By Vince Beiser
An Giang, March 16, 2018
One afternoon last year, Ha Thi Be, 67, was sitting with her son in her tiny coffee shop in the town of Hong Ngu, looking out on the lazy Tien River, the main branch of the Mekong in Vietnam. Suddenly, the ground beneath them gave way. The river bank was crumbling into the water. “We shouted out loud and ran,” she says. “It crashed with a huge sound, boom, boom, boom.”
Be and her son escaped unharmed, but the coffee shop and her nearby house were destroyed. “It took all of what we owned to build the house, and now it’s all gone,” she sighs. Still, Be counts herself lucky. “If it had happened at night, I and my grandsons would have died. We used to sleep in that house,” she says.
The main causes of the collapse can be seen floating in many places on the Tien’s murky waters: dredging boats, using rackety pumps to raise from the river bed enormous quantities of sand. In recent years, that humble substance has become an astonishingly hot commodity. Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, the essential building material of Vietnam’s fast-growing cities. Demand for it is surging—and that is wreaking havoc not only on Vietnam’s rivers, but also on the all-important Mekong Delta.