Thomas Maresca, Special for USA TODAY 11:07 a.m. EDT April 22, 2016
Photo by Thomas Maresca
CAN THO, Vietnam — Huynh Van Loi, 50, a farmer who spent most his life in the same small Mekong Delta district, has experienced good weather and bad, droughts and floods. But this year brought something he'd never seen.
"The water is salty," he said. "I've been living here since my childhood but this is the first time we've had salty water. All my crops were destroyed.”
The region’s worst drought in 90 years, combined with rising sea levels and rampant development are causing a crisis in the Mekong Delta, known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The delta is home to 20 million people and accounts for more than half of Vietnam’s rice and fruit production, 90% of its rice exports and 60% of fishery exports.
But this year, paddy rice fields resemble parched desertscapes as farmers wait for a rainy season that is late to arrive. Small farmers such as Loi, who grows watermelons and orange trees about 40 miles from the South China Sea, have seen crop-ruining salinity intrude farther inland than ever before.
|Rice fields are parched in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta because of the area’s worst drought in 90 years. (Photo: Thomas Maresca)|
The drought, caused by El Niño weather patterns, is hitting the entire region from Thailand to Cambodia to Vietnam’s central highlands. The impact is most acute here in the Mekong Delta, where the Mekong River ends its 2,700-mile journey from the Tibetan plateau through six Asian countries.
A United Nations report released in March about the drought estimated that about 393,000 acres of rice in Vietnam was already lost, with an additional 1.2 million acres likely to be damaged. Almost 1 million people lack water for daily consumption.
The figures are alarming but could grow worse if weather extremes become more common in years to come.
“This year is not a special case,” said Duong Van Ni, an environmental management professor at Can Tho University. “It will happen more in the future."
Ni said the rapid agricultural development that turned postwar Vietnam from a famine-stricken country into one of the world’s leading rice exporters has exacerbated the effects of climate change.
|A fishing boat in the Mekong Delta.|
“A long time ago, there were also typhoons, also saltwater intrusion, also drought,” Ni said. “But the impact was not as severe as now, because at that time the ecosystem wasn't changed by humans. Now the system is already damaged: by canals, by dikes, by water management, by land use.”
Then there are the dams. China has built seven hydropower dams on the upper Mekong, known locally as the Lancang, and plans to add 21 more. Laos and Cambodia intend to build 11 hydropower dams on the lower Mekong, with two in Laos currently under construction.
The existing dams in China already hurt the Mekong, affecting everything from water levels to water temperature to fish migration patterns. The dams on the Lancang also trap as much as 80% of the sediment that reaches them. The sediment is needed to fertilize downstream floodplains and protect against coastal erosion.
“The biggest impact is the trapping of silt,” said Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He said the silt is needed to replenish nutrients that wash away during monsoon season in the delta and southern Cambodia, as well as to sustain the delta against rising sea levels.
Without the sediment, the low-lying delta is eroding and actually sinking. Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment estimated that a 1-meter rise in the sea level would submerge nearly 40% of the Mekong Delta and more than 20% of Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis of 10 million people.
Vietnam is trying to fend off the effects of drought and climate change by introducing salt-resistant rice and increasing autumn and winter rice crop quotas to make up for this year's shortfall. The Ministry of Agriculture and Development is seeking $4.5 billion from the government to build an irrigation system, and work is underway on an ambitious, decades-long plan to construct sea walls and dikes along the coast.
“I find it difficult to be optimistic," said Dan Spencer, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana. “Like many poor nations, Vietnam generates very little of the climate change problem but suffers from the brunt of many of the effects.”
Can Tho University’s Duong Van Ni called the problem alarming.
“I wonder if the situation of the Mekong basin, especially the Mekong River, should be upgraded as a global issue, as soon as possible,” he said. "It's not isolated to six countries in Asia.”
|Farmer Nguyen Tran Ngoc is facing a severe drought and salinity intrusion crisis in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. (Photo: Thomas Maresca)|
On a recent day, farmer Nguyen Tran Ngoc was digging a canal to try to irrigate some new crops: watermelon, flowers, squash, pumpkin and cabbage. He used to grow rice but stopped because of the lack of water. He remained stoic as he explained that he doesn't know how much longer he can make a living from farming.
"Worry or don’t worry, it's all the same," he said. "Change is coming and we can't control it."