The Mekong Delta: an unsettling portrait of coastal collapse

Some environmental disasters present themselves over years; others come with a bang — or a splash. The latter happened one day in August, when residents of Binh My, a commune in Vietnam’s lush Mekong Delta, heard a loud cracking sound. They went outside to watch a 30-metre-long chunk of the highway that runs alongside their houses collapse into the river as the asphalt gave way.  One of Asia’s biggest wetlands is subsiding into the sea, the result in part of rising sea levels created by climate change.  But when asked what caused the collapse, a local farmer who gave his name as Bo points to a crane mounted on a boat mid-river — about a kilometre away — that is mining sand. “They are making the bed of the river deeper and deeper,” he says, miming a scooping action. Researchers monitoring the Mekong say a crisis that has been building on the river for years has turned into a full-blown emergency in recent months. They blame two man-made phenomena: the mining of sand from the riverbed and the building of new dams upriver in Laos and China that are altering the river’s flow, sediment content and even its colour.

Mining boats are everywhere in the delta. Sand is in brisk demand for the concrete needed to build Ho Chi Minh City’s high rises and for land reclamation across the sea in Singapore. Yet all the activity masks the growing cost of sand mining, a globally buoyant but deeply opaque and minimally regulated trade. What’s at risk is not an untrammelled eco-paradise, but an economically vital, densely populated region that the Vietnamese call their “rice bowl”. Equivalent in size and population to the Netherlands, the delta is the garden of Ho Chi Minh City and the country’s biggest inland fishery — a leading source of shellfish, fish and fruit.  The first dams of 11 planned on the mainstream of the lower Mekong are beginning operations, a development scientists say will change the river forever. Hundreds of kilometres upriver in Laos, two of these came into commission last year, blocking sediment that used to be nature’s way of replenishing the sand that the mining boats dredged.  “It’s like your house: when it’s eroded in the foundations, your house collapses,” says Duong Van Ni, chief executive of the Wetland University Network, a group of researchers who have tracked the delta with growing alarm.  For a world where the loss of coastal communities is a rising concern, the region offers an unsettling portrait of a future present. Villagers in Binh My told the Financial Times they had been told to move their furniture out of their houses and be prepared to evacuate at short notice.

In Thailand to the north, people who live alongside the river say its level has dropped sharply and the normally brown water has turned blue since the Xayaburi dam in Laos began operating in October. Ecologists call this “hungry water” because it moves faster and causes greater erosion.  Just as neighbouring China has discovered in the past two decades, economic lift-off is often accompanied by environmental harm. Last month Vietnam agreed to import more electricity generated by the dams Laos has built in order to sustain an economy growing at a rate of 7 per cent — one of the fastest in Asia. Yet the country is paying with rising levels of pollution, resource exploitation and unchecked development. “Most companies think they aren’t dependent on the river, but if you lose fisheries, then food prices go up and wages go up,” says Marc Goichot of WWF Greater Mekong in Ho Chi Minh City. “It’s reputational risk if you put communities at risk, and regulatory risk if you don’t account for the scarcity of water or sand.” He adds: “It’s all business risk.”



John Reed, Can Tho, Vietnam

The Financial Express. Bangladesh. 07-01-2020