Viet Nam News
Huỳnh Xây & T. Nốt
ĐỒNG THÁP — Every year, the Cửu Long (Mekong) Delta awaits its “flooding season” with bated breath.
The Delta’s fertility is defined by the silt that the Mekong River deposits annually in the region before it joins the sea, rejuvenating the land and water, and securing the livelihood of millions.
The flooding also brings in plentiful fish and other seafood, ensuring food security for the region and beyond.
This year was no different as far as expectations go, and as the flooding was delayed, anxiety mounted, especially among a significant section of the population dependent on the river’s gifts for their subsistence.
Then, when the floods did come a few days ago, they were disappointed, as they’ve been of late.
Heavy rainfall and water flows from upstream areas have inundated low-lying plains in Đồng Tháp Mười (Plain of the Reeds) and Long Xuyên over the last few days.
These two basins serve as sinks that hold water when the monsoon arrives. The water levels in the An Giang and Đồng Tháp farmland areas – which lie adjacent to Cambodia – surpassed that of last year.
But it was still not enough. Not enough silt, not enough fish.
With experts saying that the flooding has been “minor” this year and could have likely peaked already, there has been no collective sigh of relief from the Delta residents.
The flooding season normally starts in September and ends in November or December. Farmers have for long been dependent on the floods to irrigate and to replenish their fields with alluvium, and provide them with fish. The waters also wash away pollutants and kill pests, creating favourable conditions for farming and aquaculture.
Lê Văn Bảnh, former director of the Cửu Long Rice Research Institute, said that usually, ‘major’ floods meant that the following winter-spring rice crops would yield bountiful harvests.
Too little, too late
Võ Thành Ngoan, Deputy Director of Đồng Tháp Province’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the water level had been higher than last year, but lower than the average of past years.
At present, the flooding stands at Level-1 Alert while the ones that bring the needed benefits would be levels 2 and 3.
Huỳnh Văn Giang, a farmer from Tịnh Biên District in An Giang Province, told the Người Lao Động (The Labourer) that just last month, sun-baked earth and parched grasslands covered this border area, because the floods had not arrived on time.
Therefore, he had to cross the border into neighbouring Cambodian farms to trap and hunt mice, earning some VNĐ100,000 (US$4.5) a day. Other poor farmers in the region have little choice but to move to Bình Dương Province or HCM City to work as hired labourers with very low pay.
“At present, in this hamlet, there are just 20 people who have not moved to Bình Dương, and they earn their living by catching mud carp or shrimps. I have 250 of these wooden cages, but I can only catch about 10kg of crabs to sell at VNĐ14,000 per kilo. After fees and Cambodian tax, I get about VNĐ90,000, barely enough to sustain my family, nothing more,” Giang said.
Đỗ Văn Chí Linh, also from An Giang, said people here long for the floods to come so they can go fishing or hunt crabs and snails here, or in Cambodia.
Healthy men work as porters at seafood storage facilities, earning some VNĐ150,000 a day. Since the flooding has been delayed, the owners of storage facilities are only buying crabs and snails to sell to larger facilities in Châu Đốc or Long Xuyên City. From November, they will begin purchasing crabs and fish, especially mud carp, to make fish sauce.
“Currently, storage owners purchase approximately three tonnes of crabs and snails – all from Cambodian farmers, since there’s nothing here. Even lilies have to be ‘imported’ from Cambodia.”
The familiar images of the Delta’s swollen rivers and other waterways, and those of huge catches during the “rising waters season” continue to capture the tourists’ imagination, but residents are experiencing something else.
The floods used to bring a lot of fish, providing locals with a reliable source of livelihood, but the catch has dwindled over several years now.
Many people resort to crossing the border on motorboats into Cambodia to buy lilies, and sell them in Việt Nam for small margin profits.
“Some years ago, during the flooding season, families could live fairly comfortably for several months just on fishing,” recalled Lê Văn Hiền of Đồng Tháp Province.
The main reasons behind the disappointingly impoverished waters have been identified – a plethora of upstream dams that impede the water flow and block its rich content, and adverse climate change impacts, but a viable long-term solution has evaded farmers and policy makers.
Several experts have said that to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the Delta’s population, successful climate adaptation models have to be replicated, extension services provided efficiently, and investments made in irrigation systems towards ensuring minimum disruptions to agricultural activities.
However, it is not clear when the changes will be effected to help Delta farmers have stable incomes and enjoy food security.
Till then, as An Giang farmer Linh noted: “The poor, like me, can only wait for the floods to come so we can make a living, otherwise there’s hardly anything to do.” — VNS