Vietnamese farmers indignant as Mekong Delta prays for flood waters to arrive

August 15, 2016 | 02:53 am PT
Chinese hydropower dams on the Mekong River are taking a heavy toll on people living downstream. 

Fishermen in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta have been complaining about lower water levels and falling catches with experts blaming China’s construction of hydropower projects on the upper Mekong River.

According to the experts, the dams have blocked fish from moving downstream and trapped sediment needed to enrich the soil in the riverbed.

For example, existing and planned dams in China’s Yunnan Province and in Vietnam’s Central Highlands will block up to 80 percent of the sediment that reaches the Mekong Delta, according to the Hanoi-based International Center for Environmental Management.

Nguyen Van Ut, a 70-year-old farmer in Dong Thap Province, is facing an agonizing wait for the water levels in an inland canal in front of his home to rise.

“My family has been living here for generations. We have never experienced a rainy season when the waters have risen so slowly,” said Ut.

Hundreds of migratory species including yabbies, worms, shrimp, frog and fish drift downstream with flood waters, and local people in the delta rely on these food sources for their daily meals.

“Last year, despite very low flood waters, we still managed to catch snails, crabs, frogs and fish to make ends meet,” Ut recalled.


Millions of people will be hit because of upstream dams blocking fish from migrating downstream. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long.

The Mekong dams have cut off natural migratory patterns of more than 110 fish species and reduced catches in the downstream area, said a marine biologist from the World Fish Institute based in Phnom Penh.

Fisherman Nguyen Ba Hung, 38, has been fishing the river in An Giang Province for 18 years. He said the floods, which usually sweep the Mekong Delta from July to November, have yet to arrive.

“Last year the flood waters were extremely low, and our family of four had to struggle to eke out a living. Things are getting worse this year,” Hung said.

The Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam is home to 12 provinces, including An Giang and Dong Thap, which generate VND5 trillion ($224 million) per year and create jobs for millions of people during the flooding season.

In addition, millions of people rely on fish for their entire daily protein consumption.

The Southern Regional Hydro-Meteorological Center said that the water level in the upstream Mekong River is about 40-50cm lower than last year.

“We have seen no signs of flood waters arriving from upstream,” said Khuong Le Binh, director of Dong Thap’s weather forecasting station.

The Mekong Delta, known as the food basket of Vietnam, is critical to the food security for the country's population of 93 million people.

About 22 million people or 24 percent of the total population live in the Mekong Delta.

Farmers in the Mekong Delta produce more than half of Vietnam’s rice output and contribute an overwhelming 80 percent of the country’s rice exports.

The Mekong Delta also produces 80 percent of Vietnam’s fruit output and 60 percent of fish stockpiles, making it the largest agriculture and aquaculture production region in Vietnam, according to Can Tho University.


People living in the Mekong Delta have experienced low water levels for the past two years. Photo by Cuu Long. 

The absence of floods will pose a great risk to the delta, said Nguyen Minh Nhi, the former mayor of An Giang.

“If the floods don't arrive, we will have to live with increasingly intense saltwater intrusion,” Nhi said.

Due to the effects of the El Nino phenomenon along with upstream dams, the Mekong Delta has been hit with its worst drought and saltwater intrusion in nearly 100 years.

Farmers lament that the dams have greatly reduced the amount of silt flowing from upstream to the delta.

Lower sediment and rising sea levels have resulted in saltwater encroaching deep into the delta.

About 45 percent of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta will be affected by saltwater intrusion by 2030 if hydropower dams and reservoirs along the Mekong River stop water from flowing downstream, according to the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

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