​Let's deal with water scarcity by saving it

By Nguyen Trong Binh   May 18, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
We wash our hands in a way that is completely incongruous in a nation suffering from water scarcity.
Nguyen Trong Binh

Nguyen Trong Binh

I just told two kids in my family who were washing hands to turn down the water a little. They are children of my brother and sister. We all live in Vinh Long Town in the Mekong Delta.

Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the children know one of the recommendations to prevent its spread is regular hand washing.

But it looks like no one has ever said they should not waste water while washing their hands. In all propaganda videos on TV and those made by celebrities, people always wash their hands properly but with the water running at maximum speed.

Watching the water run out, I think about the fate of farmers.

My friend, Hanh, owns a durian orchard in Cho Lach District in Ben Tre Province in the delta. It takes more effort and costs more to grow durian compared to other fruits.

Since the Mekong Delta has been hit hard by lack of water and salinity in rivers for several months now, farmers like Hanh have been struggling to irrigate their crops.

This dry season, which normally lasts from November to April, the delta has been suffering from historic levels of salinity and a water shortage caused by scanty rainfall.

The rainy season arrived late last year and was shorter than usual, resulting in 8 percent less precipitation than normal, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Besides, due to China's construction of a number of dams in the Mekong's upstream region, the natural flow of water in it has reduced.

Experts also point to the sea level rise and a gradual sinking of southern Vietnam for seawater intrusion in rivers.

Tien Giang, Ben Tre, Long An, Kien Giang, Ca Mau, and Soc Trang provinces have declared an emergency. By mid-March saltwater had intruded 50-110 kilometers into the delta's major rivers, all tributaries or distributaries of the Mekong.

So far this year 43,000 hectares of rice have been damaged while 80,000 families lack water.

Last month, to save her durian trees, which are more than 10 years old, Hanh spent VND120 million ($5,146) to drill a well. She had to borrow money, but "there was no other option. Now we can only hope to find some water for holding out, and wish for the rain to come soon."

But digging a well was not an easy task. The workers had to work nonstop for four days and change location thrice. On their third try they finally struck water at a depth of 500 meters.

When the water flowed up, Hanh, her family, their neighbors, and the workers cheered with delight. The first thing they did was to take a proper bath to make up for an entire month of bathing in brackish, opaque water.

I showed the kids photos of people in places hit by drought and salinity where thousands wait in line to buy freshwater at VND300,000 (around $13) per cubic meter.

But I believe the children in my family are not alone in wasting water; I believe many others in Vietnam do not know they should turn down the water a little while washing their hands against Covid-19. And, in fact, it is not just kids; I believe many adults in the country are not aware of the need to avoid wasting water.

A boy washes hands at a public sink in Tan Phu District of Ho Chi Minh City, March 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A boy washes his hands in a public sink in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Phu District on March 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

This is a complete contrast to what Israelis have been doing to protect their water.

In 1959 the country issued the Water Law of 1959, which establishes a framework for the control and protection of water resources. The provisions of the law were originally executed by the Minister of Agriculture, the Water Commission and the Water Board. 

In 2006 the Israeli Water Authority, a successor to the Israel Water Commission but with broader powers, was set up.

The government and the education sector urge people from a very young age to use water economically, and to value this resource in different ways in their culture, in their way of thinking and their daily activities.

In addition to using technology to desalinate seawater and groundwater, they thoroughly treat domestic wastewater and use it for irrigation, using drip irrigation, which saves water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above the soil or below.

The water-saving culture and water-saving technologies have helped Israel develop high-tech agriculture and become a big exporter of water.

The Mekong Delta’s drought and severe salt intrusion were predicted a long time ago. Most experts agreed that the impact of climate change and the construction of a series of dams upstream are the two biggest reasons for them. Vietnam can do little to stop those two causes.

Therefore, to save the delta and each and every one of us, it is high time for all of us to improve our awareness of how we have been living and consuming the resources around us.

The delta, most of which was created due to sedimentation by the mighty Mekong before it reaches the sea, is a precious gift that nature has given us Vietnamese. But we had not valued or cherished it. In fact, we have wasted it, even abused it. The consequences? We are losing the delta, and even before it had a chance to thrive as was always expected, it has withered. And the people there are the first to get hurt. These days it has become the norm for people there to abandon their houses and farms to find jobs in industrial areas and cities far away from home.

Back in 2016, when the delta suffered its worst drought and saltwater intrusion in almost 100 years, people were voluble in making suggestions to save it. But this dry season the 2016 record has been broken, all the solutions remain on paper and nothing has been done to avoid a repeat of four years ago.

I tried to look for an explanation for this, and here is what I found: drought and saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta occur periodically, following the cycle of the dry and rainy season.

Most people have acquired a mindset that in the dry season drought and high salinity levels will plague them, and then the rains will come and everything will be back to normal.

Hanh said the same thing: the well is for her to hold out until the rains come.

But no one can deny that it has become more and more difficult to live with drought and saltwater intrusion. Not everyone can spend VND120 million to dig a well and save their farm as my friend has done. And when people dig for groundwater, it exacerbates the land subsidence, taking it closer down to sea levels.

To "develop the Mekong Delta sustainably, adapt to climate change" as the government’s Resolution 120 in 2017 says, changing awareness of how to use and conserve water in the long term should be made into law.

I hope Vietnam will take radical and concrete steps to better treat its water resources on a national scale. They include prioritizing raising awareness of water conservation the same way Israel has done.

Other expensive macro solutions can be discussed afterward.

*Nguyen Trong Binh is a lecturer at Mekong University in Vinh Long Province. The opinions expressed are his own.

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