Dammed, doomed: the Mekong Delta story

By Nguyen Ngoc Huy   June 17, 2018 | 04:42 pm PT
Dammed, doomed: the Mekong Delta story
Parched rice field in Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province in southern Vietnam. Photo by AFP
People await life-giving floods to return the delta to its former glory. The wait is futile.

I have the habit of talking to old people every time I do research on the climate and the environment. To me, they are living records of what really happened, having directly experienced the natural disasters that have swept through our lands.

After the 2016 drought, I did a study on the people of the Mekong Delta and their adaptability to climate change. In every province and city I went, Ben Tre, Ca Mau, Can Tho, Tien Giang and Tra Vinh, the elders shared the same worries, without exception.

Something bad is coming, and it’s imminent.

The Mekong Delta has always been blessed by Mother Nature. Lush plantations, abundant fish and shrimp are just some of the few things the Delta gives us. It is Mother Nature herself who breathed life into the people here. They are vivacious and carefree, unchained and untamed, just like the Delta itself.

Not anymore.

Such blessings are now relics of a distant past, showing themselves only in the people’s verses of songs and lines of poetry.

I met an old lady in the Tan Thoi Dong Town, Tien Giang Province. Sadness was writ large in the crow of the lady’s eyes.

She now lives with her granddaughter, who’s in the 7th grade. Her mother and sister have left home to become laborers in Binh Duong Province. The granddaughter’s father’s whereabouts are unknown.

This is the state of many a family in the Delta these days.

Another 60-year-old lady in Tra Vinh Province lives with her 30-year-old daughter in a rundown, dilapidated thatched house next to a river bank. I remember how the house was so near the water that it could have fallen into the stream at any moment, and how the mother-daughter pair kept staring into some place far away as sunlight bounced off the river’s ripples, a pure, blinding white glimmering and glistening.

After a while, the old lady told me that her daughter used to work in Binh Duong too. However, her firm’s owners suddenly ran away, leaving their workers with no job and no income. She then had to return home and restart life as a farmer.

But this job is as precarious as it comes. When it comes to farming, you have to accept that you will experience losses, repeatedly. Even if a planting season yields good harvests, the costs for watering, fertilizing and spraying pesticides would eat up all the revenue. And when lady luck isn’t on your side? You lose everything.

Efforts in implementing various business models to keep farmers on their own lands are evidently futile. The only possessions these people have left are crushing debts weighing on their shoulders.

Then, one day, they lose hope. They leave, and never come back.

That is why, in many towns and villages of the Mekong Delta that I’ve gone through, only women, children and the elderly stay. The young and able have already migrated to Saigon, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, or even left the country.

In special cases like the Xom Bien Village of Ca Mau, there are no people left.

Circumstances may differ, but for all this suffering and loss, there’s only one explanation – environmental deterioration, climate change, rising sea levels.

Mekong Delta is dying by the day. And this dying is exacting its toll from the people – their livelihoods are long gone, their community, once close-knit, is tattered now.

For the last six years, the people have been waiting for a life-giving flood from upstream reaches, flooding that would deposit silt in the delta and restore nature to its former glory.

But the desperately longed for flood has never come.

Instead, rising sea levels cause waves to tear down banks and shores. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Development, the delta has 265 points spanning 450 kilometers where land has been eroded by the sea. At this length, reinforcing embankments or building new ones is impossible.

Meanwhile, upstream sections of the Mekong River are infested with swarms of hydroelectric dams built by China, Laos and Cambodia. There are currently seven dams in operation, seven more are being built and 13 are in the blueprint stage.

Just seven dams have deprived the Mekong Delta of its life-giving floods. Imagine what 27 will do.

None of the people I’ve met know what the dams are doing to their lives.

They’ve waited, and will still wait for the floods to return and bring life back to the land.

At this rate, they won’t.

*Nguyen Ngoc Huy is a Vietnamese expert on climate change at Vietnam National University, Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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