Mekong Delta parched in aftermath of 2019 El Nino

By Hoang Hanh, Cuu Long, Hoang Nam   February 19, 2020 | 04:44 pm PT
Parched fields, cracked earth and dry water channels are nothing unusual in the Mekong Delta, which is facing yet another drought this year.

Hai Phuong wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day and makes his way to the field. 

The 45-year-old in Tran Hoi Commune, Tran Van Thoi District, Ca Mau Province, has done so for the last 15 years as a farmer. But one morning this month he saw the water level in a canal in front of his house had dropped by nearly a meter. It had happened in a single night.

The same thing happened again over the next few days with the result he could get little water despite running his pumps at full throttle. 

The water dried up completely in the next 10 days. Thousands of watermelon plants wilted in the searing heat without water. Those that had managed to fruit failed to grow any further. 

Phuong’s three hectares of crops could not be saved.

He had spent tens of millions of dong (VND10 million = $430) to sow around 8,000 plants and planned to sell the fruits just after the Lunar New Year Festival at the end of January.

His wife says: "I and [Phuong] planned to buy our child, Ut, a motorbike should the harvest go well. But we didn’t know this would happen."

After losing their watermelons to the drought, the couple only had around 7,000 m2 of cucumber so sustain them. Normally, the plants would fruit around a month after being sown and continue to do so for the next 25 days. But the fruits appeared only for 12 days before that crop too shriveled up due to lack of water.

Farmer after farmer in the province faces the same situation. Around 16,000 hectares of paddy have been damaged 30-70 percent due to drought and salination, while around 340 hectares of other crops, mostly in Tran Van Thoi District, face the same fate. 

Four years ago a severe drought had destroyed over 50,000 hectares of paddy and 4,700 hectares of other crops. The same thing threatens to happen this year.

A paddy field is dried up under the heat in Long Duc Commune, Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long.

A parched paddy field in Long Duc Commune in Soc Trang Province’s Long Phu District, February 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long.

In Long Duc Commune, Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province, 170 km away from Ca Mau, plowers are digging up the barren and parched soil. The paddy fields, once green and lush, are now reduced to what seems like straw. All the water channels in the area are empty, and farmers cannot draw any water from those connected with the Hau River since they have become too salty.

Nguyen Thanh Hung, 65, says: "This area here is four hectares. Since we don’t have any water, the plants are dying. So we have to dig them up and let the sun destroy any pathogens left in the soil. 

"We have to wait until April, when the rain comes, to start planting the fields again." 

Last year a good harvest fetched around VND30 million from a hectare of paddy. But after he spent around VND10 million this year on tilling, fertilizers and wages, they are now left with nothing.

Along the Hau River, kilometer after kilometer of paddy fields has suffered a similar fate.

Nguyen Thi Nhien, 38, of Tan Hung Commune says her rice crop has not sprouted 40 days after sowing. There is simply not enough water, she explains. She had spent around VND150 million.

High saline levels of around 6,000 milligrams per liter are now recorded in Long Phu’s numerous channels, Lam Van Vu, head of the district Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, says. 

Normally they are around 250 mg/l.

"There’s a closed irrigation system, but due to the quick onset of salinization and high salinity levels, the system cannot provide water for farmers to grow their crops."

Nguyen Thi Nhien, 38, checks a patch of dried soil in Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long.

Nguyen Thi Nhien, 38, checks a patch of parched soil in Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province, February 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long.

Around 50 km away, in Ke Sach District, thousands of hectares of orange, pomelo, durian, and mangosteen fruits are being threatened by the drought. 

Local authorities are trying to salvage the situation by digging 30 wells, which could provide the 26,000 people in the district around 30,000 cubic meters of water.

In Tien Giang Province’s Tan Thanh Commune, not much water is left in the largest channel, which runs around 10 km. Along its two sides, swathes of common water hyacinth are left for dead due to the salty water. 

Vo Van Duc, 52, says despite knowing the salinity level of the channel was too high, people continue to pour water into the channel, because otherwise it would completely dry up in a few days.

Every afternoon people go in groups to fill water in bottles and containers from a public tap. After filling two 30-liter containers, Nguyen Ngoc Thu, 47, carries them 300 m to her house to store in drums.

She says: "My family has six people. Every day I make 10 trips carrying two or three containers. Even if we use the water frugally, it will run out in one or two days."

Since installing pipes would have cost around VND4 million, Thu and 20 other families in the neighborhood have saved money by collecting distilled water from reservoirs for the last 10 years. But that is not possible as for the last month, the reservoirs have dried up and the water has been polluted. Showering or bathing in such polluted water irritate the skin, Thu said.

Tan Thanh authorities have installed around 10 public taps since January 19 to serve 350 households, bringing the total number in Tien Giang Province to 42, in preparation for a water shortage, Truong Tuan Minh of the Tan Thanh Commune People’s Committee says.

Experts are not surprised by the early onset and intensity of this year’s drought.

Nguyen Huu Thien, who studies the Mekong Delta ecosystem, has a dire warning: "The drought this year is even worse than four years ago. Its peak will be around March."

The El Nino phenomenon, which affected all of the delta from January to September last year, caused a significant drop in rainfall. 

The water shortage has been exacerbated by the fact that new hydroelectric dams upstream have slowed down the flow of the Mekong River, Thien says. 

Thanks to early warnings however, the damage so far has not been as severe as four years ago, he adds.

Reducing the number of harvests, switching from rice to less water-reliant crops and focusing more on organic agricultural practices are among Thien’s long-term solutions to alleviate the impacts of droughts in the delta.

But for now over 20 million people have to suffer. Many have to traverse dozens of kilometers to get freshwater, whose price could increase 10 times during shortages. 

They still have to feed their livestock, not with green grasses, but with whatever's left of their dead crops.

"I count every single day, waiting for the months to pass, waiting for the rain to come," Phuong says.

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