Construction in the Mekong Delta Threatens Culture in Can Tho

Ms Hanh Mekong Delta

Ms Hanh.

Ms Hanh has been a part of Cai Rang floating market ever since she was in her mother’s womb. Back then, her mum was selling fruits and vegetables by boat, so Hanh grew up doing the same and even moved into her husband’s house afloat the same river. Now she fears her way of life there will soon come to an end. “The authorities will build embankments around this place and make us move onto land.”

Natives in the Mekong Delta have always built houses on the riverbank and lived off the water, but the ever-growing number of landslides in the region has caused many to deem the age-old practice unsafe. Just recently, only a few miles north of the market, several houses were washed away down the river, but Hanh still doesn’t believe that the same can happen to the market. “I’d like things to go back to good old days.”

Nguyen Huu Thien MEKONG

Nguyen Huu Thien. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Huu Thien.

Yet, according to Nguyen Huu Thien, an expert on the Mekong Delta, the threat of landslides will only accelerate in the coming five to ten years. “The delta was built by sediment and sand. 100% of the sand from the upper section of Mekong Delta and much of the sediment has already been trapped by the hydroelectric dams in China,” he explained, seemingly the landslides are triggered when the Delta no longer has the materials for a build-up.

“For the Delta to exist, these build-ups had always been greater than the landslides. But from 2005, the landslides have started to dominate.” Currently, Ca Mau province loses a commune per decade to landslides. When the dams in Cambodia and Laos get finished, things are set to become far worse. It is calculated that in the next 200 years, the Mekong Delta will vanish from the map.

That does not take into account the land subsidence that sinks the delta 1.1cm every year. The reason? River pollution has forced people to abuse groundwater. “Never say that the Mekong Delta lacks water. The rivers carry more water than anywhere else on Earth, but it is so polluted from intensive farming, fertiliser, and pesticides we can no longer use it.” Furthermore, the salinity control dykes and sluice-gates prevent pollutants from being released into the sea.

Thien, born into a farmer’s household and raised in Can Tho before going off to study ecology in the US, recalls drinking, bathing, and cooking with the water from the rivers. “Now no-one even dares to wash their faces there anymore.”

hot table mekong river crisis

The wild capture fisheries has also diminished drastically, in a depletion that’s sadly obvious even to the untrained eye. Small-time fishers near Cai Rang market notice many fish have disappeared entirely from that part of the river. “Laotians have a saying that they don’t raise the fish, the fish raise them. Here, in the delta, one hardly passes a day without eating fish,” Thien observed. Yet damaging urban constructions continue on with their rapid momentum.

Unlike scandals such as Formosa, Mekong Delta’s degradation is happening gradually. But already, the inhabitants of this beautiful region are bearing the brunt of these changes. Pollution and a lack of sediment have led to soil emaciation. Ms. Binh, whose family have farmed fruit trees for generations in Can Tho, notice that many families have abandoned their orchards in recent years. “People spend a lot of money for three to five years, but when it comes time to farm, the trees do not bear fruits.” Now, even if they do produce fruits, farmers have to compete with cheap Chinese products. “It used to be easy to take care of these trees. Now we have to buy a lot of fertilisers and pesticides, and the selling prices are so low.” Many farmers therefore just packed their bags for the cities and left the orchards untended.

mekong crisis hot table

A few farmers turned their gardens into other forms of businesses. A few years ago, Ms. Binh and her neighbour, Mr. Ba, worked together to create the Ba Xinh home-stay out of his orchard. “City folks really liked it then, but in the past two years there hasn’t been much business.” As the tourist trend slows to a screeching halt, behind the green veneer, the malnourished trees with diminutive fruits can be found. Mr. Ba, now in his 80s, is looking to sell the land. “He’s got three kids in the city. He will leave this place if someone buys it.”

Still there remains hope, according to Nguyen Huu Thien. Resolution 120/NC-CP 2017, which will curb intensive farming, aggressive interventions on nature, and promote integrated planning, was recently issued by the Government. “The Mekong Delta is at a crossroads of existential threats. We can’t keep on as we have done.” Thien does admit that what Vietnam can do alone is relative small. “Since solar power has come so far, it seems regrettable that Laos and Cambodia want to keep building these dams.”

If the recent collapse of the dam in Appateu province is anything to go by, it seems that Thien, in more ways than one, is right about this.

hot table mekong river crisis thuy ca

© HOT TABLE. Photography by Thuy Ca.

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