Mekong River cries as it's buried alive by sand mining

June 1, 2022 | 04:44 pm PT
Truong Chi Hung Writer
One day more than 10 years ago, my father and other villagers were shocked and terrified after watching the Hau River "swallowing" a section of National Highway 91.

The incident happened in Chau Phu District, An Giang Province.

Father lit incense and prayed at the family's ancestral altar, then brought some wine to the river bank as offering to Ba Cau - a patron deity for those making a living from the river.

In the mind of someone who'd lived almost his entire life by the river, my father immediately interpreted the river's abnormal fury as a bad omen.

When I told him that it was not caused by any supernatural force, but partly because people had been extracting sand from the riverbed, causing erosion, he and some village elders didn't believe it.

They all said that along the eroded section there had been no sand mining in years, and there were only some happening a little bit upstream. I explained that when the river's sand is taken away, its flow will change. These changed flows could create whirlpools or "smash" directly into the riverbanks, causing erosion.

Each natural river is formed over centuries, over millennia actually. Nature endows them with the attributes of balance and stability. When humans intervene, the balance is broken. The ongoing excessive sand mining in the Mekong Delta, coupled with upstream countries constructing many hydropower dams along the Mekong River, have resulted in the river being unable to fully replenish its sand and soil.

To "balance out" this deficiency, rivers have to wear away their riverbeds or banks, leading to riverbank erosion, which in turn causes the collapse of structures and houses along the banks, as well as the destruction of the vegetation and structures meant to protect them.

Even when the people of my hometown began to understand the issue, they could only watch helplessly as sand mining vessels operated busily in great numbers across all the rivers in the Mekong Delta.

Currently, the delta's An Giang, Dong Thap, Vinh Long, Soc Trang provinces and Can Tho City have a total of 76 sand mines licensed for operating publicly. As much as 500 kilometers [310 miles] of riverbanks and coasts in the delta have been eroded, destroying nearly 2,000 houses and displacing 20,000 households.

The people of the Mekong Delta have a habit of settling down and making a living along the banks of rivers and canals. Erosion incidents, which have been happening more and more frequently, has caused people to live in constant fear, anxiety and insecurity. Authorities in some localities have helped people relocate and resettle to avoid the risk of erosion, but this is only a temporary solution as changes in the living environment would have other consequences, disrupt people's lives and vocations, and break the cohesion between families and villages.

A section of the National Highway 91 next to the Hau River in the Mekong Delta is eroded away, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long

A section of the National Highway 91 next to the Hau River in the Mekong Delta is eroded away, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long

Throwing good money after bad

The people are the ones most affected by riverbank erosion and subsidence in the Mekong Delta. But provincial authorities are still licensing sand mining businesses, and at the same time pouring money into resolving the consequences of this activity. The people might not know where the huge amounts of money businesses have paid for sand mining licenses have gone to, but it is their tax money that the state is using to combat erosion. This is one vicious cycle with the people being at the receiving end of all the negative consequences.

The arrests and handlings of illegal sand mining cases are still being reported by the press every day. Despite this, sand mining is still rampant in the Mekong Delta. The difficult thing is that people cannot differentiate between illegal sand miners and state-licensed ones. The people cannot supervise them and the authorities cannot handle them effectively, so the "sand bandits" are becoming even more blatant with their banditry.

It is perhaps not possible to end the mining of river sand for construction, ground leveling and road heightening activities, all of which require huge amounts of sand.

However, we need to keep in mind that human impacts on any part of the Mekong River system would cause changes to its general structure, resulting in grave consequences.

Therefore, instead of licensing river sand mining businesses in a local and inconsistent manner as they have been doing in recent times, provincial authorities need to discuss a feasible, scientific and synchronous solution. The licensing needs to have a solid basis, based on the assessment of experts to minimize any impacts on the environment. We need to evaluate the difference between the amount of sand accreted from upstream and the amount of sand mined across the delta annually, and use this data to develop a sustainable sand mining policy.

In the long term, research projects to produce artificial sand need to be taken into account as replacement for river sand that is being depleted at a scary rate.

Currently, there is no shortage of legal regulations on the management and exploitation of mineral resources, including river sand. However, without strict supervision and enforcement, the gutted rivers will keep crying out for help, till their tears run dry.

*Truong Chi Hung is a writer who has published several books on southern Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

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