Top-to-bottom changes needed to save Mekong Delta from erosion

May 27, 2023 | 03:30 pm PT
Tran Huu Hiep Economist, legal expert
Pointing to an area around 100m off the shore of the Hau River, Hai Tri said: “The riverbank used to be over there.”

The 78-year-old farmer’s "used-to" means around 10 years ago.

"The river was healthy and gentle, now it’s like a starving person who keeps eating into the bank."

Erosion has occurred regularly along both the Hau and the Tien rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong, and many smaller river branches in the Mekong Delta.

A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature in Vietnam and the Department of Natural Disasters Prevention at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said that by the end of 2021, the Mekong Delta had 621 major erosion areas that stretched for a total of around 610 km. Around 500 ha of land in the delta is lost to erosion every year, the report estimated.

Erosion in the delta is not new, it’s just getting more serious.

While climate change can be blamed as a natural cause, there are many man-made causes, from the construction of hydropower dams upstream along the Mekong, to the destruction of mangrove forests and sand mining.

Nearly 40 million tons of sand is mined from Mekong tributaries every year, and the exploitation is driving the Mekong Delta to the verge of collapse. Land levels in the delta are sinking by more than 1.1 cm a year on average, and 2.5 cm in some areas, which is more than 10 times faster than the rise in sea levels.

Without alluvium and sand, the Tien and the Hau rivers are technically dredged from within, and the changed flows constantly eat into river banks.

Two houses damaged due to erosion in Cao Lanh District of Dong Thap Province, May 21, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Son

Two houses damaged due to erosion in Cao Lanh District of Dong Thap Province, May 21, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Son

To bring back balance to the river system, we will need solutions on a variety of different levels. We cannot just relocate people after their houses collapse into the rivers. We need to be more proactive.

First, we need to draw a map of erosion areas in the Mekong Delta to give an overview of the problem, and analyze the causes of erosions in each specific area. The map should include warnings of high-risk areas.

Given the nature of the Mekong River and the global impacts of climate change, we need multinational efforts to deal with problems in the river.

Vietnam, as a member of the group of nation states situated on the Mekong, should strongly voice its concerns or proposals to the Mekong River Commission, which is tasked with establishing legal frameworks and obligations that require member countries to share water resources fairly and to join in protecting the river ecosystem.

I took a journey along the Mekong River ten years ago, passing by Xahabury and Dol Sahong in Laos, and Tonle Sap in Cambodia... The Mekong River is a sensitive ecosystem, where any single action upstream affects things downstream. As the last country along the river, Vietnam has suffered the impacts of upstream activities most clearly, but other countries will soon bear similar problems.

The 2014 BBC documentary "The Mekong River with Sue Perkins" surveyed the impacts of the changes of flow of the Mekong River on the life of people in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. We need the media to show more of the big picture to draw the attention of all countries in the region towards saving the river.

Back to the Mekong Delta: local authorities here need to tighten the regulation of sand mining. The delta’s poor infrastructure indeed requires sand mining to serve construction. But authorities should at least work hard to stop all illegal activities.

Lastly, people in the delta should stop building their houses right on the river. The concentration of houses can be overwhelming to the riverbanks. Vietnam’s regulations on water resources stipulate that a clear distance between homes and the waterline must be kept for a safe corridor, but in many recent erosion incidents, we can see that regulations were not followed.

*Tran Huu Hiep is former head of the Economic Department of the Mekong Delta Steering Committee. He is now vice chairman of the Mekong Delta Tourism Association.

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