by Pham Hoang Nam
|Slipping-away: Local authorities post warnings that the area is prone to landsides. — VNS Photo Hoang Nam
|Feed stock: World Wildlife Fund representatives and locals release shrimp into a river in an effort to increase the quantity of marine life.
Known as the nation's rice basket, blessed with fertile soil and favorable climatic conditions, the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta has been at the forefront of Viet Nam's amazing agricultural transformation in the Doi moi (renewal) period.
The nation went from being a net food importer until the late 1980s to one of the top exporters in the world of rice, pepper, shrimp, coffee, cashew nuts and other produce.
However, this dramatic transformation is now under threat with the Mekong Delta reeling under the impacts of natural and man-made disasters including climate change.
Less rainfall, serious salt water intrusion and more landslides are becoming a fact of life that affects the 18 million residents of the region.
Huynh Minh E, who has spent all his life in An Binh Hamlet on Dat Islet in Ben Tre Province, said things have changed drastically over the last few years.
"In the past, we suffered six months of salt-water intrusion, but now, this has expanded to seven months because of reduced rainfall," he said.
This means that he has less time to grow his rice crop and that the quality of the crop is also affected.
"Our lives become harder when we have to live longer with salt water which even my coconuts sour," he said.
The living standard of most delta residents, whose lives are based largely on water resources from the Mekong River, has fallen as production and daily life have become more difficult.
The saline water intrusion brings in sand from the sea and changes the living environment for some trees and plants like water coconuts and mangroves that were planted to fight erosion.
"We have lost over 100ha of land on the island. Water coconuts are not able to protect our land any more," E said.
Deputy Director of Dong Thap Province's Agriculture and Rural Development Department, Dang Ngoc Loi, concurred with E. He said that since 2004, the province has spent several billion dong to build a 30m dyke stretching along 4km to protect Sa Dec Town.
"We have to build another 6-7km to protect the whole town. If we don't, Sa Dec will no longer exist," Loi said. The town is the commercial hub of Dong Thap Province.
In fact, all eight districts in Dong Thap are facing serious erosion problems.
The salt-water intrusion has had other impacts as well.
The rice snail is a specialty at Phu Da Islet, Vinh Binh Commune, Cho Lach District, Ben Tre. In recent times, the quantity of these snails has been severely reduced and residents have already set up a preservation area on a 3km long section of the Tien River.
"Though we try hard to protect it, we are afraid that the degrading environment will kill it," said Nguyen Van Hung, chairman of Vinh Tien Aquaculture Co-operative, who manages the preservation area.
Households engage in raising fish in cages of rafts are finding it difficult to continue their vocation.
"Last year, my family had to remove our fish cage to the main Tien River instead of the river's tributary because the fish could not survive there," said To Thi Diep, a fish cage owner in Sa Dec.
In an effort to rejuvenate fish stocks, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Viet Nam has released 272,000 local varieties of fish and shrimp, including 5,000 giant carps – an endangered fish indigenous to the Mekong River – late last week into rivers in Ben Tre and Dong Thap.
"All the changes cannot be blamed on climate change. Local economic activities and humans have contributed greatly," Le Trinh of the Environment and Sustainable Development Institute told Viet Nam News.
Illegal sand exploitation on the rivers has worsened the erosion and landslide problems, while wastewater from residential areas and industrial parks along the Mekong have severely polluted the environment, he said.
"We should distinguish between climate change's impacts and human impacts on the environment," said Nguyen Hoang Tri, general secretary of Viet Nam National Committee for the UNESCO Programme "Man and Biosphere"
"Only then we will get the right direction to solve problems," he said. Mekong Delta farmers are doing several things to try and adapt the changes that they are confronting.
"We water our fields earlier now to allow trees and rice to retain water longer. The time for rice harvest has been adjusted to minimise salt water intrusion," said Nguyen Van Nhem, a farmer on Dat Islet.
Farmers in the islet have also planted floating rice to cope with the flooding.
"We are carrying out a project to plant another variety of tree that can live with the sand brought in by the sea so that it can protect our land," said Le Van Thu, WWF project manager in Ben Tre.
Building dykes, constructing stronger houses, setting up an early alarm system, making proper land use plans, educating children and adults on coping with climate change and increasing the ability of local authorities and residents are still needed.
Viet Nam is one of five countries suffering the most serious consequences of rising sea water and climate change.
More than one-third of the delta – which accounts for nearly half of the country's rice production, 65 per cent of aquaculture, and 70 per cent of fruit cultivation – could be submerged if sea levels rise by one metre, scientists have warned. — VNS