Farm­ing prob­lems abound in Viet­nam’s fer­tile ‘rice bowl’

Chi­nese dams, cli­mate shifts spark wa­ter fears

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAMES BORTON

CAN THO, VIET­NAM | Over­loaded trucks bar­rel down the Na­tional High­way from Can Tho, Viet­nam’s fourth-largest city and the largest city in the south­ern Mekong Delta, rum­bling past in­dus­trial cam­puses and ex­port-pro­cess­ing zones, kick­ing up dust from a newly land­scaped Chi­nese pa­per and pulp mill. Across the road, the delta’s dense jun­gle and man­groves spill over its banks.

For gen­er­a­tions rice farm­ers har­vest­ing their shin­ing emer­ald pad­dies have re­lied on the Lower Mekong’s thou­sands of river ar­ter­ies to wa­ter their crop, but to­day a per­fect storm is build­ing, one that

is chal­leng­ing their liveli­hoods. Nguyen Hien Thien, a 61-year-old rice farmer, sum­ma­rizes the prob­lem suc­cinctly in a loud voice: “Too much wa­ter and, more of­ten, too lit­tle.” The un­pre­dictabil­ity of the rains, cou­pled with an alarm­ing rise in pol­lu­tion lev­els, is trans­form­ing life here.

The delta formed by the Mekong River rises on the Ti­betan plateau and flows 2,600 miles be­fore di­vid­ing into the Cuu Long (“Nine-tailed Dragon”) and then spills into the South China Sea. De­spite the abun­dance of wa­ter that could sup­ply the area, the delta’s net­work of rice pad­dies, marshes and canals is dra­mat­i­cally im­peded ei­ther by too much wa­ter in the flood sea­son or too lit­tle dur­ing the low flow. An agri­cul­tural won­der, the Mekong Delta pro­duces half of Viet­nam’s rice, but now faces grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges.

Up­stream dams built by China are a prime cul­prit, though chang­ing weather, salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion, bio­di­ver­sity de­ple­tion, ris­ing sea lev­els and in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion are all con­tribut­ing to the mor­tal threat to the ecol­ogy of the delta, his­tor­i­cally the fer­tile rice bowl for over 20 mil­lion peo­ple in south­ern Viet­nam and a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to the coun­try’s vast rice ex­port busi­ness, which now holds a fifth of the to­tal world ex­port mar­ket.

The delta, a low-level plain less than 10 feet above sea level, is criss­crossed by canals and river sys­tems where boats, homes and float­ing mar­kets co­ex­ist. Some fam­i­lies still re­call that South Viet­nam’s delta proved to be a fi­nal quag­mire for Viet­namese and Amer­i­cans who fought and died there.

Hai Thach, a tired-look­ing 65-year-old farmer, watches like a sen­tinel as the salin­ity of the wa­ter on his land rises — land he has cul­ti­vated since he was a boy for rice, co­conuts, or­anges and mandarins. For Mr. Thach and an in­creas­ing num­ber of res­i­dents, the search for us­able fresh wa­ter of­ten means a half-day jour­ney up­stream to col­lect enough for drink­ing, wash­ing and cook­ing.

The bal­ance of river and sea in the delta is dra­mat­i­cally shift­ing. A drought ear­lier this year dev­as­tated food sup­plies, fu­el­ing the ran­corous de­bate on China’s up­stream ac­tiv­i­ties that in­clude six hy­dropower dams up­stream. The dams are not only pre­vent­ing the flood wa­ters from reach­ing Viet­nam’s lower Mekong Delta, but also hold back the flow of sed­i­ment that en­riches the soil and pro­vides food for fish.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of sci­en­tists and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, along with some youth groups, see a di­rect link­age be­tween China’s hi­jack­ing of the flow of the Mekong River and the in­ter­rup­tion of the nat­u­ral cy­cle that feeds the ecosys­tems. Bei­jing’s wa­ter di­plo­macy pro­gram is flawed since China’s dams weaken the river’s flow and al­low sea­wa­ter to in­trude far­ther up­stream.

Be­yond the dams, dra­mat­i­cally shift­ing weather pat­terns also pose a threat.

“Cli­mate change will be the most sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact in the fu­ture,” said Mekong Delta ecol­o­gist Nguyen Huu Thien. “Flood and in­un­da­tion are in­creas­ing fre­quency and mag­ni­tude, fol­low­ing sea wa­ter in­tru­sion with high tide, con­tam­i­nated soil, sea-level rise, sea­sonal trop­i­cal storms [in­creas­ing] as a re­sult.”

The World Bank, the Viet­namese govern­ment and pri­vate en­ter­prises are team­ing up on a nearly $400 mil­lion pro­gram to aid nine prov­inces deal­ing with ex­treme weather pat­terns and the prob­lems posed by the Chi­nese dams. Viet­namese govern­ment plan­ners now project that about 45 per­cent of the Mekong Delta will be af­fected by salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion by 2030 if hy­dropower dams and reser­voirs con­tinue to stop wa­ter from flow­ing down­stream.

Long coast­line, ris­ing seas

With its 2,000 miles of coast­line, Viet­nam presents a ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal and food se­cu­rity chal­lenge, es­pe­cially in the Mekong River Delta, where 22 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives. Ris­ing seas are in­un­dat­ing low-ly­ing re­gions, es­pe­cially in the delta.

At the height of the drought, the Mekong River Com­mis­sion ap­pealed for an emer­gency re­lease of wa­ter from China’s up­stream Jinghong Dam in Yun­nan Prov­ince. While this ac­tion was praised, it only serves to un­der­score the con­trol that Bei­jing ex­erts over the Mekong, the 12th-largest river in the world, against a back­drop of tra­di­tion­ally sus­pi­cious re­la­tions be­tween Bei­jing and Hanoi.

Can Tho Uni­ver­sity re­search sci­en­tists say they are deeply con­cerned about en­vi­ron­men­tal risks posed by a string of new ma­jor dams on the draw­ing board for the river. Ecol­o­gist Mr. Thien ob­served, “The hy­dropower dams in the up­per Mekong River are sink­ing and shrink­ing the delta.”

Hy­dropower projects al­ter nat­u­ral flow pat­terns and dis­rupt fish­eries and other ecosys­tems. The net­work of dikes built by the govern­ment seems to also per­ma­nently al­ter the way na­ture ac­com­mo­dates the wa­ter sup­ply in flood and dry sea­sons.

A two-year Mekong Delta study com­mis­sioned by Viet­nam on the im­pact of Mekong dams was roundly crit­i­cized as of­fer­ing too much tech­ni­cal mod­el­ing and fail­ing to con­nect to the real fears and per­spec­tives of rice farm­ers and fish­ers. As a re­sult, some younger re­searchers joined with lo­cal ac­tivists to cre­ate a new NGO to high­light the dan­gers fac­ing the re­gion’s liveli­hood.

Nguyen Minh Quang, a 29-year-old Can Tho Uni­ver­sity ge­og­ra­phy lec­turer, wants to es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion to en­cour­age more young peo­ple from Can Tho and from other coun­tries in the re­gion to im­merse them­selves into the daily lives of rice farm­ers and aqua­cul­ture com­mu­ni­ties to pro­mote sus­tain­able agri­cul­tural and de­vel­op­ment prac­tices.

“Of course, lo­cal so­cial me­dia users are now ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing in the dis­cus­sion of the press­ing and se­ri­ous delta en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, and this in­cludes ev­ery­thing from the up­stream dams to pol­lu­tion as­so­ci­ated with the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in the re­gion,” said Mr. Quang.

The $1.2 bil­lion Chi­nese-owned Lee & Man pa­per and pulp mill com­plex is lo­cated be­side the Hau River, one of the most im­por­tant wa­ter­ways in the Mekong Delta. De­spite con­cerns about the plant’s waste­water treat­ment of con­cen­trated toxic chem­i­cals, it is still sched­uled to open be­fore the end of the year.

The coun­try is still reel­ing from this spring’s For­mosa Steel Plant dis­as­ter, in which a Tai­wanese-owned mill re­leased toxic chem­i­cals from un­treated waste­water into a deep-wa­ter port in Ha Tinh prov­ince. The April spill killed an es­ti­mated 115 tons of fish and hurt the liveli­hoods of some 200,000 peo­ple in four prov­inces af­fected by the spill.

Just this week, Ra­dio Free Asia re­ported on a pub­lic protest by some 2,000 fish­er­men from Quang Binh, com­plain­ing that the govern­ment was mov­ing too slowly to dis­trib­ute the $500 mil­lion com­pen­sa­tion fund that steel mill own­ers had pro­vided. Such pub­lic protests are rare and un­der­score the pop­u­lar fury with en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters.

Af­ter the For­mosa steel plant dis­as­ter on Viet­nam’s cen­tral coast, au­thor­i­ties have been pres­sured to call for another en­vi­ron­men­tal assess­ment im­pact on the newly built pa­per and pulp mill on the Hau River. Even the pow­er­ful Viet­nam As­so­ci­a­tion of Seafood Ex­porters and Pro­duc­ers urged an assess­ment on the plant’s po­ten­tial im­pact on the Hau.

The to­tal area of the Lee & Man pa­per and pulp mill stretches more than 247 acres, and over 610 fam­i­lies had to be re­lo­cated. Lo­cal wa­ter au­thor­i­ties lack knowl­edge or are un­trained to ad­dress sen­si­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues like ef­flu­ent waste­water, crit­ics say. Last week the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and En­vi­ron­ment re­quested that the pulp mill halt its op­er­a­tions due to pub­lic con­cerns over its en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.


DRY­ING OUT: Shift­ing cli­mate norms and in­ter­fer­ence by China are wreak­ing havoc on Viet­nam’s cru­cial rice har­vests.


The un­pre­dictabil­ity of floods, chronic pol­lu­tion is­sues, shift­ing cli­mate norms and in­ter­fer­ence caused by Chi­nese dams are cre­at­ing se­vere woes for Viet­namese farm­ers grow­ing rice, a sta­ple crop of the South­east Asian coun­try’s diet.

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