Mekong Eye

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Dramatic Photos Show How Sand Mining Threatens a Way of Life in Southeast Asia

In towns and villages all along the Mekong River and many other rivers around the country, banks undermined by dredging are collapsing into the water, taking with them farm fields, fish ponds, shops, and homes.

By Vince Beiser

An Giang, March 16, 2018

National Geographic

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.


Top: Ha Thi Be and her two grandsons stand in the ruins of her ancestral home along the Tien River in Dong Thap Province. The government warned her to relocate inland to live with her son in January 2017, two months before the house eventually collapsed. “But everything I own was in this house, and now everything is gone,” she said.

Bottom: In July 2017, Ba Tu, 72, returned to what’s left of her house in Nha Be, a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City. Four days earlier, part of the house had fallen into the river. Ba Tu was home with her daughter-in-law when it happened, but both women escaped injury.

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