By Sarah Fiorello

By: Minh Le

Rice. Hydroelectricity. Floods. Floating markets. What do they have in common? – Interestingly, they all relate to water, a specific region – the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (or Nine Dragons River Delta) – and a crisis time, the climate change era. Today, I want to invite you on a virtual trip to this region and listen to the story of water here. From its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau (China) to the downstream notably populated area in the south of Vietnam, the Mekong River has crucial lessons for how we understand the role of water control in our ecological policies at present and in the future.

Overview of the Mekong Basin, from its upstream area in China to its downstream area in the southern region of Vietnam.

The largest granary of Vietnam – and its blurry future

The Nine Dragons River Delta is the largest harvest area of rice, the main cereal here. The central elements for the growth of rice here are human effort, the flow of water, and salt concentration in the river. However, climate change has devastatingly affected the above factors. Severe droughts during the summer and lower water levels in the flooding season have significantly reduced the amount of water flowing through the rice fields. Since less water still carries the same amount of sediment as in previous years, including minerals and salts, the salt concentration is much higher. Also, the rate of saline water intrusion increases because of the higher tidal waves and seawater flow to the delta. Unfortunately, most of the current rice sprouts cannot stand the abrupt enhancement in salt concentration, which lowers the productivity in this area. Saline water also affects the lives of the citizens: for cooking and other daily activities, they need to find the fresh wells in their surroundings (which are rare now) or buy expensive gallons of fresh water from the mobilized trucks. The question of freshwater supply has never been as critical as it is now, when the magnitude of climate change expands higher and higher.

Hydroelectricity – Benefits vs. Costs

Dam construction in the Mekong River, Vietnam. Image by Thomas G. from Pixabay

As climate change progresses more unpredictably, six countries in the Mekong Delta have never been concerned about hydroelectric dams more than at present. Hydroelectricity generated from these dams is cheap for the dwellers and vital to the industry of the southern region. However, according to XiaoZhi Lim, apart from seawater intrusion and El Nino, the abundance of hydroelectric dams contributes largely to limiting the flow of the Mekong River, especially during the dry season. Approximately forty dams are using water from here, including twenty Chinese mega-dams. Although the Mekong River Commission (MRC) holds annual events with the participation of those countries, the lack of solidarity and communication with China and Myanmar is still a barrier to handling the situation. The upstream area of this river (China) does not share enough water for the use of the remaining countries. Additionally, the Mekong River only passes Myanmar in a small area in the south region, leaving this problem neglected by its government. Water flow limitation poses a threat to the supply of rice from this region and the downstream ecosystem, especially plants that require a large amount of water.

A Mekong River Commission (MRC) banderole in Laos.

Citizens’ adaptation to the floods – and its facilitation in the time of climate change

Flooding season in Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

The reduction in water flow also results in another hardship for the dwellers: fishing and planting other crops for a stable income. Vietnamese citizens in the Mekong Delta historically lost much of their properties due to the annual severe floods. However, the Vietnamese government has promoted a campaign exceptionally for this population: Living with floods. This slogan has changed the mindset of the citizens here well: rather than relocating in the flooding season, they would build stable, flood-resistant houses and remain there. Interestingly, in this time, rather than traveling on foot, they can sail to catch valuable seafood, plant some seawater-resistant plants, and grow the mangroves in the endangered areas. Vietnamese here have adapted well to the regular difficulties with the above strategies. However, without the annual floods like in recent years, Vietnamese in Mekong Delta are losing their income and lacking the ability to deal with the novel changes. The instability of the ecology and the uncertain future of the dwellers are demanding issues here, which can have a substantial effect on the globe. Therefore, the researchers should pay attention to the increased vulnerability of this basin to climate change as soon as possible.

Precious artifacts – and their preservation in climate change conditions

A last but urgent concern for the future of this region is the threat of rising sea levels – the central evidence of climate change. Various research projects that the Mekong Delta is one of the most affected areas by climate change in the world; by the end of this century, half of this delta may even be totally under the sea.

A notable cultural feature of this region is the floating markets, where buyers and sellers exchange goods on the water – they meet and greet each other by boat. Almost everything can be found in this market: from breakfasts to flowers, souvenirs, and even petrol. The act of pushing two ships together and then purchasing goods or services distinguishes this market from any other type not only in Vietnam but also all around the world. But this distinct culture could be lost due to rising sea levels, which leads to a decrease in the citizens’ income. If the tourists cannot visit these fantastic destinations, that would be an irreplaceable loss not only for the economic benefits but also for the invisible cultural insight.

Exchanging goods in the floating market, Mekong River, Vietnam. Image by Thomas G. from Pixabay.

Vital insights – at present, and for the future

In particular, the futuristic negative outcome of the Mekong River is a complicated combination of externalities and internalities. Externalities may come from natural phenomena (such as droughts, floods, etc.) or the other countries (such as China and other MRC ones) whose actions Vietnam cannot directly influence. On the other hand, internalities come from the citizens’ misbehavior and unpreparedness for climate change. Since the factors influencing the situation in the Mekong Delta are inclusive (both human and natural elements), the approach to climate change should be focused individually on each but also schematically as a combination of those elements.

To resolve the problems in the Mekong Delta, I suggest a “4R” strategy:

  • REDUCTION of carbon emissions, especially from developed countries.
  • REGULATION of natural resources with the intensive effort from the MRC governments.
  • RECONSTRUCTION and preservation of the endangered areas.
  • REDISTRIBUTION of the high-technology capitals and intensive training with a focus on the dwellers.

Conclusion

With that said, the Mekong Delta is such a vital but easily affected region, especially in the climate change era. The importance of providing statewide cereals and stable income for the inhabitants there drive the responsible parties to preserve the integrity of this region as best as possible. By handling each problem carefully and broadly, the Vietnamese citizens in this region and also other citizens in the world can hope for a better future for nature and the people here. When COVID-19 is not a global fear anymore, I hope that everyone can have a chance to visit this beautiful but endangered region, which will remind us of our mindful ecological practices.

Peaceful scenes from Mekong River, Vietnam. Image by falco from Pixabay.

Works Cited

  • Eyler, Brian. Last days of the mighty Mekong. Zed Books Ltd., 2019.
  • The Mekong Delta, An Emerging Investment Destination in Vietnam. English version’s publication from the website http://www.invest-mekong-delta.com/.
  • Stewart, Mart A., and Peter A. Coclanis, eds. Environmental change and agricultural sustainability in the Mekong Delta. Vol. 45. Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.
  • Fischer, G., et al. “The potential effects of climate change on world food production and security.” Global Climate Change and Agricultural Production (1996): 199-235.
  • Lim, XiaoZhi. “Disastrously dry.” (2016): 40-40.
  • Evers, Jaap, and Assela Pathirana. “Adaptation to climate change in the Mekong River Basin: introduction to the special issue.” (2018): 1-11.