Vietnam's Mekong Delta residents trembling after river swallows houses

By Phuc Hung, Cuu Long, Ho Binh Minh   April 25, 2017 | 03:36 pm GMT+7

Erosion is ever-increasingly 'deforming' Vietnam's rice basket.

A commune in Vietnam's southern province of An Giang believes it will need a lot of time to recover after erosion pulled 16 houses into a river last weekend and is threatening to destroy around 100 others.

“I can still see them shaking and falling into the river every time I close my eyes,” one woman said.

“It was terrifying. People just ran for their lives. Some fell over and hit their heads,” she said, recalling the chaos that occured in My Hoi Dong Commune, Cho Moi District last Saturday.

The erosion stretched over more than 160 meters (525 feet) along the Vam Nao River, and spread 50 meters inland.

There are no guarantees that the disaster is over, while authorities are still struggling to deal with the aftermath.

Families who lost their homes are staying at an elementary school that has been temporarily closed to students.

“Our house is gone. I don’t know where we’re going to live," said Tran Van Bi.

People in nearby houses are not getting a good night's sleep either. Many have moved out, but keep coming back to check on their properties.

Erosion is a problem for the entire Mekong Delta, Vietnam's food basket which grows half of its rice output and supplies 90 percent of the country's annual grain exports. The collapses in An Giang are a stark reminder of the underlying issue.

Dr. Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of the Institute for Climate Change Research at the Mekong Delta-based Can Tho University, said coastal erosion has been affecting An Giang for the past decade, but it's impacts are becoming frequently more serious.

“The entire Mekong Delta is facing the risk of landslides and erosion,” Tuan told VnExpress International.

He blamed the problem on “excessive sand exploitation” for construction, and the development of hydropower plants further up the Mekong River which prevent sand and sediment from flowing downstream.

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Many houses along a river in Ca Mau Province could collapse at any time. Photo by VnExpress/Phuc Hung

In the delta’s southernmost province of Ca Mau, thousands of coastal families feel threatened every day. Mangrove forests that once protected them have all gone.

Many locals have given up their long-time habit of living by the sea and rivers, as erosion can kill anytime.

More than 30 houses in the province’s Dam Doi District were swallowed by a river in 2008 and 2010, and another disaster in Nam Can District killed a family of four while they were sleeping in 2007.

To Quoc Nam, deputy director of Ca Mau’s agriculture department, said the province is losing more than 450 hectares (110 acres) of land to the sea every year.

The neighboring province of Bac Lieu has also relocated thousands of coastal families in recent years at threat from erosion.

Dong Thap Province has spent VND9 billion ($400,000) fixing the banks of the Tien River, one of two tributaries to the Mekong in Vietnam, after erosion ate into more than 25 meters of the river bank in 2014. But the money has not ended the problem.

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A collapsed concrete embankment along the coast of Bac Lieu. Photo by VnExpress/Phuc Hung

The future of the delta, home to around 20 million people, is threatened by urbanization and dozens of dams upstream, with more in the pipeline. Flooding and droughts that have led to salination, along with rising sea levels, should also be considered for the region's development, the World Bank has said.

Tuan from Can Tho University said erosion is “deforming the delta”.

The problem needs sustainable solutions, including an end to sand exploitation, which will require cooperation with neighboring Cambodia where sand is also being exploited for export to Singapore, he said.

“It takes 20 to 30 years for sand to travel downstream,” he said.

"Vietnam needs to increase forestation and shore up its river embankments. Groundwater exploitation needs to be watched, and we should speak out against the rush of hydropower development in the Mekong region," he said.

For now, he said, a map should be drawn up to highlight the most dangerous areas and relocate people accordingly.