Anguish as Mekong Delta’s annual floods continue to dry up

By Hoang Nam   October 6, 2020 | 10:05 am GMT+7

It is time for the annual floods in the Mekong Delta, but the flooding season these days is more a cherished memory than a practical phenomenon.

One day in mid-September Cao Van Bi, 50, was rowing a boat with his wife across a paddy field that had been partially flooded.

All over the field, in Phu Hoi, a rural commune in An Giang Province’s An Phu District, traps had been set up to catch fish.

That morning the catch was 2.5 kilograms of carp and five kilograms of other fish and shrimp.

In previous years, during the flooding season, Bi would have got dozens of kilograms worth of fish every day, but these days it never exceeds 10 kg.

Cao Van Bi and his wife collect the fish they catch in one morning in mid September, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Cao Van Bi and his wife collect the fish they catch in one morning in mid September, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

The reason is that the annual flooding of Vietnam's Mekong Delta from the upstream Mekong before reaching the sea no longer occurs.

Not far away, in Vinh Hoi Dong Commune in An Phu, Phan Van Lang, 54, was standing in front of his house.

Since they live in an area hit by annual flooding, Lang and his neighbors have their houses built well above the ground. His house is nearly three meters in the air with a flight of the stairs leading up from the road. In 2000, for instance, the floodwater almost reached the house. But ever since the flooding levels have kept decreasing.

Pointing at the road in front of his house, he says the entire road would have been under one meter of water at this time of the year but this year, the water has not even reached the road.

Hung Dien Commune in Long An Province's Tan Hung District, 80 km (50 miles) away, has been witnessing the clearest change.

In the past its paddy fields would have waters reaching waist high and be filled with water lilies and boats would be the only means of getting around.

That scene now exists only in the memories of seniors.

Bay De, 53, who has been fishing for more than 30 years, recalls floods when catching up to 200 kg of various kinds of fish every day and earning a million dong ($40) was a "piece of cake."

For several weeks now he has not caught any fish. He spends almost every day drinking tea and chatting with neighbors in his thatched house.

Fifty kilometers away, Tran Van Thanh, 58, of Tan Lap Commune in Moc Hoa District is fixing traps for catching crabs.

He has been doing this for dozens of years, a job that has ensured a decent livelihood, but that has changed.

"I used to set up more than 600 traps during the flood season, but only a few tens of them these days because the flood waters are way too low and there are no crabs to catch."

In the neighboring province of Dong Thap, Nguyen Van Phuong, 42, of Tan Thanh A Commune in Tan Hong District is watching the news on TV for possible information about the floods, something he has been looking forward to for several weeks now.

He has an eight-hectare rice field and has been waiting for the floods to come so that he could start sowing the winter-spring crop.

There was heavy rain a few weeks ago, and water had filled up canals and then reached the fields. Phuong, thinking the floods had finally arrived, hired people to till the soil.

But soon a scorching sun replaced the rains and water dropped, leaving the field dry and cracked once again.

He says: "I had spent VND750,000 ($32.44) per hectare, but that has been a wasted effort. Now I have to wait for the floodwaters to come and do that all over again."

In his neighborhood, farmers are now worried that if the floods do not come or are low, they would have to shell out money to pump water from canals into their fields.

Rice farmers in the delta have for generations depended on the floodwaters to come and inundate their fields before sow seeds directly.

The Plain of Reeds, a wetland straddling Long An and Dong Thap provinces, produces more than two million tons of rice a year.

The floods usually start coming in late July or early August and remain until November or even later to bless the region with extraordinary fertility as they typically deposit silt from upstream areas.

When they do not come or arrive late, cropping and fishing activities are disrupted.

For several years now they have been late or deficient, and experts have been blaming this on climate change and the construction of a series of dams in the upstream area.

According to the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, this year’s floodwater level in the delta will be only 55 percent of the long-term average, which translates into a shortfall of 130 billion cubic meters.

It will be 15 percent lower than last year’s level and the lowest in a decade, it has warned.

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A rice field where floodwater only reaches the roots of the rice plants that have already been harvested in September, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Late last year the highest water levels in the upstream areas of the delta were 1.12-2 meters lower than the long-term average and 1-1.65 meters lower than in the previous year.

The delta suffered the worst salinity levels and resultant freshwater shortage in 100 years but meteorologists warn things could get worse.

Tran Tan Tai, deputy head of the agriculture department of Long An’s Tan Hung District, says the water level in his hometown is currently 1.4 meters, or 80 centimeters lower than a year ago.

"If there are no floods, the fields will lack silt, and pathogens and wild grass seeds will not be washed away, and farmers will have to spend more on pesticide and fertilizers."

Meteorologists expect the floods to come around the middle of this month, stay low and ebb away quickly.

Those were the days

Early one morning in late September, Muoi, 64, of Tan Lap rides a motorbike to a wet market two kilometers away from home. He returned after a while with a bag of barb.

"All my life I have seen fish all over the place every time it is the flooding season, but now I have to go buy them... Isn’t it weird?"

Not far from his home a neighbor had set up a lift net the previous night, but until around noon the next day, when Muoi returned from the market, it had only around two kilograms of fish.

Muoi can never forget what it was like one or two decades ago: Every year when the flood season arrived, water would be everywhere, covering the fields and even the streets. People would be rowing boats, picking water lilies and river hemp, both used to make specialty dishes of the region.

In the water, there would be so much fish that anyone could become a fisherman without having to learn any skills.

"Back then people did not weigh fish in kilograms but in a unit of around 20 kilograms. Normally, in one night a family could catch at least five to seven of that unit. Some would even feed the fish to their pigs."

In years of heavy flooding fish moving down stream into the delta would breed along the way, and it would be extremely rare to see a field or waterway without fish in it.

Fishermen would enlarge the holes in their net to only catch adult fish, leaving the young ones untouched.

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Local people row boats around a market in Moc Hoa Town, which is now Kien Tuong Town in Long An Province, during the flooding season in 2000. Photo by Lam Chieu.

When the floods retreated, mud, algae and water lilies would be left in the paddy fields. The fields mud would be silt while the algae and flowers served as organic fertilizers, leaving the fields with all the nutrition they needed.

Besides, the floods would wash away the pathogens and wild grass seeds, and it was not common for farmers to use fertilizers or pesticides.

A kilometer away from Muoi’s place, Danh Van Minh, 62, asks his son to take him by motorbike to a house nearby. The house stands along a canal and in front is a concrete road around three meters wide.

"This used to be a small dirt road, and every year during this season it would be two or three meters under water," Minh says.

"The house used to be just a hut beside which I would anchor my boat after fishing."

Minh’s life has been filled with tragedy. He lost his first wife and two of his children during two different flood seasons.

In the middle of the 1991 season his wife had twins, but both died at birth due to lack of medical care in that rural area.

Worse still the floods covered every inch of land that they could not find a place to bury the children. All he could do was put their bodies in a coffin, stick a bamboo pole in the water and hang the coffin up that.

Only a month after they passed away could he give them a proper burial.

Five years after they lost the twins, Minh’s wife suddenly fell sick and died. Once again he could not bury her immediately, and had to leave her body inside a coffin on the family boat and leave it anchored next to the hut.

In the past 20 years the delta has witnessed several floods that left a significant impact on its residents, especially in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2011.

The 2000 floods were the most severe in 70 years, with the water rising to 4.78 meters. They claimed 481 lives and caused losses of nearly VND4 trillion.

As told by Le Thanh Tam, party chief of Long An Province in 1999-2005, 20 years ago and further, the Plain of Reeds had heavy floods almost every year.

The region had not yet got an embankment system, and every time it flooded there was no way to tell where the road was and where the canal was. The only way people could move around was by boat.

"Back then we always had fish, shrimps and crabs in abundance, but we would lose lives every year, and of children in most cases.

"When the floods retreated, we had to expend a lot of effort to rebuild houses and roads."

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People in Tri Ton District of An Giang Province fish on a flooded field during the flooding season in 2008. Photo by Lam Chieu.

But a 2017 study by the Mekong River Commission estimated that the flooding provides $8-10 billion in annual economic benefits while causing losses of just $60-70 million.

The Mekong River flows through six countries, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, before reaching the sea.

Many parts of the Mekong Delta were formed by sedimentation over eons.

When the Vietnamese expanded their nation to the south, they began to conquer the delta in the 18th century. For generations, no other place in the nation could compare with it as a agriculture and aquaculture hub.

In his book ‘Last days of the Mighty Mekong’ published in February last year, Brian Eyler, director of the Asia Program at U.S. think tank Stimson Center, writes: "For the past 3,000 years, the Mekong carried about 150 million tons of sediment in its system to the delta each year."

Without the sedimentation, the delta’s land would fall apart under natural conditions, which are worsened by intense groundwater extraction and sea level rise, he says.

He strongly condemns China’s dam building in the upstream areas of the Mekong for holding back floodwaters and, along with them, sediments.

Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent researcher into the ecology of the Mekong Delta, says the main cause of the low floods this year is the El Nino phenomenon that lasted from the year’s beginning to the end of August, resulting in scanty rain fall in the region.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the rainy season arrived late last year and was shorter than usual, with the result that rainfall was 8 percent below normal at 1,240 mm.

Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of Can Tho University’s Research Institute of Climate Change, says the calamity faced by the delta cannot be blamed just on nature or Chinese dams.

"Sea levels rise and the Earth gets warmer. Yes. But that happens just a little each year and it needs a long period for dramatic changes. It is humans who have accelerated that process."

He cites one example of human action that changed the delta’s hydrological profile. Ever since the delta was formed, it has had several low-lying areas like the Long Xuyen quadrilateral in Kien Giang and An Giang provinces and Can Tho City and the Plain of Reeds that worked as natural reservoirs to store the seasonal floodwaters, he explains.

For generations farmers did not use them for cultivation, but due to the wars, the nation had to consider food security, and built embankments to keep the seasonal floodwaters from flowing into them and directed the water toward the sea, he says.

"Now in peace time, we still have the mindset of growing as much rice as we can, and many have treated the seasonal floods as a disaster for their paddy fields while in fact it is a blessing.

"With that thinking, many have continued to keep out the floods, going against nature, thus intensifying the lack of water once it took hold in the region."

Minh, who has been a poor farmer his entire life and is haunted by a tragic past related to the floods, does not care much for the explanations experts like Tuan have to offer.

After his wife’s death, he took his son to another village, remarried and built a new life.

He now owns a 6,000 sq.m rice field and both his home and field are surrounded by embankments, allowing him and others in his neighborhood to go against nature and cultivate three instead of just two rice crops as in the past.

The field does not have any time to recover, and instead of getting floodwaters that wash it clean and deposit sediments, it has to do with plant protection chemicals instead.

With this method of growing rice, farmers remain mired in poverty since they have to spend money on fertilizers and pesticides for every crop and also lose out on an abundant source of fish, shrimp and crab and the plants that always grow in the flood season.

"My children and grandchildren have all taken turns to leave," Minh says, reflecting the trend of delta dwellers abandoning their hometown for Ho Chi Minh City and other industrial areas, where they work in factories or the service sector.

 
 
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