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Erosion puts Mekong Delta future in doubt

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Tran Quang Vinh spent 15 years building his rice processing business in An Giang Province. Then one day in May this year riverine erosion came and took almost everything away.

Regular and more severe erosions have made life in the Mekong Delta uncertain, with businesses struggling to adapt and communities desperate to find new livelihoods.

Vinh, 59, visited Cho Moi District in An Giang in 2008 to scout for a location for his rice mill, and found a place he believed would be safe from the erosion that occurred along the delta’s innumerable waterways during the rainy season.

The location he chose was on a floodplain dozens of meters away from the bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong.

Soon he leveled the ground and built the mill and also planted trees and built concrete embankments to protect against erosion.

Everything went as planned for the next 12 years before the river flow became increasingly unpredictable, and erosion started to eat away the floodplain bit by bit.

In the last three years An Giang has become one of the areas with the highest risk of erosion in the Mekong Delta. To protect his mill, Vinh built three rows of embankments 160 m long, one each from melaleuca poles, coconut tree trunks and concrete, at a cost of more than 10 billion (US$421,000).

This year, soon after Lunar New Year in late January, when the delta had just entered the dry season, Vinh heard that the commune across the river had lost thousands of fish farms to erosion.

His melaleuca embankment was also showing signs of getting eroded.

He immediately hired people to check the riverbank near his mill, but told himself he had calculated all the possible risks.

Until the erosion in May he continued to believe that.

“Nobody could think the riverbank would be eroded so much.”

That day in mid-May he watched helplessly as the three layers of embankment he had built meticulously broke into pieces.

The erosion damaged half of his warehouse of 1,300 sq.m and sent a worker dormitory with three rooms plunging into the river.

There was no choice for him but to suspend work and reconcile himself to the loss.

The mill was among 136 buildings, mostly houses, that were either damaged or destroyed by erosion in the delta in the last six months alone.

So far this year there have been 145 instances of erosion that caused losses of more than VND30 billion including 1.7 km of embankment and 1.5 km of roads.

Even before the rainy season – between late May and November – arrived this year, the five provinces of Long An, An Giang, Dong Thap, Vinh Long, and Bac Lieu declared an emergency after erosion devastated 10 areas along the coast and rivers.

After the May incident, erosion kept chipping away at the riverbank piece by piece, and Vinh could not tell if he would lose the entire mill one day as cracks started appearing in its foundation.

More than 200 km downstream, Truong Phuc Fisheries Co. Ltd in Bac Lieu Province faced the same situation.

“In the past six years we have suffered twice from erosion,” its deputy director Hua Hong An said while cleaning up debris at the start of the rainy season in early June.

In the first seven months of this year the incidence of erosion in Bac Lieu doubled from the same period last year, destroying 119 houses and damaging thousands of hectares of fish farms.

A native of Bac Lieu and a fisherman for 37 years, he said in the 1990s the floodplains near his home were large enough for him and other boys in the neighborhood to play football as the river flowed by gently.

Now the floodplains are gone, and the river is twice as wide and much more aggressive.

When An bought the land to build his factory, he carefully built an embankment nearly 50 m away from the riverbank, but erosion that occurred on June 9 swallowed the entire embankment and the factory’s wall.

Vinh and An are typical of businesspeople in the Mekong Delta who are struggling to cope with the vagaries of nature. Despite spending huge amounts of money on building embankments, they could not protect their properties from the lurking danger.

“Doing business in the Mekong Delta is difficult in every way, and there is no way for us to escape erosion,” said Vinh of the An Giang’s rice mill.

He said despite the dense network of waterways, it is not easy to transport goods in the delta. Those who want to trade by using large ships need to build factories and warehouses along rivers, which makes erosion a constant hazard.

The delta has a waterway network of almost 28,000 km in total but infrastructure is not a given along its rivers. Besides, if heavily loaded ships ply frequently, it becomes a threat to the embankment system and a possible cause of even more erosion.

Since 1992 the region has lost 300-600 hectares of riverine land each year to erosion.

Excessive sand mining is one of the main culprits, but others like industrial-scale agriculture and aquaculture leading to the destruction of vast areas of mangroves and the climate change have also contributed, according to experts.

In the last 10 years the government has spent $694 million on anti-erosion projects in the delta.

It now has nearly 600 riverine and coastal spots measuring a total of 834 km where erosion has played havoc.

Ironically, the water flow has declined in recent years with scientists and environmentalists pointing to the impacts of upstream dams.

They said the lack of sediments would be felt severely in future when all 11 dams being built by China in the upstream area are completed.

Until around 15 years ago the Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, used to carry 143 million tons of sediments to the delta every year, but by 2020 only about a third of that was reaching the Vietnamese floodplains.

At the current rate of decline, less than five million tons of sediment would be reaching the delta each year by 2040, newswire Reuters quoted a study of satellite data by a German aquatic remote sensing company as saying.

Moving out

While businesses struggle to find a way to live with erosion, many communities who have spent all their lives along the waterways are now drifting, struggling to find livelihoods as a hungry Mekong keeps swallowing up its banks.

In an old house close to the Cai Vung Canal, a branch of the Tien River, in An Giang, Nguyen Van Thom, 45, looks carefully at the cracks on the wall to distinguish which ones have just appeared and which have been there for long.

His family had saved for 20 years to acquire the 100 sq.m house, but it is now abandoned since it is no longer safe to live in.

Fishing has been the main livelihood for generations of Thom’s family, but over time it has become more and more difficult to catch fish.

While growing up he would simply drop a net to catch an abundance of fish, but as an adult there were days when he returned home with an empty net.

As the decline continued, Thom switched from fishing to transportation, and earned a living by loading and transporting rice for farmers in his wooden boat.

In 2007 his family had to relocate as erosion along the Cai Vung Canal became dangerous and unpredictable. Despite the fact they had invested sweat and blood in the house, they had no choice but to leave.

After moving into a new house two kilometers away, Thom had to quit the rice transport job and turn to selling ceramic products.

His brother has left their hometown to find work in HCMC, but Thom does not know what the future holds for himself and the rest of the family.

Thom is just one of millions in the delta who are not sure where to live in future and how to make a living.

An estimated 500,000 households need to be relocated to safety from erosion-prone areas, but since 2015 only around 4% of them have been moved out at a cost of VND1.773 trillion.

Relocating entire populations facing the threat of erosion is difficult for provinces due to a lack of financial resources, land and the need to create new livelihoods for them, especially with the number of dangerous spots increasing steadily.

For instance, An Giang Province has been asking the central government for VND1.4 trillion for years now to resettle 5,300 families.

It estimates that in future some 20,000 households will need to be relocated at a cost of VND7 trillion, which is equivalent to its total revenues last year.

For more than four years Tran Anh Thu, as vice president in charge of agriculture of An Giang has gotten used to declaring a state of emergency every time the rainy season comes.

“The number of eroded spots and the scale of erosion has increased dramatically compared to 20 years ago, and it is spreading to smaller canals, along which many people live, and the damage is worsening day by day,” he said.

Erosion is the final and most visible manifestation of an earlier destructive process of lack of alluvium.

The delta shoulders the responsibility of ensuring food security for the whole country, accounting for 50% of its rice output and 70% of fisheries produce, but the “rice bowl” is becoming increasingly empty.

“In a large river basin like the Mekong, everything is interconnected,” Marc Goichot, WWF’s Asia-Pacific freshwater lead, said.

“Loss in this area could affect many other areas.”

He said all economic sectors are more or less dependent on rivers and the reduction of silt, sand and gravel in riverbeds would cause riverbank erosion, leading to loss of lands and collapse of houses and infrastructure.

The 2020 and 2022 annual reports on the Mekong Delta by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) and the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management said three decades since doi moi, the reform process that has allowed Vietnam to make great economic progress, the economic role of the Mekong Delta has been gradually decreasing and is currently the least significant among four key economic regions.

The other three are the northern, southeastern and central regions.

In 1990 the size of the Ho Chi Minh City economy was only two-thirds of the delta’s.

Within two decades that ratio reversed despite the fact that the delta has vastly more resources.

The delta attracts the lowest foreign investment of any region in the country.

Public investment allocated for the region has been low for years, especially for the construction of transport infrastructure.

With its lack of expressways and bridges, the delta remains unattractive to investors.

Struggling to adapt to natural disasters and dealing with a lack of investment, the delta had just 3.53 companies per 1,000 people of working age in 2021 compared to the national average ratio of 8.32.

“The only way for the people and businesses to adapt to climate change and natural disasters is to address the core problem that is causing the delta’s decline in resilience,” Goichot said, emphasizing the importance of sand in rivers and coasts in protecting the delta from climate change threats.

How to adapt is the question that Vinh has been asking himself for years.

Now more than three months since the erosion his mill remains closed.

It is now the rainy season in the delta and the flood season will come soon after that, which means he cannot build a new embankment now and has to wait until the next dry season.

Moving the entire mill to another location is not an option either.

“All we can do now is to wait and hope for the river to become less fierce.”

By Hoang Nam & Thu Hang & Ngoc Tai – – September 6, 2023

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