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Don't let sand miners destroy our heritage

Update: August, 06/2015 - 09:16

by Tran Le Tra

My generation grew up realising that Viet Nam, according to the geography textbooks, is ceaselessly and naturally expanding outwards to the sea, particularly in the south.

Some even estimate that if the cape of Ca Mau keeps on growing steadily southward at the pace of 500 metres a year, then within less than 800 years the southern-most point of the country will be connected with the peninsula of Malaysia.

However, in the past few decades, Vietnamese geography textbooks remain unchanged. The shape of Ca Mau and the pattern of its replenishment by sediment, however, have chang-ed dramatically.

In the Mekong River Delta, one can still observe just how much sediment is being carried downstream, to be deposited around the mouth of the great river.

This contrasts with other coastal areas where Viet Nam is e losing land due to coastal erosion at an unprecedented pace, due to some extent to climate change.

Up to 256 cases of serious erosion covering a total length of 450km along the coast line have been recorded. Thousands of hectares of land collapses into the sea each year. In Ca Mau province alone, coastal erosion swallows up to 927ha of land a year. Consequently, the "nose" of Ca Mau is now no longer the furthest southern point of the country and Mekong Delta provinces are losing a medium-size commune each year.

At the Forum on Natural Conservation and Culture for Sustainable Development of Mekong Delta, two core reasons for erosion were identified. One is the irresponsible constructions of dams and reservoirs for irrigation and hydropower and the other is over exploitation of sand and gravel in river bed of the Mekong. These two factors will soon be aggravated by the increasing agressivity of the wave pattern, which will be modified by climate change, and a rise in sea level.

The Mekong River Commission research shows that the suspended sediment load in the river declined from 160 million tonnes in 1992 to 75 million tonnes in 2014 due mainly to the construction of hydropower dams and reservoirs on the mainstream and tributaries of Mekong River.

Sand and gravel mining is taking place in all four Lower Mekong countries, but the largest extractions are happening in Cambodia and Viet Nam. In the Vietnamese part of the delta alone, more than 150 sand mines covering a total area of 8,041ha of water surface in 13 Mekong Delta provinces have been licensed by the provincial governments.

While the total reserve of sand in Mekong River is estimated at 816 million cubic metres, the total amount of sand mined from the lower Mekong main stem (in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam) has been estimated by WWF at 35 million cubic metres per year.

A more recent sand mining estimate in the Viet Nam part of the delta by the Southern Institute for Water Resources Research is as high as 28 million cubic metres.

We are well aware that the loss of land in the Mekong Delta is no longer a myth. It is happening, and human actions,not nature, are responsible for it. "Management of sedimentation in Mekong Delta is now an issue of great concern," said Dao Anh Dung, vice-chairman of Can Tho People's Committee.

"The management of resources in a river that bring nutrition to 13 provinces in Mekong Delta requires close and effective co-operation at all levels, including international." said Van Ngoc Thinh, Country Director of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) in Viet Nam.

We are very close to the point of an irreversible process. And without appropriate and strong intervention, then within several decades all the land that has been created by nature for thousands of years will be gone.

The culture of the region, which is closely related to agriculture and fishery, and strongly dependent on the resources provided by Mekong River, would be affected. Our pride would suffer, geography textbooks would have to be rewritten - and our generation would have to answer why it had failed to protect one of our most sacred heritages.

To avoid this, it is of utmost importance that the sand mining industry in Mekong Delta as the whole is reviewed and replanned on the bases of careful assessments and scientific evidence. This may be started with the development of an effective coordination mechanism among provinces in the region.

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