CAN THO, Vietnam — Overloaded trucks barrel down the National Highway from Can Tho, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city and the largest city in the southern Mekong Delta, rumbling past industrial campuses and export-processing zones, kicking up dust from a newly landscaped Chinese paper and pulp mill. Across the road, the delta’s dense jungle and mangroves spill over its banks.
For generations rice farmers harvesting their shining emerald paddies have relied on the Lower Mekong’s thousands of river arteries to water their crop, but today a perfect storm is building, one that is challenging their livelihoods. Nguyen Hien Thien, a 61-year-old rice farmer, summarizes the problem succinctly in a loud voice: “Too much water and, more often, too little.” The unpredictability of the rains, coupled with an alarming rise in pollution levels, is transforming life here.
The delta formed by the Mekong River rises on the Tibetan plateau and flows 2,600 miles before dividing into the Cuu Long (“Nine-tailed Dragon”) and then spills into the South China Sea. Despite the abundance of water that could supply the area, the delta’s network of rice paddies, marshes and canals is dramatically impeded either by too much water in the flood season or too little during the low flow. An agricultural wonder, the Mekong Delta produces half of Vietnam’s rice, but now faces growing environmental challenges.
Upstream dams built by China are a prime culprit, though changing weather, saltwater intrusion, biodiversity depletion, rising sea levels and industrial pollution are all contributing to the mortal threat to the ecology of the delta, historically the fertile rice bowl for over 20 million people in southern Vietnam and a major contributor to the country’s vast rice export business, which now holds a fifth of the total world export market.
The delta, a low-level plain less than 10 feet above sea level, is crisscrossed by canals and river systems where boats, homes and floating markets coexist. Some families still recall that South Vietnam’s delta proved to be a final quagmire for Vietnamese and Americans who fought and died there.
Hai Thach, a tired-looking 65-year-old farmer, watches like a sentinel as the salinity of the water on his land rises — land he has cultivated since he was a boy for rice, coconuts, oranges and mandarins. For Mr. Thach and an increasing number of residents, the search for usable fresh water often means a half-day journey upstream to collect enough for drinking, washing and cooking.
The balance of river and sea in the delta is dramatically shifting. A drought earlier this year devastated food supplies, fueling the rancorous debate on China’s upstream activities that include six hydropower dams upstream. The dams are not only preventing the flood waters from reaching Vietnam’s lower Mekong Delta, but also hold back the flow of sediment that enriches the soil and provides food for fish.
An increasing number of scientists and environmentalists, along with some youth groups, see a direct linkage between China’s hijacking of the flow of the Mekong River and the interruption of the natural cycle that feeds the ecosystems. Beijing’s water diplomacy program is flawed since China’s dams weaken the river’s flow and allow seawater to intrude farther upstream.
Beyond the dams, dramatically shifting weather patterns also pose a threat.
“Climate change will be the most significant environmental impact in the future,” said Mekong Delta ecologist Nguyen Huu Thien. “Flood and inundation are increasing frequency and magnitude, following sea water intrusion with high tide, contaminated soil, sea-level rise, seasonal tropical storms [increasing] as a result.”
The World Bank, the Vietnamese government and private enterprises are teaming up on a nearly $400 million program to aid nine provinces dealing with extreme weather patterns and the problems posed by the Chinese dams. Vietnamese government planners now project that about 45 percent of the Mekong Delta will be affected by saltwater intrusion by 2030 if hydropower dams and reservoirs continue to stop water from flowing downstream.
Long coastline, rising seas
With its 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam presents a major environmental and food security challenge, especially in the Mekong River Delta, where 22 percent of the population lives. Rising seas are inundating low-lying regions, especially in the delta.
At the height of the drought, the Mekong River Commission appealed for an emergency release of water from China’s upstream Jinghong Dam in Yunnan Province. While this action was praised, it only serves to underscore the control that Beijing exerts over the Mekong, the 12th-largest river in the world, against a backdrop of traditionally suspicious relations between Beijing and Hanoi.
Can Tho University research scientists say they are deeply concerned about environmental risks posed by a string of new major dams on the drawing board for the river. Ecologist Mr. Thien observed, “The hydropower dams in the upper Mekong River are sinking and shrinking the delta.”
Hydropower projects alter natural flow patterns and disrupt fisheries and other ecosystems. The network of dikes built by the government seems to also permanently alter the way nature accommodates the water supply in flood and dry seasons.
A two-year Mekong Delta study commissioned by Vietnam on the impact of Mekong dams was roundly criticized as offering too much technical modeling and failing to connect to the real fears and perspectives of rice farmers and fishers. As a result, some younger researchers joined with local activists to create a new NGO to highlight the dangers facing the region’s livelihood.
Nguyen Minh Quang, a 29-year-old Can Tho University geography lecturer, wants to establish an independent organization to encourage more young people from Can Tho and from other countries in the region to immerse themselves into the daily lives of rice farmers and aquaculture communities to promote sustainable agricultural and development practices.
“Of course, local social media users are now actively participating in the discussion of the pressing and serious delta environmental issues, and this includes everything from the upstream dams to pollution associated with the industrialization in the region,” said Mr. Quang.
The $1.2 billion Chinese-owned Lee & Man paper and pulp mill complex is located beside the Hau River, one of the most important waterways in the Mekong Delta. Despite concerns about the plant’s wastewater treatment of concentrated toxic chemicals, it is still scheduled to open before the end of the year.
The country is still reeling from this spring’s Formosa Steel Plant disaster, in which a Taiwanese-owned mill released toxic chemicals from untreated wastewater into a deep-water port in Ha Tinh province. The April spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and hurt the livelihoods of some 200,000 people in four provinces affected by the spill.
Just this week, Radio Free Asia reported on a public protest by some 2,000 fishermen from Quang Binh, complaining that the government was moving too slowly to distribute the $500 million compensation fund that steel mill owners had provided. Such public protests are rare and underscore the popular fury with environmental disasters.
After the Formosa steel plant disaster on Vietnam’s central coast, authorities have been pressured to call for another environmental assessment impact on the newly built paper and pulp mill on the Hau River. Even the powerful Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers urged an assessment on the plant’s potential impact on the Hau.
The total area of the Lee & Man paper and pulp mill stretches more than 247 acres, and over 610 families had to be relocated. Local water authorities lack knowledge or are untrained to address sensitive environmental issues like effluent wastewater, critics say. Last week the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment requested that the pulp mill halt its operations due to public concerns over its environmental impact.