COVID-19 Op-ed

Drought in Mekong Delta of Vietnam: A Greater Threat than Covid-19

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Tania NguyenStudent, Asia
Pacific MA Human Rights and Democratisation
Global Campus
of Human Rights Asia Pacific
Institute of Human Rights
and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

Dams have destroyed the 4,880 km-long Mekong River that flows
through six countries, 2,130 km in China before the river enters into Myanmar,
Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. One of the most fertile rivers on
earth with its abundant waters and fisheries, the river nurtures tens of
millions of people. Nevertheless, a series of dams beginning with 19 in China
have destroyed the Mekong ecosystem and ruined the river’s riches by holding
back water on the upstream. Brian Eyler, the Director of Stimson’s Southeast
Asia program in his book “Last Days of the Mighty
ong” (2020), mentions significant impacts of China and its
dams to the Mekong rivers and the people’s livelihood. In April 2020, a U.S.
government-funded study named Eyes on Earth confirmed Eyler’s concerns and
showed the devastation in Mekong caused by the Chinese-made dams. The study
finds that China holds water back to produce drought-stricken Mekong
countries, including Vietnam, at the downstream (Basist and Williams 2020, p.
14).At the time of this writing, 288 confirmed cases of Coronavirus appeared
in Vietnam, although no death was reported (Worldometer, 2020). Compared to
its neighboring countries, Vietnam, based on publicly disseminated
information, was able to control this crisis. While the rest of the world is
battling COVID-19, the Mekong Delta of Vietnam is concurrently struggling
with the worst drought cin recent years. The crisis in the Mekong area is
seemingly becoming more devastating than the pandemic. Not only the drought
raises severe concerns about the rights to water of the local people but also
the food security of the country in the short term.Consequently, as of 15
March, the government of Vietnam declared a state of emergency in five Mekong
Delta provinces (Ben Tre, Tien Giang, Long An, Kien Giang, and Ca Mau) in
response to prolonged drought in the region. The drought has threatened the
destruction of rice, fruits, and seafood products (Water Diplomat, 2020).
Considered as The Rice Bowl of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is home to more than
20 million people.  With about 6.6 million metric tons of rice sold
worldwide as of 2018/2019, Vietnam is the third-largest rice exporter
(Statista, 2020). The current drought, which has led to a build-up of river
salinity, had placed significant pressure on this agriculture and aquaculture
hub.According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, saltwater
intrusion with a salinity level of four grams per liter or more has been
reported to enter 50-95 kilometers deep into the Delta’s main rivers since
the early part of this year. It is an increase of 3-11 kilometers compared to
the same period in the most recent crisis year (2016), which is regarded as
the worst drought in the region in 100 years. As a result, most of the
households in the Delta could not access clean water and had to buy fresh
water from the other areas with an abnormal price (VND 200,000 or USD8.58 per
cubic meter depending on the distance) (Huu Khoa, 2020).During the epidemic,
the government told its citizens throughout the country to wash their hands
more frequently. How would locals in the Mekong area get water to wash their
hands, however, is not in the government’s decree.  It was too ironic to
think about washing hands while people suffer from a lack of potable water.
To exacerbate the situation further, rice crops and fruit trees have died due
to the river’s high salinity. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural
Development of the Social Republic of Vietnam (2020) estimates that drought
and salinity will affect about 100,000 hectares of rice and 130,000 hectares
of fruit trees; 100,000 households will face a shortage of daily use of
water. The damage could be more severe compared to the record of the crisis
in 2016, with agricultural losses estimated to excess USD380 million suffered
by 17 million victims (Water Diplomat, 2020).Governors and experts have been
blaming the El Nino phenomenon and Chinese dams as the main causes of this
crisis (Huu Khoa, 2020). The rainy season that arrived late and shorter than
usual last year, with 20 percent less of water flow than that of 2016 from
the Mekong River, is claimed as the culprit for the increased salinity
throughout the Delta (Water Diplomat, 2020).To cope with this crisis, the
government has released about USD15 million for the well-drilling and
installation of public water taps (Water Diplomat, 2020). However, the rights
to water of thousands of people in remote locations and coastal areas have
not been assured. It is horrible to think of what could happen to the locals
if cases of detected Coronavirus take place in the affected areas.
Authorities in the Delta have also instructed farmers not to grow the rice in
areas that could be affected by high salinity. The government units also
advised rice farmers to switch to drought-resistant crops. All of those
action plans to deal with the drought and high salinity are obviously
short-termed. The right to water of locals and food security are priority
issues in the upcoming years in Mekong Delta and the country. If the
appalling shortage of freshwater and failure of crops were taking place for a
long time, these woes would lead to various waterborne diseases and a mass
migration of poverty-struck farmers into the big cities. Over the decade of
2008 to 2018, around 1.7 million people have migrated out of the Delta for
losses of livelihoods (Chapman and Van Pham Dang Tri, 2018).The Vietnamese
government must build up further preventive measures to reinforce freshwater
reservoirs and dams to combat saltwater intrusion. As a member of The Mekong
River Commission, Vietnam should work more closely with four other countries
to put pressure on China to share data on the water levels as well as monitor
water and sediment flows on the Mekong. Otherwise, livelihoods of tens of
millions of people would suffer, inevitably leading to more casualities,
compared to those inflicted by Covid-19 .References:Basist,
A. and Williams, C., 2020. Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing
Through  the  Mekong  Basin  Through  Natural 
(Unimpeded)  Conditions, Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership,
Bangkok.Brian Eyler, 2020. Science Shows Chinese Dams Are Devastating the
Mekong. Foreign Policy,  22 April.
Available at: <>
.Chapman A., and Van Pham Dang Tri, 2018. Climate change is driving migration
from Vietnam’s Mekong delta. The conversation,  09 January. Available at: <>
.Huu Khoa, 2020. Mekong Delta hit by worst drought ever. VNExpress,  21 March. Available at: <>
.Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of the Social Republic of
Vietnam, 2020. Mekong Delta takes measures to reduce saltwater intrusion.
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development,  11 February. Available at: <>
.Statista, 2020. Principal rice exporting countries worldwide in 2018/2019.
Statista,  07 May. Available at:
.Water Diplomat, 2020. Vietnam Drought: State Of Emergency Declared In Five
Mekong Delta Provinces. Ooskanews,  15
March. Available at: <>
.Worldometer, 2020. Coronavirus cases in Vietnam. Worldometer,  10 May. Available at: <>

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