since 2010. “The erosion rate in Tan Loc is getting faster and faster,” said Le Thanh Nghi, deputy chairman of Tan Loc Ward's People’s Committee. “It's causing the loss of thousands of square meters of crops every year.”

Desperation has turned into anger, and a group of 50 islet locals have used motorbikes to chase off sand mining barges operating on the Hau River, with some confrontations requiring police intervention.

Serious erosion is also hitting the Tien River in the Mekong River system, including the islets of Long Phu Thuan and Tay in Dong Thap Province, and Cho Moi Islet in An Giang Province.

250 families on Tay Islet lost their homes to the river in 2011 alone. The situation at the time was so urgent authorities had to build emergency shelters for residents. In recent years, the Tien River has swept away hectares of crops and paddy fields.

Over two thousand households in Dong Thap Province are now residing well within a so-called "riverbank erosion belt", or areas at risk of collapsing into the river. A VND900 billlion (US$40.1 million) plan to save the land has been submitted to the government by local authorities. Thousands of families in the upstream province of An Giang are also living under the same threat, but no evacuation plan has been drawn up.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, every year the Mekong Delta loses 500 hectares of soil to rivers and the sea. Besides 450km of riverbank being slowly worn away, 200km of coastline in the region is also under the threat of sea intrusion.

It is estimated that by 2050, the lives of one million people in the Mekong Delta will be directly affected by this silent catastrophe.

The Ministry of Construction recently submitted a proposal to the central government to build concrete barriers to protect 44,800 households in the region from serious riverbank erosion.

Experts have identified the main reason for the problem as the increasing number of dams upstream which have caused the water level to change, blocked sediment and reduced biodiversity in the Mekong Delta.

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