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Water resources, eroding land need saving

Update: September, 28/2015 - 09:09
Water management has become a major topic of discussion in recent years among Viet Nam's lawmakers, experts and society. The country has been struggling to deal with water-related issues such as a rising sea level, land subsidence and saline intrusion in the Mekong Delta. Lawmakers and experts shared their views on water management with Viet Nam News reporters Thu Van and Hoang Anh.
Nguyen Thai Lai

Nguyen Thai Lai, deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment

What are the major problems that Viet Nam is facing in water management?

There is an actual risk of the degradation and depletion of water resources due to the impact of climate change and an increase in the exploitation and use of water in upstream countries. It is shown on the following aspects:

Firstly, the resources of Viet Nam depend heavily on international waters and are facing the challenge of water security by upstream countries to strengthen groundwater extraction.

Most of the major river systems of Viet Nam are all related to the flow coming from outside the country. The area outside Viet Nam's territory of the shared international river basins comprises over 70 per cent of the total water of the whole river basin. As countries in the upstream are conducting many hydro-power plants and reservoirs, it is certain that water flows to Viet Nam will decline.

Secondly, water resources are distributed unevenly, both geographically and over time, which has led to the emergence of the problem of water scarcity and water shortages in the dry season. The dry season usually lasts from six to nine months, and the amount of natural flow in the dry season accounts for 20-30 per cent of annual flow.

Third, the exploitation and use of water resources is irrational and unsustainable, leading to the deterioration of water resources while water use efficiency is low. The exploitation of reservoirs for agricultural irrigation and hydro-power development is causing many problems of shared water basins, water supply and maintaining environmental flows for the downstream.

Fourth, the demand for water is increasing while we are also facing the risks of water pollution and degradation, scarcity and depletion. Wastewater from many urban areas, industrial zones, and villages shows signs of local pollutants, like Nhue, Day, Cau and Dong Nai rivers.

Fifth, increasing climate change is causing profound impacts on water resources. Viet Nam is one of the five countries that is most heavily affected by climate change, which has a strong impact on water resources. According to forecasts, the impacts of climate change will make the dry season flow in the Mekong Delta decline by 4.8 percent in 2020, by 14.5 per cent in 2050 and by about 33.7 per cent in 2100. The effects mentioned above, coupled with the impact of climate change and the increasing water demand, will surely worsen water shortages and water scarcity.

What solutions are needed for the sustainable development of water resources?

To achieve the goal of sustainable development in the context of water resources that are seriously degraded at present, we need to focus on five key groups of measure.

First, we have to continue to improve the legal system and strengthen the inspection of enforcement of policies and legislation in the management and protection of water resources.

Second, we have to strengthen regional and international co-operation, and enlist the support of international assistance to protect national water security.

Third, it is necessary to promote surveys, observation, monitoring, forecasting and prevention to catch up with the development of national water resources.

Fourth, we need to develop and implement water resource planning for the whole country, conduct water resources planning for large and interprovincial rivers and planning of water resources in each locality in order to solve the sharing, distribution, protection of water resources and to prevent and respond to harm caused by water.

Fifth, it's very important to enhance communication to raise societal awareness about water security, as well as the responsibility to protect and use water economically and efficiently.

Currently, water exploitation of some neighbouring countries along the Mekong River has an impact on water use of Viet Nam. What do you think we should do to balance the regional benefits while protecting ours?

The decrease in flow, sedimentation, nutrients, fishery, biodiversity and the increase in sea water intrusion and bank erosion... may upset the life, livelihood and production activities of 17 million people and also influence the regional environment.

Ssolving the problem of balancing the benefits between all countries has to be based on fair and reasonable principles, and must also prevent significant harms to riparian countries.

To protect our benefits, Viet Nam and other neighbouring countries are studying the impacts of hydro-power plants on the main stream of the Mekong River to assess the impacts on water sources, salinity intrusion, decrease of sedimentation and biodiversity.

On that basis, Viet Nam will discuss with related countries the specific measures to minimise those impacts under the principles of fairness and reason in accordance with international standards and the Mekong Agreement.

Le Anh Tuan

Assoc. Prof. PhD in Earth Sciences Le Anh Tuan, Deputy Director, Research Institute for Climate Change (DRAGON institute-Mekong) Can Tho University

We are living in a world where everything is inter-connected. The declines of water supply to the Mekong Delta will not only affect its population, of which most are farmers who rely on agricultural production to sustain their livelihood, but also the country's food and social security.

Viet Nam's rice export accounted for some 20 per cent of the global rice market with the majority of it going to poor countries, who are desperately trying to feed their populations. Plunging rice production in the Mekong Delta may very well affect global food security.

Viet Nam will have to make a trade-off somewhere. If there is nothing we can do to support other countries, they will have to find ways to support themselves. This is where the role of Viet Nam's Government is vital in negotiating with other countries sharing the same rivers.

There is a need for the whole country to unite on this matter. I'm aware that some Vietnamese businesses have taken interests in hydro power projects in foreign countries that may in turn complicate the issue of water management in the Mekong Delta.

The Government must take a firm stand on this particular matter and seek support from not only neighbouring countries and international organisations but also Vietnamese business communities.

Looking at the bigger picture, countries that share the same rivers must continue to discuss shared responsibilities and benefits. It is ideal that countries, with the help of environment and water management experts, establish codes of conduct to supervise and manage the exploitation of water resources.

Saline water intrusion has happened at an alarming level in many areas in the Mekong Delta in recent years. This has tremendously affected agricultural production and the lives of millions of people. What are the causes behind it?

Saline intrusion is not a new problem for the Mekong Delta. The delta lies between the Pacific on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other on top of its massive network of rivers and canals and has always been susceptible to saltwater intrusion.

Firstly, there has been less water carried by the Mekong River to the delta, especially during the dry season. This was because of a decreased amount of rainfall in the region and increased water use by up-river countries. When there is less fresh water in the delta it is easier for salt water to intrude.

Secondly, the sea level has been rising and global warming increasing while the Mekong Delta is subsiding steadily over the years at a rate that according to some researches is even greater than the rise of sea level, at 2-3 cm at some sites.

Thirdly, our population is increasing. A greater population naturally requires more water in agricultural production and higher risk of protected forests being destroyed or damaged.

A large amount of water pumped from under the ground abruptly resulted in an even faster rate of land subsidence, and it formed a vicious circle.

What are the solutions to stop saltwater intrusion? Are there international experiences Viet Nam can learn from on this particular issue?

Saltwater intrusion is caused by several factors. The solutions must also be able to cover them all at the same time to maximise their effectiveness.

For example, measures must be taken to manage the amount of water being taken from under the ground. It does not mean forbidding people from getting the water they desperately need. It just means we need to have some kind of master plan for our water use to avoid waste and polluting water sources, in case of inadequate drilling technology.

Another solution was to store more rain water. There is quite a lot of rain in the Mekong Delta but without storage facilities people won't be able to retain it. Also, we must focus in planting more protective forests along the coast line and river banks to protect our water sources.

In term of agricultural production, we can switch to crops that require less water. For example, we do not need to grow that much rice any more. We are maintaining our status as a large rice exporter at the expense of our living environment.

Alternatively, we can also choose to grow varieties of rice and other crops that require less water, too. Can Tho University has been working to develop saline-resistant varieties of rice as well as water-efficient cultivation techniques to help farmers save water. It is easier and cheaper to save a cubic metre of clean water than to purify it after it was polluted.

Another solution being researched at the moment is how to move part of the water during the Mekong Delta's flood season under the ground and store it for later use. It will serve to provide water for human use and also prevent or slow down the region's subsidence.

There have been successful models of this solution in the cases of Australia, the Netherlands and Germany. The principle remained the same: to move part of the abundant amount of water during rainy season under the ground for later use during the dry season.

Tran Nhon

Tran Nhon, former deputy Minister of Water Resources

What do you think of the State's policies on water management?

In my opinion, the State's water management policies have become out-dated and ineffective, given the country's socio-economic development.

At the central level, water management is divided into many parts and assigned to many offices, resulting in duplicated - but unclear - responsibilities. Water management duties pertaining to river basins and administrative localities are also overlapping and unclear.

This leads to the fact that Viet Nam's water resources are seriously polluted and overexploited, and they have been used wastefully.

Due to its complicated chain of command, water resources need to be placed under an integrated management scheme.

What measures do you think are necessary to better manage the country's water resources?

Water resources management should be placed under the market economy mechanism. The use of water resources should bear fees, just like the use of any other natural resource. Water should be considered a kind of good in the market.

However, it's still important to note that water supply services belong to both the economic infrastructure and social infrastructure. Therefore, while water supply should be largely managed as a business matter, it should also be regulated with proper social policies.

The elimination of a subsidy mechanism in water supply doesn't mean the elimination of proper State support for water in remote areas or for those with special needs.

It's also of crucial importance to create an integrated water management agency. In the past, the agriculture ministry and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) shared the water management responsibility.

After several reforms, MONRE is now assigned the task. However, huge personnel resources who have profound knowledge and skills in water management still work in the agriculture ministry. In order for MONRE to fulfill its task properly, I think these staff should be transferred to MONRE.

Along with this, we can gradually reduce the involvement of the State in water management and start to privatise State enterprises that are operating in this industry. — VNS

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