Mekong Delta hit by worst drought ever

By Huu Khoa

Sat, 3/21/2020 | 11:25 (GMT+7)

Drought and saltwater intrusion in rivers are putting great pressure on Vietnam’s agriculture and aquaculture hub, the Mekong Delta.


A rice field in An Phu Trung Commune of Ba Tri District in Ben Tre Province. The rainy season arrived late last year and was shorter than usual, with the result rainfall 8 percent lower than normal at 1,240 mm, according the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Ben Tre was the first of five provinces to delclare an emergency earlier this month after salinity levels in rivers and canals surpassed the record levels of 2016. Ba Tri District, which has 12,000 hectares (almost 30,000 acres) of farmlands and 100,000 head of cattle, has been hit hardest. In 2016 it lost 8,000 hectares of rice to drought and saltwater intrusion. That year witnessed the worst ever drought and salinity levels ever in the delta, which is home to 12 provinces and a city. Some 600,000 people did not have access to freshwater, 160,000 hectares of paddy were damaged and farmers lost 800,000 tons of rice. The losses mounted to VND5.5 trillion ($237 million).


Nguyen Kim Trang, 48, gathers wild grass and rice plant roots that have been affected by the salinity to feed her cows. "People here will all starve to death,” she warns. “The rice crop has died due to the salinity. Yet leaving all this behind to find jobs in the city is not a choice as everyone is scared of the ongoing epidemic [Covid-19] and no one dares to go. “My husband has found a temporary job as a bricklayer while I stay home and tend two cows.” Meteorologists had warned that this month the delta would suffer from higher saltwater levels than in 2016, rising between March 6 and 10, peaking in the middle of the month and slowly decreasing in April. Between March 11 and 15 salinity levels did rise above 2016 levels, according to the hydrological forecasting department for central and southern Vietnam and the Central Highlands at the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting.


Nguyen Van Chau, 44, says: "For this winter-summer crop, I rented 2,000 square meters of land to grow rice. I spent VND6 million ($257) on fertilizers and pesticides, but the salt intrusion came and I’ve lost everything. “All I can do now is to ask the land owner to reduce the rent.”


Standing on her family’s cracked field, Le Thi Hi, 72, says she has never experienced such severe drought and salinity as this year. “When even water for daily activities is scarce, where can we find water for farming?” “I heard on the news that China will release water from its dams for the Mekong Delta, but I’ve been waiting and seen nothing happening.” China said in February it would release water from its upstream Mekong River dams to save downstream countries Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but experts said the 850 cubic meters per second it promised would never be enough to even reach the Mekong Delta.


Eight kilometers from An Phu Trung, Lam Thi Ngoc Dung, 70, has become anxious due to the lack of water for daily use. Her family had bought water, filled up almost 20 jars and used the water carefully, but it has now have run out. She has had to spend more on water, recently paying VND100,000-120,000 ($4.3-5.1) for every two cubic meters. “There has never been a year like this,” she says.


Cau Sat Canal in Cho Gao District of Tien Giang Province is renowned for its fruit orchards. Nguyen Mong Thuy, 58, says: "In 30 years of living here I’d never seen this canal run out of water, yet just a few days after Tet (the Lunar New Year holiday in late January) it started getting drier and drier. And without water, the crops have all been dying.” Many other canals and ponds in the province have also run dry, resulting in a severe water shortage for tens of thousands of hectares of crops.


The reservoir at the Binh Phan water pumping station of Cho Gao District. This station provides water for irrigating some 8,500 hectares of crops in the district.


A farmer in Tam Binh Commune in Tien Giang’s Cai Lay District measures the salinity level, which has exceeded 5 grams per liter, which means it cannot be used to water his durian and mangosteen farms.


Roads in Tam Binh Commune are constantly congested as three-wheel motorbike wagons flock to Muoi Nen Canal, one of the few water bodies in the delta to not go dry, to draw water and sell to farmers. They sell two cubic meters for VND160,000-200,000 ($6.90-8.63), depending on the distance.


Pumps remain untouched along the N7 Canal in Go Cong Tay District in Tien Giang as there is no water to pump into fruit orchards.


Le Thi Loi, 57, and her daughter have just bought 200 liters of water at VND160,000 ($6.90) for their rice crop in Go Cong Tay District. Loi says: "It is so worrying to have the field in this condition. A few days ago we bought 10 bags of ice and threw it in the field, but it did not help. “We are going to pour this water in the field, and this is just temporary. For now we can do nothing but pray for one shower so that the rice have something to survive on.”


Members of Truong Thi Hoa’s family in Go Cong Tay join hands to save their rice field using water left from their pond. "My family has a 6,000-square-meter rice field. The rice plants are just halfway to ripening, and we have to water them every single day. We have invested almost VND20 million ($857) in the field. If the crop perishes, we will be broke.”


Saltwater had intruded 50-110 kilometers into major rivers, all branches of the Mekong, by mid-March, two to eight kilometers than in 2016. Long An, Tien Giang, Ca Mau, and Kien Giang followed Ben Tre in declaring an emergency. Rain is still at least a few weeks away and will only come in late April. Experts have been blaming the El Nino phenomenon and Chinese dams for the parching of the Mekong Delta. Even as El Nino reduced rainfall in southern Vietnam last year, upstream Chinese dams held back water, which also brings sediments to fertilize downstream lands. The Mekong River flows 4,880 km through six countries, 2,130 km in China. Of the 19 hydropower projects China plans along the river, it has built 11 so far. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said drought and salinity have affected 20,000 hectares of crops so far, or 7 percent of the 2016 area.

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