Vietnam tries to keep its head above water as scientists warn of sinking Mekong Delta

By Ho Binh Minh   March 31, 2017 | 03:30 am PT
By 2100, half of the Mekong Delta could be swamped by rising sea levels.

Vietnam will look into human and natural factors as it seeks to fight the problems threatening to sink the country's Mekong Delta food basket, according to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

The Mekong Delta, fed by alluvial soil from the Mekong River, supplies around 90 percent of Vietnam's annual rice shipments, and the country stands only behind India and Thailand in terms of global rice exports. The nation is also the world's third biggest shrimp producer after China and Indonesia, and one of the top five exporters.

The future of the delta, home to around 20 million people, is threatened by urbanization and dozens of dams, 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, a World Bank report said.

Upstream nations, including China, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, plan to build more hydro-power plants. These dams reduce the flow of water and alluvial soil, and prevent fish movement, scientists have warned. 

"Fertile soil coming from upstream in Laos has fallen by about 50 percent,"  Duong Van Ni from Can Tho University was quoted by Thanh Nien newspaper as saying earlier this month.

"If more dams are built, the alluvial soil arriving in Vietnam will drop to an estimated 5 percent of the current volume," he said. 


A farmer burns his dried-up paddy field stricken by drought in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang in a file photo. Photo by Reuters

Responding to the warning, Prime Minister Phuc has asked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Vietnam National Mekong Committee to look into the dangers facing the Mekong Delta and report back to him, said a statement posted on the government website on Thursday. 

The alluvial soil and sediment delivered to the coastal areas in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where the Mekong River enters the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea), fell to 75 million tons in 2014 from 160 million tons in 1994, Thanh Nien cited Vietnam's National Mekong Committee as saying.

To add to this, the WWF said that higher sea levels may inundate half of the delta by the end of the century.

Underground water and sand exploitation, which have been weakening the foundations of the delta, are adding to the problem and must be stopped, scientists said at a March 23 conference in Can Tho City. 

Many rural areas are sinking 10-20mm a year, while the subsidence rate in urban and industrial areas is 25mm, based on findings from the Rise and Fall Project conducted by Can Tho University and the Netherlands' Utrecht University.

Last year, an El Nino-induced drought reduced water levels in the delta to their lowest in 90 years, allowing sea water to travel as far as 90 kilometers (56 miles) inland, damaging shrimp farms and reducing rice yields. 

A weak return of El Nino, which features a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific that typically occurs every few years, is expected again this summer, with powerful typhoons, drought and saltwater intrusion forecast during the next dry season, a senior state meteorologist said earlier this month.

From late 2014 to 2016, El Nino brought drought and saltwater intrusion to central and southern provinces, affecting the lives of two million people and ruining coffee, rice and sugarcane plantations. Damage caused by the phenomenon is estimated at VND 15 trillion ($660 million), the agriculture ministry said.

El Nino put a brake on growth in Vietnam's agricultural sector in 2016, slowing the country's annual economic expansion to 6.21 percent, the first slowdown in four years.

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