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We’re in denial mode as the Mekong Delta goes under

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   December 11, 2019 | 08:31 pm PT
The Mekong Delta is disappearing right in front of our eyes, but we think we can save it with empty promises.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Tu woke up early as usual to open up her shop. As she reached it, something caught her attention and she stopped. A crack, long and winding like a resting boa, sundered the National Highway 91 in two. On the other side was her little shop, her family’s lifeline for several decades.

Her instincts immediately told her the shop could no longer be saved. It was barely clinging on to an asphalt patch that could collapse into the nearby Hau Giang River at any time. She was right. A few days later, that road section cracked and fell into the river, patch by patch, along with Tu’s shop. This was late July.

Tu’s shop was a place that my friend and I frequented every time I visited An Giang Province on business. We met again recently as he was about to take his child to Vancouver in Canada for the latter’s studies. In fact, he recently took the decision to relocate his entire family to Canada.

As someone whose ancestors have lived in the Mekong Delta for about two centuries, it was not easy for my friend to take this decision. The disappearance of Tu’s shop preyed on his mind. A plot of land he owned, on which he ran a mill, was also being eaten by erosion. It pained him to leave his homeland, but he had no choice.

"I wish I could go back to my childhood, when I was poor, but at peace," he said.

"The people of the Mekong Delta are still poor now, but the peaceful days are long gone."

A house is abandoned in the Mekong Deltas Tien Giang Province as its owners fled frequent coastal erosion. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

A house is abandoned in the Mekong Delta's Tien Giang Province as its owners fled frequent coastal erosion. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

The Mekong River has long been the lifeblood of the region, bringing rich sediment all the way from the Tibetan Plateau to the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) to nourish the Mekong Delta. But the river and the delta, as majestic as they are, are also vulnerable to harmful human intervention.

For six millennia, the sediment brought by the Mekong River nourished and enriched the Mekong Delta to produce rice, vegetables, fruits, fish and other forms of sustenance that not only enhanced food security for the region’s residents in particular and the nation in general, but also contributed significantly to national development through agriculture and aquaculture exports.

But human activities have severely compromised the delta’s health and its very existence is in danger, and this is a nightmare scenario not only for millions of its residents, but for Vietnam and many other countries dependant on the region’s bounty.  

From 1996 to 2014, China kick-started six hydroelectric dams with a total capacity of 15,620 MW on its territory, which is 6.5 times that of Vietnam’s largest hydroelectric facility. These dams have deprived Mekong’s downstream regions of their much-needed sediments. Statistics from the Vietnam National Mekong Committee show that the amount of sediment flowing downstream from 1992 to 2014 was cut in half due to Chinese reservoirs trapping them. Without the sediments, the Mekong Delta cannot maintain its current state, and faces eventual erosion.

Around 300-500 hectares of land in the delta have been eroding away every year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. For comparison, that’s 30 My Dinh Stadiums, or the entire Phu My Hung urban complex submerged underwater every year.

Another 2015 report by the Danish Hydraulic Institute said an additional 11 dams downstream currently under construction (nine of which are invested in by China) would almost completely cut off the sediment flow in Mekong and accelerate the delta’s disintegration. The sea would further engulf hundreds of hectares of land every year as a result, the report predicted.

There are so many other things the Mekong Delta has to worry about: the climate change crisis, rising sea levels, water security, drought, resource depletion... The delta, home to 18 million people and a food basket that produces 50 percent of food output and 90 percent of rice exports for Vietnam, is now on its deathbed.

Laos’s Luang Prabang Dam, about 2,036 km from the Mekong Delta, has a capacity of 1,460 MW, even higher than that of the Xayaburi Dam of the Lower Mekong (1,285 MW), a project which has been accused of lowering water levels of the Mekong River to its lowest in the last century as it stored water for trial run in July last year.

The Lao government has already filed documents on the Luang Prabang Dam’s expected construction in 2020 and electricity generation in 2027. Vietnam’s PetroVietnam Power Corporation (PV Power), which was one of the first companies to advance this project since 2007, would hold a 38 percent stake in it, Laos, 25 percent and other investors, the remaining 37 percent.

Buying electricity from, having stakes in or constructing the dams that are destroying the Mekong means we’re destroying the delta ourselves. If Vietnam ever finds itself doing so, all the preaching about protecting the delta that we’ve done would end up being nothing but empty words.

My friend said many residents of the delta were already leaving region. People were either moving to the cities, or outside Vietnam altogether. He sorely misses the time when the Mekong was a benevolent, life-giving entity that bestowed its subjects with more food than they could imagine.

Can Vietnam do anything to restore Mekong Delta to its former glory? That’s mainly for the government to say. But if it dares to turn a blind eye or choose to be an ostrich and bury its head in the sand, it would amount to complicity in the final rites being administered to our beloved, most fertile land that has sustained millions for millennia.

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an expert on energy and environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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