Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772-1834]
To the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta
and The Friends of the Mekong Group
NGÔ THẾ VINH MD
DROUGHT AND POLLUTION IN THE 13 PROVINCES OF THE MEKONG DELTA
On a ferryboat going from Đại Ngãi to Cù lao Dung, the waves splattered all over leaving a salty taste on the lips of the passengers on board. Water can be seen all around. But only the brackish water that invades all the canals and waterways in the area. The locals are scrambling to buy jars of fresh drinkingwater. This encroachment of seawater leaves the rice fields parched, the fruit trees in the orchards with rotten roots, and the farmers deprived of income.
My fellow travelling companion who stands by my side teaches a class about Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Cần Thơ. He explains to me: “Even during the highwater influx, the fresh water is undrinkable because the river is extremely polluted.” He leaves it up to me to understand that all this is due to industrial waste discharged from the factories along the riverbanks, chemical fertilizers from the rice fields, and worst of all, waste from residential areas.
That is the situation facing the almost 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. They have to live with a polluted river and now, in the very first two months of 2020, they are hearing ominous tidings that the oncoming drought will come early and be more serious than that of 2016. This accounts for the saying “Water, water, everywhere, Nor anydrop to drink.” Yet, the Mekong Delta is receiving more water per-capita than any other region in the country. Everywhere you turn, you are surrounded by water but the dirty and salty water. The biggest challenge is how can this polluted water be treated and rendered safe for everyday use.
The reader is just given a bird-view picture taken from a slow moving camera in outer space of a sinking ship amidst of climate change. It depicts an excruciatingly slow but sure death of the mighty Mekong River, the 11th longest river in the world endowed with a rich ecosystem second only to the Amazon River with its entire delta being slowly submerged under a rising sea level.
WORLD WATER DAY 2020
We cannot divorce the issue of Water from that of Global Climate Change. That view is shared by the United Nations when it chooses the theme “Water and Climate Change” for this year’s World Water Day on 03/22/2020.
Extreme weather phenomenon and abnormal global climate change increase the variability in water cycles thus reducing the predictability of water availability, affecting water quality as well as biodiversity. As a result, sustainable development in many of the river’s deltas becomes problematic.
According to UN statistics, the world’s population of 7.2 billion in 2015 is projected to reach more than 7.7 billion in 2020.(10) Population growth entails a greater demand for water and consequently a more substantial consumption of energy to pump, transport, and treat the water. Excessive water usage has also contributed to the degradation of critical water-dependent carbon sinks such as peatlands.
A heightened focus on water to meet an ever growing demand for it in the coming days calls for definitive decisions to arrive at an appropriate allocation of water resources in regard to climate change and the competing claims from different regions and nations.
A case in point: the Mekong River is over 4,800 km long and meanders through 7 countries [Tibet*, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam] The reduced water flow during the Dry Season and the over exploitation by the hydroelectric dams built upstream pose an intractable challenge to come up with an equitable formula to apportion its water among the countries bordering its banks. This is exactly the hot “contention point” that needs to be addressed nowadays. The two countries of Cambodia and Vietnam that sit at the mouth of the river are suffering the most from those accumulative impacts: the Tonle Sap Lake, the heart of Cambodia, is experiencing a water shortage while the Mekong Delta a most severe drought. Not to mention the possibility of the big country of China resorting to the Lancang-Mekong as a weapon in its ecological warfare to punish Vietnam and its neighbors downstream.
[* Tibet is the source of the Mekong River, from a geopolitical perspective, the author consistently regards it as a country being occupied by China.]
A policy to deal with climate change cannot rest on a country by country but rathera basin-wide basis. All plans pertaining to water use and management must follow an integrated approach.
To build and maintain a sustainable future, old ways of doing things and ineffective hydrology programs must be discarded. From now onward, water management must be analyzed through a climate change lens. We must be willing to invest more financial resources to improve and bring to date hydrological data used by institutes, government agencies, educational institutions so that they can share accurate knowledge in their prediction and handling of the existing water shortage that will undoubtedly worsen markedly in the future.
All plans must insure the participation of a wide representation of the public and a positive change in attitude to bring about mutual trust between the government, civil social organizations and the private sector.
All appropriate plans must include clearly defined targeted strategies, with priority given to the support of low-income people – the group that proves most vulnerable to the impacts and damages caused by climate change. (1)
ABOUT DRAGON MEKONG
DRAGON is the acronym for Delta Research and Global Observation Network. It aims to set up a worldwide information network, enhance long-lasting cooperation and sharing of experience among the basin regions in the world.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization(WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and was later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. Membership is open to all members of the WMO and UN. According to IPCC there are currently almost 300 million people living in 40 Deltas worldwide. IPCC offers this observation:
“Deltas, one of the largest sedimentary deposits in the world, are widely recognized as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and changes in runoff, as well as being subject to stresses imposed by human modification of catchment and delta-plain land use."
As early as 2007, IPCC issued this additional warning: 13 large deltas in the world will be affected by climate change and rising sea-level of which the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the Mississippi Delta in the U.S. are classified as highly vulnerable.
In view of their similarities and mutual interests in the importance of food security; as well as the economic, social and cultural aspects of the Mekong and Mississippi Deltas, on November 21, 2008, the CầnThơ University in coordination with the US Geological Survey(USGS) and National Wetlands Research Center in the US (NWRC) has established the Research Institute for Climate Change with the English acronym DRAGON Institute -Mekong, of the DRAGON global network, on its campus in the Mekong Delta. (4)
Picture 1_Logo of the Research Institute for Climate Change Mekong –Cần Thơ University. DRAGON, an acronym for Delta Research and Global Observation Network, established 12 years ago in 2008. (3)
Picture 2_The environment observation team of the Mekong Deltain a group photo in front of the first location of the Research Institute for Climate Change/DRAGON –Mekong. From left: DươngVăn Ni PhD (Department of Environment and Natural Resources - Cần Thơ University), Lê Phát Quới PhD (Institute of Natural Resources and Environment - National University HCM City), Ngô Thế Vinh MD, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD (Research Institute for Climate Change - CầnThơ University), Engineer Phạm Phan Long (Viet Ecology Foundation), Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS (Expert in Wetlands), Nguyễn Văn Hưng MD.
The similarities between the Louisiana Delta of the Mississippi River – Gulf of Mexico and the Mekong Delta of the Mekong River–East Sea not withstanding, on account of climate change and a rising sea-level, the Mekong Delta is facing a much more daunting challenge. Some of the noteworthy differences between the two rivers include: (1) the incline at the source of the Mekong River is 12 times higher than that of the Mississippi River, thus accounting for an exceptionally attractive potential for hydroelectricity that is absent in the case of the Mississippi River; (2) the majority of the 40 dams on the Mississippi River were built in the 1930’s and cannot compare favorably with the series of giant dams on the Yunnan Cascades on the Lancang-Mekong River and the mainstream dams in Laos; (3) The Mississippi River only flows within the territory of the United States while the Mekong River meanders through 7 countries: Tibet, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam engendering intractable conflicts of interest. (3)
Picture 3_photo taken in front of the new office of DRAGON Mekong Institute. Participants at the Workshop on Journalism for “Climate Change and Sustainable Energy”on the 22- 24 of August, 2019, organized by the Project on Earth Journalism Network. [source: CRUS.Vietnam, Aug 2019]
DRAGON Institute-Mekong-CTU will serve as a transit point for the exchange of research, education, and scientific knowledge among leaders, managers and communities at the local, national and delta regions in the world to foster the ability of people to adapt to natural disasters, economic or social needs for sustainable development, and conservation of natural eco-systems.
From its inception, the Research Institute for Climate Change/ DRAGON –Mekonghas been approached by many national and international organizations to exchange and propose new avenues for cooperation. As a leading center of its kind in the Mekong Delta, the Research Institute acts as a pioneer in the field of research in climate change in line with its short and long-term plans. (4)
In 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with the 4 foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, initiated the Lower Mekong Initiative 2020 to reinforce the American commitments with the countries downstream in the fields of environment, health, education and infrastructures.
The USGS specializing in the study of deltas will partner with the Delta Research and Global Observation Network DRAGON to use its experience with the Mississippi River and its expertise in Earth-science modeling to help the Mekong countries to assess the impacts caused by climate change and human activities on the ecology and food security of the Mekong Basin.
WORKSHOP – FORECAST MEKONG
On the 9-10-11 of December, 2009 the DRAGON Institute Cần Thơ University, Vietnam, the USGS, and the American State Departnment co-sponsored a workshop on: “Understanding Risk and Vulnerability of Wetland Ecosystems at the Mekong and Mississippi Deltas to Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise.”
Picture 4_Despite a geographic difference of 12 time zones, the Mekong River (left) and Mississippi (right) Deltas share many ecological, economic, social, and cultural similarities. [Landsat imagery provided by USGS](2)
The workshop was offered as a part of Project Forecast Mekong to familiarize the participants with comparative modeling technique and visualization system to help policy planners, resources managers, and the public understand as well as predict the impacts of climate change and implement development projects in the Mekong Basin. In addition to Cần Thơ University, USGS intends to use Project Forecast Mekong as a channel to cooperate with other local governments and universities in the Mekong Basin.(2)
The workshop attracted more than 75 participants. On this occasion, they identified information gaps pertaining to the Mekong Delta and climate change. Participants consisted of scientists and government officials from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and even China; representatives from the U.S. Department of State; and non-governmental organizations; and naturally USGS experts. Several important scientific issues were discussed, including water quality, sedimentation, the impacts of hydropower dams on biodiversity, food security, climate-change adaptation, changes in the timing and severity of seasonal floods, and fisheries productivity.
In the next phase, USGS will conduct coordinated research with scientists in the Mekong region in order to provide technical expertise to facilitate data analysis and integration, carry out environmental monitoring, and create science-visualization tools. Participants at the workshop also recognized the need for further training and technology transfer and the desire to establish closer long-term collaboration with USGS.
The Forecast Mekong project will also help establish the foundation for future activities aiming at cementing relationships with scientists and organizations in the Mekong region by conducting joint research.
DRAGON succeeded in creating an international community of scientists and resource managers to share data on the great deltas and rivers of the world. Comparative studies are indispensable to understanding and predicting the effects of climate change, engineering projects, land use, hydrologic change, and other impacts caused by man to the already fragile and vulnerable ecosystems.
With the use of comparative models and visualization tools, the DRAGON network intends to help inform public-policy decisions that will affect the ecology and inhabitants of the deltas.
A wide range of scientific knowledge pertaining to the Mississippi Delta was shared by USGS with the people in the Mekong Delta – half the world away.
This workshop was part of a project named "Forecast Mekong," an interactive data integration, modeling, and visualization system, that helps policy makers, resource managers, and the public understand and predict the impacts of climate change and implement development projects in the Mekong River Basin.(3)
Initiated by USGS, Mekong Forecast will work in partnership with local governments and universities to provide a valuable planning tool to predict the consequences of climate change and river management.
Picture 5_The Mekong Delta has been suffering from: (1) the dams upstream, (2) sand mining of its bottom, (3) rising seawater, (4) pollution of the waterways, (5) including the flawed irrigation projects that are upsetting the fragile balance of the Mekong River Basin. As of 2020, there are 11giant dams on the Lancang-Mekong River in China; in addition to the 2 main stream dams (Xayaburi andDon Sahong) in operation in Laos since 2019. The Luang Prabang (1460 MW) Project will be Laos’ largest mainstream dam on the Mekong River. The irony of it all is that Vietnam is its lead investor. [International River 2004, updated by Ngô Thế Vinh in 2020].
A typical example: through its experience with the impacts of Katrina, the hurricane of the century, on the Mississippi River Delta with a death toll of 1,800 and a devastation costing US$ 125 billion, the largest in US history, USGS is conscious of the urgent need to share information and data about major deltas in the world.
Picture 6a_ The Mekong Delta with its parched fields and desertification resulting from the disastrous drought of 2016. [VN Express 3/11/2016]
Picture 6b_ Forecast Mekong: the drought and salinization of 2020 will be more devastating than the one in 2016. Mekong Delta barbecue. [caricature by Babui, dedicated to Ngô Thế Vinh]
WATER SURROUNDING US: THE ISRAELI SOLUTION
Water shortage is a phenomenon that takes place all over our planet at different level. From California the Golden State to the impoverished countries of the African continent. The shortage of clean water in the Mekong Basin is not an exception to that general picture.
Land subsidence: the land level in the Mekong Basin is below sea level. Lessons can be learned from the Netherland that has survived and overcome that situation over the centuries.
Lack of fresh water: drinking water and water used for farming, lessons can be learned from Israel a country dominated by a desert landscape but covered with lush plants.
Water obtained from various sources: (1) wells and groundwater, (2) desalination, (3) waste water treatment, (4) extracting water from air/ atmospheric water generator …
Since its inception, Israel has made it its top priority to solve its problem of water shortage. Relying on innovative approach and scientific technology, present day Isreal, a land mostly covered by arid deserts, manages to procure enough water to satisfy its household, agricultural and industrial water needs. However, the most effective contributing factor is the effort to save water in all daily activities by the entire population – a habit that is taught from elementary school all the way to the highest level of education.
Not only that, the people search for the best way to use the available water sources in order to achieve a surplus and supply it to their hostile neighboring countries. They also use technology transfer in this field as a soft power in diplomacy to help resolve the water shortage in the world. Israel’s experience has helped many countries, including China or even modern United States, to meet their water shortage.
Picture 7_ The Israelis have conserved a considerable quantity of water in farming. A small example: by using drip irrigation instead of the traditional way of sprinkler or surface/flood irrigation. The idea is to irrigate at the root zone and lessen evaporation, plants will grow stronger and productivity higher. Furthermore, drip fertilizing will prevent nitrogen from contaminating the water sources and minimize the release of chemicals over the farming areas. [Let There Be Water. Seth M. Siegel 2017] (9)
THE MEKONG DELTA WILL REMAIN FOREVER LUSH
“The golden forests, silvery seas and fertile land”, that is the saying students have learned by heart in their elementary schools for many generations. The truth heralded in that saying no longer holds and we should no longer burden their youthful mind with such obsolete falsehood.
After 1975, virgin forests were devastated. The ocean fishless. The land disfigured by desertification and eroded. Natural resources exhausted. Even a drop of clean drinking water or a whiff of fresh air to breathe is hard to come by. All those things are really the fundamental human rights of the people.
With the self-destructive development projects, and in the very near future, the Luang Prabang the largest hydroelectric dam in Laos with Vietnam as its lead investor, clearly Vietnam is embarking on a reckless track or walking on thin ice as it is adhering to a double standards course of action. From now on, Vietnam has lost her legitimate and persuasive voice in the eye of the 70 million strong community of the Mekong Basin and the entire world.
Looking forward into the third millennium, to conserve the abundant ecosystem of our planet is synonymous to preserving the rich and timeless civilization of the Mekong River. We cannot heedlessly trade them for any short-term gain. More than once, over the last two decades, this author has consistently reiterated this core issue: “Environment and Democracy” will always remain an Inseparable Duo.
IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION
On this 22nd of March, 2020, the World Water Day with the chosen theme “Water and Climate Change,” while facing a Mekong Delta sliding on a path of hopeless degradation, this author would like to share with the young generation and the 20 million inhabitants of the 13 provinces in the Mekong Delta this quotation by Oded Distel, an expert on water from Israel: “Without space industry nations can still survive, but they can’t live without water”. (9) Water, here, is understood as “clean water source” suitable for human consumption. Oded Distel wanted to point to water as the correct priority for development.
NGÔ THẾ VINH MD
[Mekong Delta, Cù Lao Dung 2017]
- UN-Water Policy Brief on Climate Change and Water, 12 July 2019
- A Different Delta Force – USGS and U.S. Department of State Assist in the Mekong Delta, By Gabrielle B. Bodin, March 2010 [revised Feb. 2013]
- The Mekong and Mississippi Sister-River Partnership, Similarities and Differences. Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 01.15.2011
- Research Institute for Climate Change (DRAGON institute - Mekong)
- Thăm Khu Nhà Máy Xử lý Nước Thải và Hệ thống Bổ sung Tầng Nước Ngầm tại Quận Cam. Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 23.03 - 24.07.2017
- From A Mekong Delta Threatened by Salinization to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 01.2020
- Promising way to make fresh water for family use, 1.5 gallons per hour for each square meter of solar collecting area.
- Creating Drinking Water from Air. Watergen Technology from Israel.
- Let There Be Water. Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World. Seth M. Siegel. Thomas Dunne Books. An imprint of St. Martin’s Press 2017.
- Current World Population 2020 http//www.worldometers.info/world-population