While both the North and Central Vietnamese have a reputation of austerity brought on by harsher climates, Mekong Delta natives, provided in abundance by the Nine Headed Dragon River, are known for their generosity. In fact, the Delta region is the food source of not only the locals, but also the entire country and indeed, the world. Approximately 40% of the national agricultural production takes place here, supplying more than half of the rice grown in Vietnam, 50% of the seafood for national consumption, and 3.18 million tonnes of fruits per year. Thanks to this region, Vietnam is also one of the largest rice exporters in the world – Vietnam was ranked fifth as of January 2018, according to Hanoi Times.
Yet the fertility of Mekong Delta, seen as an immutable fact of life by its 19 million inhabitants, is in fact under existential threat.
Plans are in motion to construct 437 new hydroelectric plants along the Mekong River by 2030. Just last week VNExpress reported that along the Chinese territory of the Lancang River, the six dams constructed there are trapping about 90% of the suspended sediment meant to course through Mekong Delta, making the water uninhabitable to many wild migratory fish and diminishing the fertility of the plains. About two thirds of the 200 species of fish have disappeared entirely from Northern Thailand. An estimated USD1.57 billion could be slashed from fishing profits in the Delta and according to the Agriculture Ministry, 500 hectares of land are washed down the river every year in an unprecedented scale of erosion.
To top this off, another 14 thermo-electric plants are set to be built in the Delta region itself. As warned by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, “If all the new coal plants on the books earlier this year were constructed – especially in Asia – it would be impossible to stay below two degrees.” New coal-fired power plants in the Delta region will be contributing to the global risk of temperatures rising beyond the manageable level of two degrees Celsius.
Leaving aside the looming threat of climate change, which remains abstract to many locals, after the completion of these power plants, some 70 million cubic metres of hot water will be dumped into the river every day – as reported in Tuoi Tre News back in October 2016. Presumably the locals are unaware of this and yet it risks destroying the ecosystem for economically viable aquatic species. The fly-ash produced will drift along the wind outwards to the sea and further inland, threatening bird sanctuaries, mangroves, and the salt flats. Nguyen Minh Due, chair of the Energy Science Council of Vietnam Energy Association, has called this “a very unsustainable plan”, especially given that Vietnam already has the untapped potential of renewable energy. While the whole of Vietnam produces 41,000 megawatts in electrical capacity, a renewable system here could potentially yield about nine megawatts. Yet the construction of new coal-fired plants seems to be proceeding with no sign of stopping.
Rapid growth in urban areas has also pushed Thailand to the brink of drought forcing them to divert water from the Mekong. While a few major droughts have hit in recent years, water shortages could reach a critical point by 2025 if the issues remain unaddressed. Already a plan to build a flood discharge canal has been stopped, but the future of the other water diversion plans remains uncertain. If carried out, the sediment will be further reduced, and biodiversity will be at risk of extinction; landslides and saltwater intrusions will be inevitable.
The aforementioned threats remain separate from the menacing prospect of climate change. Over the next century, 20% of the Mekong Delta is predicted to sink underwater. Zing News reported dire predictions; by 2050, as many as 200 million people could be displaced from the Delta to cities like Can Tho or Ho Chi Minh City, potentially making it one of most affected delta regions in the world, along with Egypt and Bangladesh. It remains to be seen how Vietnam will cope with losing such a significant portion of its rice basket and the livelihood of so many people. A question mark now hangs over the food security of Vietnam in the coming decades.