Mekong Delta's reservoir of abundance runs dry

By Hoang Nam   April 30, 2020 | 12:30 am PT
Mekong Delta's reservoir of abundance runs dry
A man walks in the dried-up Kenh Lap reservoir in Ben Tre Province, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.
Arguably Vietnam's most fertile region, feted for long as the nation’s granary, the Mekong Delta is now a ghost of its former self.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident, literally and symbolically, than at the region's largest reservoir, Kenh Lap, in Ben Tre Province.

The reservoir, which has a capacity of more than one million cubic meters of water, is virtually bone dry.

After a long drought, the once vast body of water is now a piece of parched land with a few puddles, dead lotus bunches and fishing boats and nets lying motionless on its bed. Birds walk about, looking for food and water pumps stand idle on its banks.

In the immediate vicinity, harvested rice fields stand barren, exposing cracked earth. Vegetable gardens are left untouched with withered grass and weeds.

Kenh Lap, nearly five kilometers long and 40-100 meters wide, is the Mekong Delta’s largest manmade freshwater lake. Located in Tan Xuan Commune, it was built at a cost of VND85 billion ($3.6 million). It opened last August but could only function for six months before it was overcome by a salinity problem. Today the region’s largest water reservoir is dry land.

The reservoir is designed to supply water to more than 200,000 people living in 24 communes and towns for household use, and for industrial and irrigation purposes. The fact that it has gone completely dry has thrown daily life into disarray.

The Kenh Lap reservoir, designed to supply water for daily use and irrigation for around 200,000 families, is completely dry. Video by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

New wells dug

Truong Van Chon drove his bike to his duck farm by the lake's bank, which is about a kilometer from his home. At peak salinity, the saltwater content read almost 10 parts per thousand (ppt). Fresh water has a salinity of 0.5 ppt or less.

The 53-year-old farmer had three 30-liter containers that he used to fill with water from the Kenh Lap reservoir. He drove two kilometers to a public freshwater well built by philanthropists about two weeks earlier.

"When the lake’s water turned salty, the ducks could still drink it, but now the lake has dried up, so there is no water for them," Chon said.

He drove back to his farm after filling all three containers. He also has nine cows on his farm. For them, he needs a lot more water, so he buys it from barges selling freshwater at VND70,000 ($3) a cubic meter. This proved expensive, so he had a new well dug for VND5 million ($213). However, even this did not work because the water in the well turned out to be alum-contaminated, rendering it undrinkable. Luckily, his four-member family still has enough rainwater stored in a cement storage tank for several months. They use it frugally, waiting for the rains.

"I have to make up to six trips a day to bring enough water in these containers for the cows and ducks," Chon said.

Water deprivation has caused his ducks' fertility rate to drop.

Chon’s family has decided to wait for about a month before sowing a new rice crop as they want the rainy season to wash away some of the salinity in his 2,000-square-meter field.

The family is one of the 11,000 deprived of freshwater in Ba Tri District this season. People here have to buy freshwater, which can cost as much as VND150,000 ($6.41) a cubic meter because 12 water supplying plants are also suffering from saline intrusion.

In Ba Tri, more than 4,300 hectares of new rice crop have withered and farmers have used it feed their cows. More than 100,000 cows, goats and pigs are also facing a serious water shortage. It is estimated that the total damage caused by the saltwater intrusion and drought in the district is about VND150 billion ($6.3 million).

A fishing boat lays on the bottom of Kenh Lap reservoir. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

A fishing boat on the bottom of Kenh Lap reservoir. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Ho Van Thuong, deputy head of the district’s Agriculture and Rural Development Office, said the lake management agency has proposed to dredge the lake bed and increase water storage capacity. However, higher authorities are still considering the proposal over concerns that dredging can increase salinity levels and the risk of land erosion.

"In the long run, we are asking management authorities to continue to purify salinity in the reservoir so the citizens have water to use next dry season," Thuong said.

The saltwater intrusion and drought has arrived earlier this year and have severely depleted freshwater sources of more than 80,000 households and 43,000 hectares of rice fields in six Mekong Delta provinces: Tien Giang, Ben Tre, Long An, Kien Giang, Ca Mau and Soc Trang. All of them have declared the situation an emergency.

The government has spent a total of VND530 billion ($22.5 million) for the six provinces as well as two other Mekong Delta provinces of Tra Vinh and Bac Lieu to help them with the crisis.

Last month, meteorologists warned that the Mekong Delta would suffer salt intrusion at levels much worse than what was experienced in 2016. They had said that salt intrusion will keep escalating between March 6 and 10 before hitting its highest level in the middle of the month before slowly decreasing in April.

While many experts have blamed climate change and upstream dams on the Mekong River in China and other countries, there is no indication that the situation will improve on this front.

Some have said that the delta, which is also a major agriculture and aquaculture hub for the country, has to restructure the sector drastically to adjust and adapt to some of the changes that look irreversible.

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