Mekong Delta faces severe drought, salinity concerns

June 01, 2024 - 09:23
Amid worsening droughts and saline intrusion, global efforts are needed to secure the Cửu Long (Mekong) Delta’s prosperity and protect livelihoods. Bồ Xuân Hiệp provides insights into the matter.
Drought has devastated crops in Ca Mau Province. VNA/VNS Photo

The Cửu Long (Mekong) Delta in southern Việt Nam, known as the nation’s 'rice bowl' thanks to its vibrant agricultural sector, is grappling with a worsening drought and saline intrusion amid concerns over a neighbour’s mega canal project.

Global efforts are needed to secure the region’s prosperity and protect residents’ livelihoods.

Bồ Xuân Hiệp writes about what is at stake.

As the arid winds blew across the Mekong Delta in southern Việt Nam, the once fertile lands were beginning to wither under the relentless onslaught of drought and saline intrusion. The livelihoods of the region’s inhabitants hung in the balance, as their crops failed and their water sources dwindled.

In the scorching heat of Cà Mau, sixty-year-old Trần Thị Kim Hồng, waited patiently for over an hour to fill her two 30-litre cans with fresh water from tankers which had travelled from HCM City, nearly 300 km away.

Hồng revealed her family now totally relied on water trucks from nearby cities and provinces in the Southeast region.

“Without these trucks, finding water would be impossible for us,” she told Việt Nam News.

Some 3,000 households in Cà Mau currently lack access to fresh water and irrigation, resorting to purchasing water from trucks from other regions such as HCM City and the Bình Dương and Tây Ninh provinces.

When the Government’s sluice gates were closed recently to prevent saltwater intrusion, levels across the local canals dropped significantly, some even drying up.

Up to 96,000 households or 430,000 people this year are now facing daily water shortages, provincial authorities have reported.

Residents in Long An Province in the Mekong Delta resort to purchasing water from trucks for daily necessities and farming. — VNA/VNS Photo

Without access to fresh water, farmers had no choice but to pump salt-intruded water into their fields, damaging rice crops and reducing production by up to 50 per cent.

Hoàng Văn Đại, deputy director of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Forecasting Centre, said the region had experienced multiple periods of saltwater intrusion since the beginning of the 2023-24 dry season.

"However this year's saltwater intrusion is above the multi-year average and exceeds that of last year," he said.

According to a study from the Water Resources Science Institute, under the Ministry of Natural Environment and Resources, over 80,000 hectares of rice and fruit farms in the region could be impacted by salinisation this year.

The region has faced severe drought and saline water intrusion before, particularly in 2019-2020 and this year, 2023-2024 looks to be more devastating.

The water in Mạc Hoàng Đâu's pond, located in Nam Thái Commune, has a salinity level exceeding 25 parts per thousand, which is above the suitable threshold for shrimp and crab farming. VNA/VNS Photo

Main causes

Hoàng Văn Đại, deputy director of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Forecasting Centre, said the current dire issues can be attributed to three main factors, including climate change and upstream and downstream factors.

Upstream, contributing to the severity of the drought, there are low reserves in the Tonle Sap and a significantly reduced flow of the Mekong River due to extensive dam development along the mainstream rivers from China to Cambodia.

Downstream, erosion and subsidence factors are caused by groundwater over-extraction for intensive agriculture in the region, the construction of dikes to protect agriculture lands from natural flooding and excessive sand mining.

Added to this, over the past decades, the region has undergone considerable geophysical and environmental changes, with the land subsiding at an average rate of about 1 cm per year, reaching up to 6 cm in some areas.

Tides are rising at a rate of nearly 2cm per year, leading to an increase in salinity levels by approximately 0.2-0.5 PSU annually.

Significant losses

Experts, addressing a recent meeting in Cần Thơ, warned of worsening climate change making these factors even more dire, leading to enormous economic losses for farmers and communities.

Sea level rise poses an even greater threat, with potential losses of up to 58 per cent in rice-growing areas in the Delta, according to a recent report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

BARREN: A cracked and dry brown rice field in the Mekong Delta province of Bến Tre, showing clear signs of drought.

So far this year, farmers have collectively suffered a loss of VNĐ34 billion ($1.3 million) due to damaged rice production areas caused by extreme weather conditions.

Nguyễn Viết Hoạn, a farmer from Trần Văn Thời District in Cà Mau Province, is one of the many individuals who have been devastated by the impact of saltwater intrusion on his rice fields.

The rice that was ready to be harvested was destroyed, resulting in a loss of approximately VNĐ200 million, he said.

Hoạn was forced to pump salt-intruded water into his fields in a desperate attempt to salvage what remained, resorting to the use of pesticides and plant growth chemicals to combat the effects of the intrusion.

Nguyễn Văn Đực, another farmer in the region, has also faced immense challenges. “I have lost everything,” he said. “Harvesting the rice now seems pointless when the costs outweigh the potential returns.”

The report by the ministry has also warned that by 2030, nearly $3 billion will be lost every year in crop losses as saltwater intrusion continues to wreak havoc on arable land.

The fishery sector on the Mekong River may also suffer losses of $23 billion by 2030, again due to drought and salt intrusion, according to a report by the Mekong River Commission.

Impacts from deforestation may also result in a further loss of $145 billion.

Experts are also concerned the impacts could also pose a significant threat to food security in Southeast Asia.

A key player in global rice production, Southeast Asia accounts for 26 per cent of the world’s rice output and supplies 40 per cent of rice exports to various regions.

'New normal'

Global environmentalists have warned that persistent drought and saltwater intrusion have become the 'new normal' conditions in the region.

Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính, addressing a recent conference, said both national and regional governments needed to adapt to these new conditions.

He said: " Urgent action is needed to address these long-term hurdles before it’s too late.”

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development recently introduced a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy working to 2050.

The strategy focuses on the importance of governmental oversight and integrating adaptation measures into long-term planning.

Efforts are also underway to mitigate the effects of the water crisis, including the construction of water reservoirs, promoting water-saving techniques and encouraging crop diversification.

Farmers are encouraged to adopt climate-resilient agricultural methods, while aquaculture systems are adapting with advanced technologies.

Land-use changes are also being managed to align with long-term objectives.

Despite these efforts, the future remains uncertain for millions of people in the region, according to experts.

With the delta plain just 80 cm above local mean sea level, even minor changes in sea level could lead to significant portions of the region being submerged, they have warned.

The distribution of rainfall is also changing, leading to more intense storms and flooding in some areas, while others face water scarcity and increased salinity.

By 2100, rainfall patterns could shift dramatically, with dry months experiencing a significant decrease in precipitation.

Rising temperatures due to climate change are also exacerbating the spread of diseases and environmental pollution.

The combination of climate change and unsustainable resource use from the Mekong River has led to mass migration from Mekong Delta to other cities and provinces in search of work.

Global cooperation

Experts are concerned about the impact of upstream dams and infrastructure projects on the Mekong River, which could worsen the problems in downstream areas.

They have called for international cooperation and responsible development in safeguarding the Mekong River and its surrounding communities.

Peter Moyle, a biology professor emeritus at the University of California, stressed the negative impacts of such dams, including blocking fish migration and reducing the natural flow of the river.

The $1.7 billion Funan - Techno canal project in Cambodia, with funding from China, is currently a particular concern, as it could worsen water shortages in the region.

In a report by the Southern Institute of Water Resources Planning sent to the Directorate of Water Resources (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development), it was noted that if Cambodia uses the canal not only for waterway transport but also for multi-purpose development in agriculture, industry, services and trade, the estimated extraction flow could reach up to 150 cu. m per second ; accounting for about 30 per cent of the flow to the Hậu River during the dry season. This could exacerbate saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta, making it more severe and unpredictable.

Expressing concerns about the project, Associate Professor Lê Anh Tuấn, former Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Climate Change (Cần Thơ University), estimated that the Funan—Techo canal would make water shortages in the Mekong Delta more severe, potentially affecting over half of the region's agricultural land during the dry season in the future.

"Meanwhile, in the rainy season, the Funan - Techo canal, with embankments on both sides turning into roads and urbanisation, could also become a barrier cutting across flooded fields. This could significantly alter the water distribution to the Long Xuyên Quadrangle, impacting the largest rice-producing area of the Mekong Delta," Tuấn said.

Việt Nam is calling for a comprehensive assessment of the mega canal project before implementation.

The Mekong River, stretching 4,350 km, is vital for millions of people in countries such as China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Việt Nam.

The inter-governmental Mekong River Commission, consisting of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Việt Nam, was set up in 1995 to facilitate regional dialogue in the lower Mekong River basin.

Home to nearly 18 million people, the Mekong Delta supports over half of Việt Nam’s total rice production and 95 per cent of rice exports, making it one of the world’s largest rice exporters.

It produces 70 per cent of the nation’s fruits and more than 60 per cent of its seafood exports, which plays a critical role in the region’s economy and food security. — VNS