Mekong Eye

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Gradual loss of the Southeast Asian Rice Field

Hundreds of kilometers of riverbank and shoreline in the Mekong River Delta are being eroded dramatically with hundreds and even thousands of hectars of land swept away annually. The place widely known as the field of Southeast Asia, annually produces 24-25 millions tonnes of rice (6-8 million tonnes of rice export) and 1.2 million tonnes of catfish, and 500,000 tonnes of shrimp, mostly for export. That field is being lost.

By Sau Nghe

Can Tho City, Vietnam, November 13, 2015

Tienphong

This story was produced and translated with support from The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, with full editorial control to the journalist and their outlet.

 

Hundreds of kilometers of riverbank and shoreline in the Mekong River Delta are being eroded dramatically with hundreds and even thousands of hectars of land swept away annually. The place widely known as the field of Southeast Asia, annually produces 24-25 millions tonnes of rice (6-8 million tonnes of rice export) and 1.2 million tonnes of catfish, and 500,000 tonnes of shrimp, mostly for export. That field is being lost.

Đê biển bị sóng đánh tan ở huyện Duyên Hải, tỉnh Trà Vinh. Ảnh: Sáu Nghệ

Coastal dike was smashed by breaking waves in Duyen Hai District, Tra Vinh province 

 

As usual, in the early morning, a fifth grade pupil – Dinh Hoang Hung – cycled on Vo Tanh road along the Can Tho riverbank to school. The road belonging to Le Binh ward (Cai Rang, Can Tho) had been freshly paved with morning sunshine reflected on its surface and the adjacent Cai Rang floating market. Suddenly, the road was cracked down and collapsed.

Surrounding the tilted down houses, there was sound of people screaming. Frantically he cycled fast but it was too late that he must give up the bicycle and ran amok ahead; fortunately he was just in time so managed to grab some helping hands from above. He looked back, and was horrified looking at the road had disappeared under the watercourse which was swallowing three houses. By that time, dozens of homes were at the edge of the abyss.

Erosion happens everywhere

The bicycle that Hung left was cracked down by rocks at a glance. The Ward Authority gave him another bicycle, but the solution to the open pit created by erosion is unknown. Chairman of Le Binh Communal People’s Committee- Mr. Nguyen Van Tam said the road was carved with a cleft at the bottom which made it fall down faster up to dozens of meters deep.

 

“The exploitation of water resources by the countries in the upstream Mekong must be coupled with responsibility for any variation in the entire river basin that such exploitation causes. Benefits of a country in the basin are inseparable from the benefits of other countries in the same basin. Cooperation for sustainable development is necessary. “

 Nguyen Ngoc Tran

Prof. Dr of Sc. 

 

Mr. Tam’s house also was cracked at various places as a result of the riverbank erosion. Turning 53 this year, born and grew up here, he said, a few decades ago, the sloping riverbank was “pretty shallow” that made it easy for kids to practice swimming and even his elder son- Nguyen Thanh Trung with two paraplysed legs became a disabled swimming athletes who won many gold medals in Asia. “In the recent years, climate change has caused rising tides and hence erosion of the riverbank” he said.

The erosion was fortunately not fatal as in Phong Dien town (Phong Dien, Can Tho) in the same Can Tho riverbank whereby three homes were engulfed, and two people were killed. The eriosion event occurred in the dawn, Ms. Cao Thi Thu, 49 and her grandson Nguyen Dinh Tri- 5 years old was at the back of the house, so they could not reach to the front to escape. Also in Can Tho, the riverbank erosion of Cam canal happened when everyone was asleep in Long Hoa Ward (Binh Thuy) caused 2 deaths, and 5 injuries.

Riverbank erosion caused property damages to the fuel depot, in Ward 11 (Cao Lanh, Dong Thap), in the morning of July 5th 2015. Mr. Nguyen Thanh Hoa, Head of Technical Department of the business said, the erosion engulfed the secondary wharf, a tank, home office, the total losses are more than 15 billion Dong. The secondary wharf which had been swept away by a more than 100m riverbank erosion in May 2014, was just re-constructed.

Dong Thap province has over 100 points of riverbank erosion, stretching over 191 km; earlier this year, 3,600 households were displaced, 3,400 households had been displaced in previous years. Hau riverside, An Giang Province, which has 48 sections of river stretching over 156km, loses 15-20 ha of land every year due to erosion.

In coastal zones, according to statistics of Tien Giang, Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau and Kien Giang province, in the past 20 years, erosion took away nearly 50,000 hectares of mangroves. The rare area of sand dunes of Mekong River Delta for which Ba Dong resort had been famous for many years in Duyen Hai (Tra Vinh) was eroded, the coast has been recently pushed 2km backward to land compared with previous decades.

 

Natural disaster, anthropogenic disaster

Mr. Ky Quang Vinh, head of Climate Change Office in Can Tho city, said monitoring data on the Hau River shows that the rising sea levels pushed up the rising tides continuously over the past 30 years, up to 0.52m in total. “Flooding is the biggest problem in Can Tho, the second biggest problem is the erosion of riverbanks,” Mr. Vinh said

Director of the Sub-Department of Irrigation and Flood Control of Tra Vinh- Nguyen Van Truong said, it is essential to take into account the “anthropogenic disaster” i.e. sand extraction. The coast of Duyen Hai District was eroded severely since the opening of Duyen Hai Power Centre started on 19/09/2010, more than 26 million m3 of sand needed on levelling and many unlicensed businesses also engaged in sand extraction.

Ms. Nguyen Thi Thu was about to jump into Tien River, fortunately hold by her descendants in time, when she was horrified watching her 6 cages of red tilapia being drown by erosion on October 29th 2012.  On the riverside, a high dyke of 200m in length, 20m in width suddenly collapsed, smashed down 25 fish cages, 4 ponds of juvenile fish in Long An hamlet, An Binh ward (Long Ho, Vinh Long). At that time, a scraper while extracting sand in the nearby riverbank was held by the local people. Half a year later, Southern Institute of Water Resources Research concluded that the major cause of erosion was 2 deep holes of 15 and 20m depth, 90 and 160m meters from the riverbank.

Mất dần cánh đồng Đông Nam Á - ảnh 1

Bank Erosion in Phong Dien town (Can Tho city), 3 homes lost, 2 people died

 

A Research by the International Centre for Environmental Management shows that the annual amount of sediment deposition in the Mekong River from Cambodia’s Kratie station- about 200km from Vietnam border and the whole Mekong River Delta region, is about 12-18 million m3. Meanwhile, according to the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research, annually the MRD exploits about 28 million m3 of sand and even scraped in the riverbed.

Dr. Le Anh Tuan from the Research Institute for Climate Change of Can Tho University also mentioned about the embankment built for the third rice crop (Autumn-winter crop). The area of third rice crop has developed since the last 20 years, and recently it’s increased to over 600,000 ha. Dr Tuan Anh stated clearly that every second, tens of thousand cubic meters of river flows from the upstream Mekong River into the Mekong River Delta, are restrained by the embankment. So the cumulative water in the river rises high making it flowing drastically and hence damaging the river embankment.

In the coastal zones, aquaculture production and many other reasons caused by humans, are the main factors contributing to the loss of mangrove forests. Dr. Trinh Van Hanh from the Institute of Ecology and Protection said mangrove forests have been decreasing continuously in the past half century, in many parts of coastal zones in MRD the mangrove forests have completely lost or sparsely dispersed, not enough for coastal protection.

Natural and Anthropogenic disaster in the MRD was further fueled by the construction of hydroelectric dam on the upstream Mekong River, according to expert reviewer of the hydroelectric power- Nguyen Huu Thien. Mr. Thien said: “the flows of Mekong River are fluctuating dramatically, in the near future, the repercussions of riverbank and coastal erosion are unpredictable”.

 

Soft solutions

Looking at the just gone passage, Chairman of Le Binh Ward- Nguyen Van Tam told, before 1975, rice mill owners in the area only constructed concrete embankment. After decades of unchanging, but recently it can not stand still in the face of river flow fluctuations. “ Now, if the concrete embankment was built, would it be sustained in the future when the tides continuously rise high”, Mr. Tam concerned. Concrete coastal dikes in Duyen Hai district (Chau Thanh, Dong Thap) or concrete river embankment in Tien River in An Hiep ward (Chau Thanh, Dong Thap) were broken down many times in recent years, indicating that the costs are high but not necessarily stable everywhere.


Mất dần cánh đồng Đông Nam Á - ảnh 2

Dinh Hoang Hung beside the erosion pit

 

While facing with Vo Tanh road in the other riverside, getting into Cai Son canal, Office of Climate Change of Can Tho city helped An Binh ward’s people in making ecological embankment pretty well. Using of cajuput piles restraining hyacinth to preserve from breaking waves is simple, the length about 2.4km costs only 800 million Dong. A road on which erosion often occurred previously, sometimes up to tens of meters, since the making of ecological embankment in 2012, has become safe and full of brooming wildflowers.

Dr. Duong Van Ni, an expert on biodiversity at Can Tho University, clearly said, the ecological embankment leads to ecological balance hence increase the ability to protect the riverbank. Dr. Ni said: “Making concrete embankments will cause the ecosystems disintegrated from the riverbank to the water, when they are fragmented, it’s very difficult to restore”. Just so, the coastal region is very difficult and expensive to recover from the loss or degradation of mangrove forests.

The elder farmer -Nguyen Van Nao in Vinh Phuoc Commune (Tri Ton, An Giang), persisted on keeping the traditional rice crop in flood, now it’s become a key step to modernization for the MRD. Good rice on floodplain has many benefits therefore German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and An Giang University is supporting farmers to expand to year 2020 target of 500ha. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development also advocated, from now to 2020, to divert 200,000 ha of rice to other crops, meaning that it would break many embankments protecting the third rice crops.

An Expert- Nguyen Huu Thien paid attention to the issues caused by hydropower dams in the upstream Mekong River. His view was consistent with many scientists and managers at the moment, protecting the Mekong River needs the cooperation and sharing of responsibilities amongst countries with the river passing by. “If the Mekong River was lost, the MRD would lose too”, Mr. Thien concluded.

 

 (Photos by Sau Nghe. Lead photo by The Mekong Eye)


 

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