By Luke Duggleby
Mekong Delta, September 17, 2018
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is one of the world’s most at-risk areas from the effects of climate change, posing challenges both for its environment and population in years to come.
Local communities are affected by rising sea levels and the intrusion of salinity into farmland. More than half of Vietnam’s rice production, 70% of its aquaculture and one third of its GDP are generated in the Delta, which is home to 20 million people. Increasing salinization, an upsurge in global temperatures causing droughts and floods in the Mekong region, erratic seasonal weather variations, the destruction of coastal mangrove forests and the reduced flow of the Mekong River (a consequence of upriver dam projects) – poses significant threats to the future of Vietnam’s rice basket.
While long-term approaches and large foreign-funded implementation projects garner most of the spotlight, Vietnamese experts are leading the way in research and solutions at the local level.
Dr. Duong Van Ni from Can Tho University is one of those experts. To help both agricultural and shrimp farmers, he has developed a handheld plastic device that allows farmers to test salinity in the water before it reaches their rice paddy and shrimp ponds.
The simple instrument contains a small float. If this float rises to the top when water is poured into the device, its salt content is too high and could destroy their crop. If the float sinks, the water is safe. The farmers use text messages to relay their findings to a central database at at the university where the information is collected and used to warn other farmers in the area. Over the years this system has created a vital data set on the salinity of the Mekong Delta and has helped map the region’s worst affected areas.
In the past salty water seldom intruded more than 20 kilometers inland. But with rising sea levels research now suggests it is encroaching on average 80 kilometers. This is creating serious challenges for those living off the land. Countless people in the region have lost significant chunks of arable land or have become victims of powerful typhoons.
Dr. Ni isn’t the only one concerned enough to focus on trying to help with mitigation of and adaptation to environmental changes. Others work tirelessly to stress the Delta’s importance and to find out what needs to be done to protect it.
A farmer called Ho The Kieu rounds up her ducks to return them to their pen further down the canal. After local, small scale chicken farming was almost totally wiped out because of cheaper factory-reared chicken many farmers turned to duck farming in the Delta. The farming of ducks requires large areas of open land and attempts to factory rear ducks have not been successful.
A Vietnamese man cleans his teeth on his house boat that is moored on a river in the middle of Can Tho. From his boat, he sells fruit and vegetables during the morning floating market of Cai Rang. For centuries, the population of the Mekong Delta have adapted to life on the water due to the lack of roads and bridges. Whilst that is changing quickly today, it hasn’t disappeared entirely and can still be seen along most waterways.
Women workers spread out fish to dry in the sun at the Vinh Nghi factory at the edge of Song Doc town. The factory dries 60 tons of fish every-day and employs 140 workers. Sandwiched between the Song Doc River and the Gulf of Thailand, this bustling town of 50,000 people relies heavily on the fishing industry. Virtually all of these dried fish prepared at this factory will be exported to China.
At a morning market in central Can Tho, a lady lays out her produce for sale that ranges from squid, shrimp to fish. Seafood is vital to the people of the Delta in almost every way, from consumption to livelihood. But because of this enormous consumption the waterways and surrounding sea struggle to produce enough.
A local fisherman called Loi, 58, sits in his boat below a newly constructed bridge that crosses the outskirts of Can Tho city. He has been a fisherman all his life but admits that compared to ten years ago, he catches half the amount of fish as before and now only making around US$2-3/day on fish. Because of the depleted fish numbers in these rivers he doesn’t want his children to do the same job and encouraged them to work in a factory instead.
Foreign tourists take photographs of the activities at Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho city. Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta but due to improved infrastructure in the form of roads and bridges the market is slowly declining as vendors prefer the speed and availability of roads. Now tourist boats almost out-number the house boats selling vegetables and fruit.
A newly developed river side area provides locals and tourists with brightly coloured neon lighting and sky-scraper backdrops. Can Tho is the largest city in the Delta and the fifth largest in Vietnam with a population of approximately 1.5m. Whilst hydro-power dams further up the River Mekong in Cambodia, Laos and China provide electricity for its neighbours, Vietnam is hoping to build 14 coal powered power plants in the Delta itself to satisfy its growing demand for electricity but will undoubtedly have a devastating effect on the environment.
Dr Duong Van Ni explains to students at the College of environment & Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University how his salinity test works. Several years ago Dr Ni and his team created this simple test kit that would help farmers test the salinity of the water before irrigating their rice fields or shrimp farms. Due to the reduced flow of the Mekong Delta and increased sea level of the ocean due to Climate Change increased salinity is a growing problem in the delta.
An area of rice paddy which tests the growth of various strains of rice at the College of Rural Development of Can Tho University. After the Vietnam War this area was completely destroyed by bombing. With very little vegetation remaining, the contaminated and extremely acidic soil meant that nothing could grow anymore. But after years of work and research by Dr Ni and his team the area was finally returned to its natural state.
Dr Duong Van Ni shows a farmer called Ho The Kieu how to use the salinity test kit on the water surrounding her rice fields. The weight dropping to the bottom indicates that the salinity levels of her water are not high and will not damage her rice fields.
Dr Duong Van Ni and his field assistant Ly Van Loi (left) chat with the family of farmer Ho The Kieu (facing camera) in their family home. Living within the grounds of the College of Rural Development of Can Tho University this family is regularly visited by Dr Ni and his team to enquire as to the current issues facing their crops.
During his decades of work he had visited thousands of families across the Delta to gain knowledge as to each of their individual farming issues.
A man called Ly Tinh, 39, from the ethnic Khmer community uses a wooden ‘sleigh’, or ‘mong’ in local dialect, to glide over the deep mud remaining in this mangrove forest once the tide has retreated. The fishermen have used this method for over 50 years to reach their fishing nets out at sea.
Two men check their nets at dawn on Thi Tuong Lagoon in Ca Mau Province. 2km wide and over 10km long it is the largest natural lagoon in the Delta and is home to hundreds of households who for generations have completely relied on the lagoon’s marine resources for their subsistence. But now, everything has been changing rapidly.
Firstly, the visible rises in sea level and temperature have caused changes in the lagoon’s natural flooding process. Normally, the lagoon is influenced by daily tidal effects and during the high tide adult marine life like fish and crabs from the sea migrate to hunt in lagoon. But during the low tide, larvae and juveniles are born and grown making it a perfect sanctuary for many marine species. However, in recent years, local farmers have witnessed more frequent flooding in the lagoon meaning that the high tide is increasingly high, leaving little space for a tidal mud flat where baby shrimp and crab can grow.
At a local restaurant surrounded by mangrove forest a poster promotes a new large development project in the area. Projects such as this have meant that large areas of mangrove forests have been destroyed leading to an increase in coastal erosion.
At an evening food market in Can Tho city, customers arrive on motorbikes to buy freshly made food. This growing affluence in the Delta has led to an increase in the demand for electricity which in turn has led to ill-conceived development projects to try to meet that demand, ultimately putting increasing pressure on the natural environment.
Dr Duong Van Ni talks to students at the College of Environment & Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University about the local wildlife that has been lost in the Delta. Many species endemic to the Delta are now critically endangered mostly due to habitat loss and Dr Ni and his department are trying to protect them. “A species is symbolic of the problems of the Mekong Delta and the need for habitat restoration: The otter, whose natural habitat is the river. Water needs to flow and the Mekong changes direction, allowing otters to feed on fish. Otters are a good indication of the good health of the river, if they breed, there is enough fish.” Said Dr Ni.
A stuffed wild cat, now critically endangered occupies a classroom at the College of environment & Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University. This department of Can Tho University is researched and implementing projects to help protect certain species from extinction.
Wild egrets for sale at a roadside stall running through Ca Mau province. Such extensive farming practises in the Mekong Delta has led to a huge decline in wildlife due to habitat loss and other human activities.
Ex-rice farmer Nguyen Tuyet Khanh sits in the main room of her house. She has been physically disabled since she was 3 years old which has made life as a farmer exceedingly difficult. Life was also made harder due to an increased salinity of her land which led to the rice crops failing. As a result, she switched to a type of water reed that grows well in brackish water and which can be dried and woven in to mats for extra income. At present, she is able to weave two matts a day and makes around US$1 profit per day from selling them. But even now the reed is becoming more fragile due to too much rain and she is unable to harvest the reed in the rainy season anymore.
Ex-rice farmer Nguyen Van Trong (right) shows Dr Duong Van Ni his reed fields which he began to grow after his rice crop failed due to an increasing salinity of the water. This type of water reed grows well in brackish water reed is much more resistant to salinisation and diseases and can be dried and woven in to mats for extra income.
Inside the house of Nguyen Tuyet Khanh, her two children weave dried reeds in to mats. Reed weaving is a traditional skill passed by Vietnamese women from generation to generation. Dr Ni’s strategy is to help farmers find solutions themselves, adapting to the changing environment using what they already know. He believes that the collaboration between researchers and farmers is vital to provide long-term solutions.
A Government built canal used to re-direct water and assist during times of flooding. Whilst some of these man-made canals work, others often lead to other issues like the draining of water from areas and increased flooding in certain parts.
A shrimp farmer raises a net to look at the size of his shrimp on his farm in Vinh Chau district of Soc Trang province. He was previously a rice farmer but an increased salinity of his land forced him to change from rice to harvest shrimp. But shrimp farms have their own issues related to the changing temperature and salinity of the water from too much rain and the over-use of antibiotics and chemicals to increase yields that in turn pollutes surrounding waterways.
Shrimp farmed in the Mekong Delta are served to customers of a restaurant. The demand for shrimp is huge with much of what is produced being exported. This demand has meant that an increasing number of farmers have started to use anti-biotics to increase the health of the shrimp in their farms. But this over-use of chemicals has led to serious environmental impacts on the surrounding environment.
Shrimp farmer Ly Sa Luong sits in his small shack next to his ponds. After several years of experimentation and failed crops he began to farm tiger shrimps which are more resistant to changes in water. But he still struggles and last year he was forced to leave his farm to work in a factory to be able to buy enough rice for his family. He was one of the first farmers to have used Dr Ni’s salinity test and regularly sends salinity results back to Dr Ni at the University in Can Tho.
Water dykes, recently increased in height and size by the adding of additional mud, line the water ways of the remote area on Ca Mau Province. A Government project that dredges the canal placing the mud at the side for which the local communities can use to further protect their land and homes.
The remains of mangrove trees pierce the sandy coastline of Ho Be beach in southern Soc Trang Province. Mangroves are a natural barrier, protecting the coastline from the ocean’s force. With the mangroves gone, coastal erosion leads to extensive coastal erosion and increased salinity inland. Only a decade ago the mangrove forest here reached to the edge of the sticks in the sea.
Nguyen Thi Chep, 70, sits in her house with her daughter Than Thi Ut. Both her husband and son were killed when Typhoon Linda devastated Southern Vietnam in 1997 but only the body of her 13 years old son was retrieved, her husband’s body was never found. Believed to be the worst typhoon in at least one hundred years to hit Vietnam, thousands were killed and huge areas completely destroyed. Her family were fisherman living in Song Doc town that is one of the most remote communities in the Delta. After the Typhoon hit Red Cross workers had to travel by riverboat to bring aid to the 150,000 most affected people, due to the lack of roads. With increasingly erratic weather patterns due to climate change, tropical storms are becoming much more frequent and unpredictable in Southeast Asia.
Nguyen Van Chien, 50, sits on his stilted house in the middle of Thi Tuong Lagoon with his trusted guard dog. With the quantity of fish caught in the lake reduced by 3x in the last decade but invested in growing clams. They can be harvested only once a year because the gestation period lasts 9 to 10 months but he can sell them for approximately US$35/kg for large ones and US25/kg for smaller ones.One of the main reasons he says is responsible for the reduced fish stocks is the fertiliser run-off from nearby shrimp farms that pollutes the lake.
A shrimp fisherman brings in his nightly catch to a buyer in the busy harbour. Sandwiched between the Song Doc River and the Gulf of Thailand, this bustling town of 50,000 people relies heavily on the fishing industry and is reported as having a fishing fleet of more than 3000 ships, over 20,000 fishermen and an annual aquatic animal turnover of more than 100,000 tonnes.
Workers unload a large barge ladder to the brim with wooden poles. Transported by river to Can Tho city the poles are sold for use mainly construction. Whilst roads have replaced a lot of river transportation, for larger cargos such as this the river is still the easiest and most economical way.
Truong Minh Thnan, 36, stands in part of his family house in Nam Can town which has collapsed in to the Kinh Tac River. His family-run business manufacturers coffins and they use the river to transport the heavy wooden coffins to customers. He said the problem of erosion began in 2006 and severely affects 47 communities in this district alone. Despite laying a foundation of two meters of cement under his house and placing steel-reinforced cement supports 30 meters down, it is still unstable.
A view of Ho Chi Minh at dusk showing the rapid urbanisation of the city. In the foreground lies a water-logged construction site that will soon become a condominium. It is Vietnam’s most populated city of approximately 12 million people and sits at an altitude of little over 10 meters above sea level and is surrounded by rivers. With climate change causing sea levels to rise Ho Chi Minh and the Delta to its Southwest could be at serious risk in the future.