June 2012

Tran Minh Luan

As our small, dilapidated, single-engine boat makes its way slowly down a tributary of the Mekong Delta in humid southern Vietnam, the vessel’s owner and captain, Tran Minh Luan, explains the developments he has witnessed over the past few decades. ‘The water levels are a little bit higher each season, but it’s the rising salt water that is really messing with people’s livelihoods and crops,’ the 59-year-old tells me, a cigarette in one hand, the boat’s wheel in the other, as we crawl down the coastline towards the delta’s mouth.

‘Now this river is salty four or five months a year. Ten years ago, the salt reached here, now I’ve heard it’s reaching all the way to Lach,’ he says, referring to a town 32 kilometres farther inland. In fact, according to the local department of agriculture and rural development, salt water at four parts per 1,000 has, as of April this year, reached 55 kilometres inland, causing significant damage to crops and livestock, with rice production particularly affected.

Luan has spent his whole life working on the delta’s soupy rivers, ferrying people, fertiliser, toilet paper, vegetables and anything else that’s needed from the upstream markets to towns and villages spread throughout the low-lying region. Over time, he has seen the gradual but disturbing changes that initially would have only been visible to those intimately involved on a day-to-day basis but are now becoming obvious to all: that the delta region and its population are under serious threat from the repercussions of our changing global climate.

LIVELIHOODS AT RISK

At present, the Mekong Delta is home to more than 17 million Vietnamese, mostly peasants and farmers who rely on its thousands of river arteries to irrigate their land and produce almost half of the country’s rice, as well as much of its fruit and other agricultural products. With sea levels rising, however, the salt content of the river water is increasing steadily, threatening the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and fishermen, many of whom could be forced from their land in the coming decades.

According to the World Bank, Vietnam holds the unwelcome distinction of being one of the two countries most vulnerable to a one-metre rise in sea levels (the other is the Bahamas). ‘If there was a one-metre rise in sea level, we estimate that 40 per cent of the delta would be submerged,’ says Tran Thuc, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. ‘There is also the threat of cyclones and storms linked to climate change. The people in this area aren’t prepared for any of this.’

In the coastal regions of the Mekong, the implications of future sea-level rises are already a reality. ‘The water near here is like the sea water,’ says Vo Thi Than, who lives on the small river island of Cu lao Oc, 16 kilometres from the mouth of the delta. ‘I have to travel five hours upstream by boat to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking.’

One of thousands of agriculturally focused islands in the delta, Cu lao Oc is a swampy, tree-covered jut of land, home to about 6,000 fruit farmers and coconut growers. It’s a peaceful but basic place to live. Small dirt paths just wide enough for motorbikes criss-cross the island’s one-and-a-half-kilometre width, and residents live in simple wooden houses with coconut-leaf roofs, reached via thin footbridges created from the trunks of coconut trees.

Than, a welcoming, sun-worn 60-year-old, owns a few acres of waterlogged fruit trees near the island’s outer shore and runs a small dockside noodle restaurant to bring in extra income. ‘I go to collect water myself every week because I can’t afford the prices charged by those who now travel down the river selling fresh water from upstream,’ she says. The price, she tells me, has now reached VND 350,000 (£10.30) for a large barrel.

In the past, this time-consuming journey was a rare occurrence; for most of the year, the river water was usable for irrigation, cleaning and, when boiled, cooking and drinking. Now, the increased salt content means that this is no longer the case. ‘A long time ago, there was no salty season at all. Now, five months a year, the water is salty,’ she says.

Of more serious concern for Than and her neighbours is the effect that the increased salinity is having on the crops on which most of the island’s residents rely for their livelihood. ‘We grow oranges, mandarins, lemons and coconuts, but these trees can’t survive if it’s salt water only,’ she says. ‘During salty seasons, the trees bear fewer fruit and smaller fruits, and if there was only the salt season, nothing would grow.’ As she shows me around her small plot of fruit trees, she cuts the top off a coconut and hands it to me to drink, apologising as she does for the taste. ‘With coconuts from this island, you can now taste the salt within,’ she says.

CLIMATE CHANGE HOTSPOT

The day before, I had arrived in the large market city of Ben Tre, one of the gateways to the delta, following a five-hour bus ride from the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. The province around the city, also called Ben Tre, is expected to be the worst hit by the changing climate, with more than half of its total land area – about 1,820 square kilometres – and up to 750,000 people affected, with that number rising sharply if storm surges and cyclones are taken into account.

The city’s dock was crowded, despite the blazing afternoon heat, as locals loaded and unloaded boats laden with rice and other supplies coming into and out of the area known as the rice bowl of Vietnam. The nearby market was also in full swing, filled with colourful and exotic fruits, as well as endless containers of rice for sale.

‘The government tells us that there are three grams of salt per litre of fresh water in the rivers now,’ I was told by Nguyen Thi Lim Lien, 40, a trader sitting amid buckets of rice in the market. ‘Gradually, more and more people are affected. Those nearest the sea are the most affected now, but soon the whole province will be hit.’

‘Every year, there is flooding of salt water,’ said fruit seller Duong Thi Le, 41, squatting nearby. ‘Almost every year, some places in the Mekong have crops destroyed by saltwater flooding.

‘Bananas regularly fall off the tree early because it’s too salty, and sometimes people have to eat the banana trees themselves for sustenance,’ she continued. ‘But even if it rose one metre in 2012, it still wouldn’t be a huge problem for us since we are far from the sea.’

ENFORCED ADAPTATION

As I travel down the coast, however, the stark reality of the situation for local farmers becomes apparent, even if the effects are more pronounced in the areas closer to the sea. ‘Rising sea waters will require drastic changes in lifestyles for all of the people in the Mekong,’ says Dao Xuan Lai, head of sustainable development at the UN Development Programme in Vietnam. ‘People close to the river banks and river mouths have already had to find different ways to make a living, but more and more people will need to switch crops and innovate.’

In the area around the dusty town of Ba Tri, near one mouth of the delta, the salination of the water has forced many to abandon rice cultivation and risk their livelihoods on other ventures, mostly farming shrimp, which thrive in saltier water.

Pham Van Bo

Twenty-seven-year-old Pham Van Bo is still able to plant rice on half his land thanks to an earth embankment constructed by the government four years ago, but he’s now risking his family’s savings and livelihood on shrimp farming. ‘We had to sell our fishing boat to pay to dig the cultivation pool and also had to pay someone to teach me how to do it. It was expensive, and I had to get the shrimp food and medicine on credit,’ he tells me as he throws buckets of antibiotics into his single shrimp pond.

Bo is clearly an attentive aquaculturist, but there is still a real fear that it won’t work out and that his family will be ruined. ‘It takes about four months from when they are small to selling them,’ he says. ‘It should be more profitable than rice planting, but I am worried since this is our first try.’

I need only walk 200 metres along the embankment and down into a neighbouring farm to see that Bo’s anxiety isn’t unfounded. Nguyen Van Lung and her family started raising shrimp six years ago, but now all but one of their pools are empty.

‘Last October, the sea washed out all of our shrimp; we lost them all,’ she says, cutting strips of banana tree trunk to feed to her dog while her five children look on. ‘We saw the water rising up and getting closer and closer, but we couldn’t do anything about it. This season, we have been forced to dump the shrimp in and let them grow with no fans, medicine or special food.’ The family received a subsistence loan from the local government, but it takes a lot of money to farm shrimp, upon which they now rely almost exclusively for their livelihood.

Others in the village are being forced to consider the same risky choice but are either not yet ready to change the lifestyle their families have had for generations or don’t have enough money to make the change. ‘Local leaders went to the city centre for a conference about the rising water and then came back to tell us villagers. We were all worried but there is nothing we can do. If the water comes over the dyke, we will lose all of our crops, there is nothing we can do to stop it,’ said Nguyen Thi Tuyet, who, at 28, was one of the younger women I saw in the village. ‘My husband and I only have two acres of land, enough to grow about one tonne of rice a year – we make just enough money to survive. I worry about our nine-year-old son and his future.’

Whether or not to change crops is a decision that, it seems, most of the local farmers will eventually have to make, unless something is done to reverse the environmental changes happening in the area or they decide to move elsewhere.

‘Some households have benefited from the switch to shrimp and have been able to raise their level of income,’ says Olivia Dun, a PhD student
at the University of Sydney’s Mekong Resource Centre. ‘Other households have continually struggled to raise shrimp, which are sensitive to the conditions in their pond environment and easily susceptible to disease. These households face mounting debt, and some choose to migrate elsewhere temporarily in search of an income.’

WAITING GAME

Far upriver, in the town of Cai Rang, famous for its floating market, which draws crowds of daily tourists eager to buy fruit from the passing boatmen, little of the environmental impact is visible, and locals are so far unconcerned. ‘Three or four months a year, the flood water comes up to the bridge level, but there is no salt in the water yet. Anyway, my house floats, and I just sell fruit from my boat – I don’t grow anything, so I’m fine,’ says Ng Van Dung as he sits on the wooden jetty of his home, dangling his feet over the river below.

But despite Dung’s confidence, it’s likely that Cai Rang will eventually be affected, even if it isn’t in his lifetime. ‘Even if we stop all emissions worldwide now, the sea water will still rise 20–30 centimetres in the next few decades,’ says the UNDP’s Lai. ‘The Mekong is the key area providing food and rice to the rest of Vietnam and for export, so it will cause heavy losses and economic impact. At the moment, the prediction is a rise of 75 centimetres by 2050. People in this region are still very poor and will need help from the international community to survive this.’

In the meantime, locals can do nothing but watch the waters get higher and the salt seasons get longer. ‘I can’t imagine the sea water really rising that much, but if it did, we would try to build dams to stop the salt water getting to us. If it really did rise one metre, the whole island would be gone – completely submerged,’ said Tran Thi Thao, a 34-year-old bamboo weaver back on Cu lao Oc.

‘I have lived here 16 years,’ she continued. ‘My husband’s family has lived here generations. We have a three-year-old son and a daughter. I don’t want to move. This is my home.’

Images by Jeffrey Lau