Saline threat

Salty river water spells dis­as­ter for mil­lions of poor Viet­namese farm­ers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By Kit Gil­let

SIT­TING amid buck­ets of rice in the mar­ket, Nguyen Thi Lim Lien is­sues a warn­ing she des­per­ately hopes the world will hear: cli­mate change is turn­ing the rivers of the Mekong Delta salty.

“The govern­ment tells us that there are 3g of salt per litre of fresh water in the rivers now,” she says. “Grad­u­ally more and more peo­ple are af­fected. Those near­est the sea are the most af­fected now, but soon the whole prov­ince will be hit.”

The vast, hu­mid ex­panse of the delta is home to more than 17 mil­lion peo­ple who have re­lied for gen­er­a­tions on its thou­sands of river ar­ter­ies. But ris­ing sea­wa­ter caused by global warm­ing is now in­creas­ing the salt con­tent of the river water and threat­en­ing the liveli­hoods of poor farm­ers and fish­er­men.

Viet­nam is listed by the World Bank among the coun­tries most threat­ened by ris­ing wa­ters brought about by higher global tem­per­a­tures, with only the Ba­hamas more vul­ner­a­ble to a one-me­tre rise in sea lev­els. Such a rise could leave a third of the Mekong Delta un­der­wa­ter and lead to mass in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion and dev­as­ta­tion in a re­gion that pro­duces nearly half of Viet­nam’s rice.

“If there was a one-me­tre rise, we es­ti­mate 40% of the delta will be sub­merged,” says Tran Thuc, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Viet­nam In­sti­tute of Me­te­o­rol­ogy, Hy­drol­ogy and Environment. “There is also the threat of cy­clones and storms linked to cli­mate change. The peo­ple in this area are not pre­pared for any of this.”

Al­ready af­fected by reg­u­lar flood- ing, those who live in the low-ly­ing delta are fo­cus­ing on the ris­ing salt con­tent of water in land that has for thou­sands of years been used for rice pad­dies, co­conut groves and other crops which lo­cals rely on for their liveli­hood.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ben Tre depart­ment of agri­cul­ture and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, salt­wa­ter at four parts per thou­sand has, as of April, reached as far as 56km in­land, caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to crops and live­stock, with rice pro­duc­tion par­tic­u­larly af­fected.

“Sali­na­tion will be­come higher and higher, and the salt sea­son will last longer and be worse,” pre­dicts Thuc.

The city of Ben Tre, one of the gate­ways to the Mekong, is in­land, on one of the many trib­u­taries of the Mekong river where the wa­ters are still only par­tially af­fected by the in­creased sali­na­tion. But fur­ther down­river, the ef­fects are more pro­nounced.

“I have to travel five hours up­stream by boat to fetch water for drink­ing, wash­ing and cook­ing,” says Vo Thi Than, 60, who can­not af­ford the prices charged by those who travel down the river sell­ing fresh water from up­stream.

Than lives be­side a dock and runs a lit­tle restau­rant on the small delta is­land of Cu Lao Oc, home to ap­prox­i­mately 6,000 farm­ers and co­conut grow­ers.

“A long time ago, there was no salty sea­son at all. Now, five months a year the water is salty,” she says.

“We grow oranges, man­darins, le­mons and co­conuts, but these trees can­not sur­vive if it is salt­wa­ter only.

“Dur­ing salty sea­sons, the trees bear less and smaller fruits, and if there was only the salt sea­son,

noth­ing would grow.”

Changes to come

Govern­ment of­fi­cials and in­ter­na­tional ob­servers are pre­dict­ing sig­nif­i­cant life­style changes for the delta’s pop­u­la­tion, which will be forced to adapt to sur­vive.

Dao Xuan Lai, head of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment at the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme in Viet­nam, said: “Ris­ing sea­wa­ters will cause in­un­da­tions to the Mekong and will re­quire dras­tic changes in life­style for the peo­ple. They will be forced to switch crops and in­no­vate. Peo­ple close to river banks and river mouths have al­ready had to find dif­fer­ent ways to make a liv­ing in fresh water.”

In the area around the town of Ba Tri, near one mouth of the delta, the sali­na­tion of the water has reached a point where many lo­cals have been forced to aban­don cen­turies of rice cul­ti­va­tion and risk their liveli­hoods on other ven­tures, mostly farm­ing shrimp, which thrives in saltier water.

Pham Van Bo is still able to plant rice on half his land thanks to an em­bank­ment built by the govern­ment four years ago, but he is risk­ing his fam­ily’s sav­ings on the new ven­ture.

“We had to sell our fish­ing boat to pay to dig the cul­ti­va­tion pool and also had to pay some­one to teach me how to do it. It was ex­pen­sive, and I had to get the shrimp food and medicine on credit,” he said.

“It takes about four months from when they are small to sell­ing them. It should be more prof­itable than rice plant­ing, but I am wor­ried since this is our first try.”

Bo needs only to walk 200m along the river­bank to see a cau­tion­ary tale. Nguyen Van Lung and her fam­ily started rais­ing shrimp six years ago, but now all but one of their pools are empty.

“Last Oc­to­ber, the sea washed out all of our shrimp, we lost them all,” she said. “We saw the water ris­ing up and get­ting closer and closer, but we couldn’t do any­thing about it. This sea­son, we have been forced to just dump the shrimp in and let them grow with no fans, medicine or spe­cial food.”

The fam­ily re­ceived a loan from the lo­cal govern­ment to sur­vive, but it takes a lot of money to farm shrimp, on which they now rely al­most exclusively for their liveli­hood.

Olivia Dun is a PhD stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s Mekong Re­source Cen­tre. She is study­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal changes, flood­ing, saline in­tru­sion and mi­gra­tion in the Mekong Delta.

“Some house­holds have ben­e­fited from the switch to shrimp and have been able to raise their level of in­come,” she said. “Other house­holds have con­tin­u­ously strug­gled to raise shrimp, which are sen­si­tive to the con­di­tions in their pond environment and eas­ily sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease. These house­holds face mount­ing debt, and of these house­holds, some choose to mi­grate else­where tem­po­rar­ily in search of an in­come.”

Tough de­ci­sions like this are go­ing to be­come more com­mon for Mekong res­i­dents in the years ahead as the environment changes around them.

“Even if we stop all emis­sions world­wide now, the water will still rise 20 to 30cm in the next few decades,” said the UN’s Lai.

“At the mo­ment the pre­dic­tion is a rise of 75cm by 2050. Peo­ple in this re­gion are still very poor and will need help from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to sur­vive this.” – Guardian News & Me­dia 2011

Crop loss: a Viet­namese farmer show­ing a dam­aged sheaf of rice at his flooded rice field in Vinh dien com­mune in Kien Giang prov­ince of Viet­nam. aside from the Mekong turn­ing saline, vast swathes of the coun­try’s padi fields are also be­ing rav­aged by mas­sive floods.

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