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The Demise of the Mekong Delta

When it comes to climate change, there's no shortage of bad news these days. On the one hand, Saigon is facing its longest drought in 60 years; on the other, several Vietnamese cities may be underwater in the next century. And as if it didn't already feel like we were speeding toward a Day After Tomorrow-style demise, the fate of Vietnam's Mekong Delta is also looking pretty grim.

Last year, experts estimated that as much as 40% of the Mekong region could disappear by 2115. Brought on by a combination of climate change, developmental errors and the construction of several hydroelectric dams, the region responsible for 20% of Vietnam's gross domestic product is in danger of undergoing a drastic environmental shift, reports the Straits Times.

As freshwater levels recede and sea levels rise, salinization of the Mekong's countless rice paddies is putting a strain on local farmers, who supply roughly half of the country's food. Developmental errors and concrete buildings now cause the Mekong to sink 1-4 centimeters a year, according to the Straits Times, causing damage to local houses and infrastructure. Beyond these issues, dam construction and reservoirs could also affect the migratory movements of the region's fish, compromising the livelihoods of those who rely on the water for work.

Another serious problem the Mekong faces is its loss of silt. On average, Vietnam takes in about 160 million tons of silt a year in the region, excess dirt which serves to bolster its coastline. With a new series of dams in the way, much of this silt could be lost. Taking all of this into account, wetland ecologist Nguyen Huu Thien believes the entire region will disintegrate in as little as 90 years.

“Deltas are built by sediment,” Thien explains. “If you stop [the sedimentation process] there will be entropy. It will fall apart, and this reverse process will be faster than the building process.”

At present, Laos has nine dam construction projects in the works, while Cambodia has two. Both countries have done their best to gloss over the disapproval of their neighbors, however they're not the only culprits: many of these construction projects are the efforts of Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese companies. Particularly for Laos, whose landlocked location offers little opportunity in the way of business, dams could turn the country into Southeast Asia's “battery”, providing power to the region through hydroelectric projects.

But the buck ultimately stops in Vietnam, where millions rely upon the Mekong's water supply for survival. In recent years, some have begun to move away from the region, recognizing its fate early on, however as Ky Quang Vinh, head of Can Tho's Climate Change Coordination Office, puts it: “We can't all leave. There are 18 million of us.”

As such, local residents aren't going to take this lying down. Last November, Vietnamese Mekong residents joined Thai and Cambodian citizens to petition against the construction against the construction of Laos' forthcoming Don Sahong Dam.

“We who have grown up with the river are able to see even the smallest changes,” Huynh Thi Kim Duyen, a resident of Ca Mau province, told Thanh Nien. “We are worried about our future and the future of our children.”

For the moment, however, these protests seem to fall upon deaf ears. Laos gave the go-ahead for its dam project last September, announcing that it would begin construction before 2016. At present, both the US$300 million Don Sahong Dam and Thailand's US$3.8 billion Xayabury Dam are expected to reach completion by 2019.

In the meantime, the Mekong's 80 million people – not only in Vietnam but Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China – will be left to forge ahead into an uncertain future.

[Photo via Flickr user The World Fish Center]


Related Articles:

40% of the Mekong Delta Could Disappear by 2115

New Laos Dam Could 'Kill' the Mekong Delta: Experts

Petition Against Mekong Delta Dam Construction Receives Thousands of Signatures


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