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Flood of tears as climate change bites

Released at: 15:01, 02/05/2016

Flood of tears as climate change bites

Farmers in the Mekong Delta can only stand by and watch their fields wither and die from salt water intrusion and drought. Le Diem reports.

by Le Diem

A verse of an old folk song intones “Can Tho, white rice and pure water, those who visit will never want to leave”, in praise of the fertile land of the Mekong Delta and its alluvial rivers, immense paddy fields, and fruit-laden orchards. The truth behind the lyrics is, sadly, becoming more legend than reality. Hundreds of thousands of people in the area may have to leave their homeland for clean water and new jobs if the drought continues much longer and the salt water intrusion continues.  

Salt water for living

For a long time already Ms. Ngoc Tham, a restaurant owner in Khanh Thanh Tan ward, Ben Tre province, and her family have been using salt water to bathe in. The tap water, from water pumping stations, is mostly salt water while clean water from their rain tank is in short supply. “The salt water gives us a rash,” she said. “I give my children some mugs of clean water but it’s not enough. And we can’t use too much because we need it for drinking and cooking.”

In even worse shape, Ms. Thi Co, a retiree in the nearby ward of Thanh Thoi B, has to use salt water not only for bathing and washing but also for cooking. “I tried to drink salt water but it’s too salty to swallow,” she said. Her son tried to dig a well but it was also salty. So they have to buy fresh water at the costly price of VND50,000-100,000 a cubic meter. But this source is also scarce because of the huge demand in the area. “We have a river life but, ridiculously, we cannot use the water,” she said.

With 160 of its 164 wards besieged by salt water, Ben Tre is one of the worst hit of the thirteen cities and provinces in the Mekong Delta, including “the center of the Delta”, Can Tho, which has never before suffered from salt water intrusion. It now has salt in its rivers and canals, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD). More than half a million people now lack clean water for their basic daily needs and many must use salt water, which has 0.07-0.12 per cent salt compared to the maximum level of 0.025-0.03 per cent under Ministry of Health guidelines.   

Adding to the misery is the longest El Nino weather pattern for a century, which has been in place since last December. The accompanying drought has allowed salt water to intrude into the Mekong Delta, by as much as 50-70 kilometers from the river mouth, with 0.1-3.1 per cent salt, more than crops can stand, according to the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting. Specialists have also said that the abnormal salt water intrusion in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia over the last two years is the result of hydroelectricity plants built in China, which have cut water flows downstream. It is also predicted that the salt ratio will increase and continue intruding until May or July. 

Harvests lost

For hundreds of years the Mekong Delta has been Vietnam’s rice basket, producing an average of 55 per cent of the rice yield each year, thanks to the rich alluvium soil provided by its rivers and its interlacing canals. Local farmers have never needed to build a complex irrigation system like those found elsewhere as the natural waterways in the area have served that purpose. So when salt intrusion becomes as deep as it is now it penetrates into all corners of the land before people can adequately respond.

Mr. Van Phuoc, who has farmed for decades in Soc Trang, can only hopelessly look out over his 8 ha of dried rice fields. “We’ve had 30-40 per cent less rainfall than last year, as the wet season began late and finished early, and all the waterways are dry and salt water is everywhere,” he lamented. “No rice can survive this.”

He did his best to save his rice crop, irrigating the land with the little fresh water left in his rain tank and putting down more fertilizer, but the salinity just went higher. He used water from the rivers but the rice withered even faster so he stopped. “I’ll have to give up on this harvest and I’ll lose about VND3 million ($150) for each hectare,” he said. “But I’d rather lose that than throw good money after bad.”

Cutting their losses isn’t an easy choice for everyone, though. Mr. Thanh Dung, another farmer in Bac Lieu, began cultivation early in the hopes of avoiding the drought but had not anticipated the degree of salt water intrusion. So when his ripening rice began to die he had to harvest earlier in the hope of getting something back. Of his nine hectares, however, one was lost and productivity in remainder was 40-50 per cent lower than the previous harvest and also of poor quality. “I’m in big trouble now,” he explained. “We invested VND50 million ($2,500) into this harvest. If we can’t sell the rice I have no idea how I can pay what I owe for fertilizer and pesticides. I’ve farmed this land my entire life and never had losses like this before.”

Of the 1.5 million hectares of rice in the 2015-2016 winter-spring crop around the Mekong Delta, about 160,000 hectares (nearly 11 per cent) have been affected by salt water intrusion, according to MARD.

The low yield also leads to a shortage of cattle feed, and the region also heavily relies on livestock. The price of straw has increased so much that many people can no longer afford to raise cattle and have sold them at a cheap price and a younger age.

Unlike rice, the sugarcane crop has finished already. But it is drying out because people are having trouble getting to the fields. Passage by boat, the usual method, is impossible because of the dry waterways. Mr. Van Ho, the owner of a sugarcane field, is worried that his crop will burn under the scorching sun and lack of fresh water.

The high salinity also affects fruit and vegetables. The alluvial water from local rivers has always provided sustenance to fruit. When the salt intrusion first became a problem, local growers lacked the technology to measure the level of salt in the water and continued to use it, which not unexpectedly ruined their fruit. “The effect of deep salt water intrusion is very serious and may possibly take ten years to address,” said Mr. Ngoc Thien, the owner of a mango orchard in Vinh Long province. “Fruit trees suffer more. With rice, one dead season won’t affect the next. But once a fruit tree dies it takes years for a new one to produce fruit.”

Not only plants but also important many types of marine life can’t survive in salt water. A lot of fish, shrimp and oysters have died already, with their owner’s saying goodbye to thousands of dollars. “I lost tons of oysters from the salt water and hundreds of millions dong and the two years I spent raising them,” said Ms. Thi Truong from Thua Duc ward in Ben Tre.

The once prosperous land now resembles a dead zone. Perhaps it’s time people had a more serious look at what they have done to make Mother Nature so angry and fix it. 

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