When the Mekong is no longer 'the mighty'

By Khai Don   April 15, 2018 | 05:21 pm PT
When the Mekong is no longer 'the mighty'
A farmer feeds his fish at a farm on the Mekong River in Vietnam's southern city of Can Tho. Photo by Reuters/Kham
Hydropower projects are threatening Vietnam's Mekong delta, but farmers who make their livelihoods there know little about it.

During a class with secondary students in Can Tho City, I asked them: “Can anyone here tell me about the Mekong River?” I saw only four hands in a class of 50 students go up.

One of them told me that the Mekong is a river that flows into Vietnam and splits into nine different branches, but apart from that, there was little more forthcoming.

I've also asked dozens of farmers in Bac Lieu, Ca Mau and An Giang about the Mekong and what they know about the giant river that runs in front of their houses, and the response was pretty much the same.

They didn't know that a vast delta which generations of their families have relied on lies at the end of the seventh longest river in Asia, which stretches across six nations. And clearly, they had no idea about what might happen to the Mekong’s tributaries: the Tien, the Hau and the Can Tho.

News about the Mekong River seems a far cry from the farmers who spend their lives in the alluvial flows and paddy fields. Meanwhile, erosion has been spotted at 265 different areas the Mekong Delta, which if combined would measure a total length of 450 kilometers (280 miles).

At the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit in Siem Reap, Cambodia on April 4-5, environmental experts warned that hydropower projects will destroy the river basin, leaving serious impacts on not only the environment but on socio-economic development in the region.

But these warnings are nothing new. A report conducted earlier this year by the Vietnam National Mekong Committee said: “The alluvium level in the Mekong River is estimated to drop by 67-97 percent between 2020 and 2040. The loss of alluvium could severely affect the river’s ability to fertilize the soil, and as a result, it will have a direct impact on the geomorphology and stability of the Mekong Delta.”

The shape of the Mekong Delta is being threatened. The fertile soil that helped support the students whom I raised the question with is unlikely to ever be the same again. Houses will drift away, the river will no longer be full of alluvium, and paddy fields will no longer wait in eager expectation for the floods to arrive.

These changes are already happening, sweeping away the main source of income for people in An Giang, Bac Lieu and Dong Thap.

Residents have also asked about the possible disappearance of floating markets, a scenario that might be hard to imagine for anyone who has visited the Mekong Delta.

The drought in 2016 left a deep wound among locals in the delta. Saltwater intrusion attacked the entirety of Ben Tre Province, leaving residents longing for fresh water. More than 200,000 hectares (over 490,000 acres) of paddy fields and hundreds of thousands of hectares of fruit orchards were damaged.

Hydropower plants, the crucial element that has led to the dramatic change on the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta, are an important factor for the development of the region. Many major dams on the main stream have been completed and are about to go into operation.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the MRC Summit that the primary concern of the Vietnamese government now is responding to the negative impacts of climate change, extreme climatic events and human activities on the Mekong Delta.

The fate of the delta depends on the profound effects of activities on the Mekong River’s upper reaches that flow down into Vietnam and the canals that run by people's houses in southern Vietnam.

Farmers who raise catfish and cultivate paddy fields and fruit orchards face an uncertain future.

I met several Thai fishermen back in 2016 who understood that their poor catches were down to the unstable flow of water from the upper reaches of the Mekong River, a result of the Jinghong Dam built by China.

But the farmers I met in Dong Thap Province have never been given the chance to understand what's going on and how it will impact their lives, and they're the ones who will have to live with these hydropower projects.

They did not know that the calm flow of the Mekong River did not just cause erosion and sweep away houses all of a sudden. They even told me that they heard somewhere on the radio that China had released water from one of its dams to help Vietnam deal with drought.

The children who are going to own the Mekong Delta are missing out on important news due to both the authorities and the communities around them. News and information can help us prepare ourselves to cope with a future that lacks water and fish on the so-called mighty Mekong River.

The questions that should be raised here are: When will the “response” the government has been talking about actually start, and will that “response” involve the farmers who remain clueless about what the future holds and are still day-to-day with mud on their hands and feet.

*Khai Don is a writer based in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are her own.

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