Mekong Delta parched as river dries up upstream

By Cuu Long   July 31, 2019 | 08:18 pm PT
Mekong Delta parched as river dries up upstream
A farmer walks on a drought-hit rice field in Soc Trang Province, Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
Farmers in the Mekong Delta are grappling with drought and worsening water salinity in rivers due to the El Niño effect.

Le Van Lam, 69, stares at his cracked and dry eight-hectare field.

The farmer in Dong Thap Province’s Tan Hong District says the floods that come every year and fill his land with water have not appeared yet this year, and his field is bone-dry like in February or March.

"I have lived here for decades, and have never seen such a sight."

This year’s summer-autumn rice crop in the Dong Thap Muoi region has seen low yields due to unusual weather and pests. The region stretches 697,000 hectares across Long An, Tien Giang and Dong Thap provinces.

Farmers have barely broken even as a result.

The annual floods deposit alluvium and wash away the pests.

Lam warns that if the floods do not come, the cost of raising the next crop will increase since fields will be less fertile and pests like rats will proliferate.

Not only farmers but also fishermen suffer in the absence of the floods.

Le Huu Ty, owner of a fishing net production facility in Thom Rom Village in Can Tho City said every year in summer and autumn the village is a beehive of activity with fishermen from the Mekong Delta and Cambodia queuing up to buy nets.

But this year, with the floods keeping away, demand has fallen by 70 percent, he said.

In 45 years of living near the water he has not seen anything like this, he said.

"Even Thailand and Cambodia have not had floods yet, let alone [us] downstream."

A canal in An Giang Province close to drying up since the annual floods have failed to arrive. Photo by VnExpress/An Phu.

A canal in An Giang Province close to drying up since the annual floods have failed to arrive. Photo by VnExpress/An Phu.

Vietnam’s National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting said the water level in the upstream of the Mekong River is rising but not by much.

It had forecast the water levels in the Hau River (1.53 meters) and Tien River (1.43 meters) in An Giang Province on August 1 to be 1-1.68 meters lower than a year earlier.

While the Hau is the southern tributary of the Mekong in Vietnam, the Tien is the main northern one.

Khuong Le Binh, director of the Dong Thap Hydrometeorology Center, said the absence of water coming from the upstream is "especially unusual."

In Dong Thap, the water level is much lower than it was last year.

"At present the water level fluctuates mainly due to the influence of the tide. There hasn't been any change as of the end of July. In August upstream water might come down [to the delta] but there won't be significant change."

According to the Mekong River Commission, the water level in the Mekong at the beginning of this flood season (June-July) was the lowest in several years. The level in Chiang Rai Province in Thailand was 2.1 meters as against the average of 3.02 m measured over the last 57 years.

Vientiane in Laos recorded a level of 5.54 m, 0.7 m less than average. In Kratie Province in Cambodia it was only slightly above the lowest level in its history.

Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent environmental expert, said the average annual volume of water flowing in the Mekong is 475 billion cubic meters.

At its source the water comes from snow melting on the Tibetan plateau and Myanmar’s northern mountains. It accounts for 18 percent of the flow.

The remaining 82 percent comes from rains in Laos (35 percent), Thailand (18 percent), Cambodia (18 percent), and Vietnam (11 percent).

"According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Mekong basin region is experiencing a weak El Nino, and the possibility of rain in one to two months is low," Thien said.

The El Nino typically occurs every few years when sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise to above normal levels.

Thien said there is very little rain in Vientiane and the water level there is at a record low, meaning it is unlikely the Mekong Delta would get floods.

In the dry season early next year the salinity levels in rivers would be extremely high, he warned.

Dr Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of Can Tho University’s Research Institute of Climate Change voiced similar views and blamed the low water level in the Mekong this year on human impacts.

Because of the drought this year upstream countries have sought to store water in their dams, and the Xayaburi dam in Laos has just been built, he said.

The country closed the dam to test it, and this blocked the Mekong River, preventing water from coming downstream to Cambodia and Vietnam. 

The Xayaburi is the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream, according to International Rivers, a U.S.-based non-profit organization.

Existing and proposed dams on the Mekong River in various countries. Photo courtesy of International Rivers.

Existing and proposed dams on the Mekong River in various countries. Photo courtesy of International Rivers.

Tuan said: "Normally at the end of July the Tonle Sap is in spate. The river has a water area of 10,000 square kilometers in the dry season and 16,000 square kilometers in the rainy season. Its depth is between one to nine meters. However, there is very little water there this year, so of course the Mekong Delta will see very little floods."

To deal with the crisis, the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research has told farmers in the Mekong Delta to regulate water and take precautions to prevent abnormal salinity.

Authorities need to provide guidance to locals in storing rainwater, cultivating crops using less water and generally using water economically, it added.

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