DOWN THE HẬU RIVER TO THE TRẦN ĐỀ ESTUARY MEKONG DELTA AND THE SELF-DESTRUCTIVE DEVELOPMENT 1975 - 2020

Primum Non Nocere / First, do no harm 

NGÔ THẾ VINH

To the Friends of the Mekong Group
In remembrance of Mai Chửng
The sculptor of the Bông Lúa Monument 1970


Picture 1: at the Trần Đề Estuary of the Hậu River, from left: Ngô Thế Vinh at the Trần Đề Beach; center and right: the Mekong Delta with its beaches being constantly degraded by landslides and erosion. [photo by Phạm Phan Long & Ngô Thế Vinh]

TO THE TRẦN ĐỀ ESTUARY AT THE MOUTH OF THE HẬU RIVER

Traveling from the Vĩnh Tế Canal at the Vietnam – Cambodia border to the Trần Đề Estuary we have covered almost the full length of the Hậu River.

The danger of a disruption in the current flow downstream is real and can be plainly observed from upstream. Looking to the North, over the last two decades or more, the author has incessantly sounded the alarm about the accumulative and irreversible threats emanating from the exhaustive deforestation of the rainforests and flooded forests in the vicinity of the Tonle Sap Lake as well as the Mekong rapids blasting project to widen the Mekong River’s current to allow the passage of Chinese ships transporting goods to the countries downstream. In addition, we must also take into account the long-term impacts caused by the giant dams in the Yunnan Cascades and the 12 mainstream dams in the Lower Mekong in Laos and Cambodia. Those impacts include among other things: disruption of the current flow, loss of sand and alluvia source flowing down from the dam reservoirs causing a reversal process in a young Mekong Delta already undergoing gradual disintegration.


Picture 2: September.2002, the author stood at the foot of the historic Manwan Dam 1,500 MW, the first mainstream dam built upstream the Lancang-Mekong in Yunnan, China. [private collection Ngô Thế Vinh]  

China is gaining control of not only the East Sea but also of the entire Mekong River Basin. Vietnam lies at the mouth of that river while its government is politically under China’s influence therefore totally passive. It may occasionally raise a feeble protest or two but has no real concrete strategy thus cannot safeguard the livelihood of the 18 million inhabitants in the Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of the country. That is a fact.

This self-destructive process is unfolding in the Mekong Delta itself. The riverbed is being constantly dredged for sand. The melaleuca and mangrove forests continue to be cut down and their area shrinking while the uncontrolled use of underground water source goes on unabated.  On top of that, the master projects advocated by the government to “improve” the Mekong Delta since 1975 prove to be more a bane than a boon. The above mentioned phenomena reflect the accumulative destructions that are unfolding in the region.

The immediate results are non-stop landslides along the riverbanks and beaches, land sinking at a faster rate than the seawater rising, and aggravated salinization. Clearly, the natural resources of the once fertile new region favored by Mother Earth are now being depleted.  The easiest way out is to blame everything on Nature, on Climate Change. But, we cannot disregard the series of accumulative impacts emanating from human hands coupled with the passive attitude of the authorities. 


Picture 3: the 600 km long riverbanks in the Mekong Delta provinces are being damaged by landslides; Picture left, the Hậu River in An Giang Province with many sections degraded by landslides caused by humans: loss of alluvia retained by the hydroelectric dams’ reservoirs upstream, deforestation, widespread dredging of riverbeds for sand. [photo by AX, VN Express 15.05.2017]; Picture right, landslides at the bank of the Hậu River in Hồng Ngự District, Đồng Tháp Province. [photo by PanNature VN 2009]


Picture 4: All along the coastline of the Mekong Delta, beach erosion has been going on day and night at a much more alarming rate than along the riverbanks. A row of houses collapsing into the river would more readily catch the attention of the news media and of the public than the slow and silent death at the hand of beach erosion; Picture left, an uprooted cork tree that drifted to the Trần Đề Estuary. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh 2017]; Picture right, landslide at the forest along the coastline causing loss of land in the Phú Tân District, Kiên Giang Province. [photo by PanNature VN 2012]

TO THE CÙ LAO DUNG ISLAND

Approaching the East Sea, looking at the Cù Lao Dung Island where the Hậu River splits into two branches: the right one runs into the Trần Đề Estuary (previously known as the Trấn Di Estuary) in Sóc Trăng Province; the left one ends at the Định An Estuary in Trà Vinh Province. Right in between those two is the tiny Ba Thắc Estuary which has been filled by alluvia hundreds of years ago. The Mekong River or Cửu Long means the Nine Dragons (estuaries). In fact, it has only eight estuaries and should be named Bát Long/ Eight Dragons. But now it is reduced to Thất Long/ Seven Dragons because the Ba Lai Estuary of the Tiền River has been dammed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in an effort to fight salinization. [Picture 5a]


Picture 5a: Cửu Long The River with Nine Estuaries and two Currents, now reduced to Seven Estuaries: the Hậu River with 3 now down to 2: (1) Trần Đề Estuary, (2) Định An Estuary, (the Ba Thắc / Bassac estuary was filled). The Tiền River: six estuaries now only five: (3) Cung Hầu Estuary, (4) Cổ Chiên Estuary, (5) Hàm Luông Estuary, (Ba Lai Estuary has been dammed since 2000 to fight salinization), (6) Đại Estuary, (7) Tiểu Estuary. [source: map by Dragon/ CTU; annotations by Ngô Thế Vinh, CLCD BĐDS, 2nd edition, p.360]


Picture 5b:  the Cù Lao Dung Island divides the Hậu River into two branches: the right one ends at the Trần Đề Estuary, the left one at the Định An Estuary. [source: Wikipedia, with annotations by the author]. 

The Cù Lao Dung is a large island in the Hậu River, sandwiched in between the two provinces of Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh.The Cù Lao Dung Island is a district of Sóc Trăng Province, with an area of 24,944 hectares and a population of about 63,000 inhabitants [62,931 according to the 2009 statistics]. It is adjacent to Trà Vinh Province in the North and East; the Long Phú District, Sóc Trăng Province to the West; and the East Sea to the South. [Picture 5b]

Looking at an enlarged Google map, one can spot quite a few small and big islands on the Tiền River and Hậu River. As a rule, the alluvia deposits have rendered the soil on the island very fertile and suitable for growing fruit trees. Through many past generations, the islanders are favored by Mother Nature and have become quite well-off if not affluent.

Cù Lao Dung Island is very large in size and runs along an extended stretch of the Hậu River. Its southern half runs into the East Sea. Consequently, it benefits from both the seawater and freshwater hydrology and fishery.  


Picture 6: at the end of 2017, the barge network was still efficiently operating in many sections of the Mekong River, the Đại Ngãi Barges ran on a tributary of the Hậu River connecting to the Cù Lao Dung Island. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 7: left, bags of water drawn from a well; 100% of water used to irrigate onion fields and for household needs are extracted from the underground. It is the reason why the land in the Mekong Delta is sinking at a faster rate than the rising of the seawater. [photo by Phạm Phan Long]; right, a familiar constant sight on the Tiền and Hậu Rivers: barges overloaded with sand dredged from the riverbed causing severe landslides along the riverbanks. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

TO THE QUAN CHÁNH BỐ CANAL

Quan Chánh Bố is a man-made canal in Duyên Hải District, Trà Vinh Province. One end of the canal connects to the Hậu River at the Định An Village (Trà Cú). This canal runs along the border of the two districts Duyên Hải and Trà Cú north of National Route 53, before flowing into the East Sea. Originally, the Quan Chánh Bố Canal was dug in the 19th century [1837 - 1838] to use the water of the Hậu River to wash away the salt in the Láng Sắt Marshands. The project was completed under the supervision of the mandarin Trần Trung Tiên.

Going into the first decade of the 21 Century, [2009], Under Minister Hồ Nghĩa Dũng, a native of Đà Nẵng [tenure: 06.2006 - 08.2011], the Ministry of Communication and Transportation initiated a project to dredge the Quan Chánh Bố Canal to construct a waterway connecting the East Sea with the Hậu River all the way to the ports of Cần Thơ bypassing the Định An Estuary.  The reason given is the heavy alluvia build up at the Định An Estuary could cause large tonnage ships to run aground on their way to the Hậu River. [sic] 


Picture 8: The project Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal with an estimated initial investment cost of VN$ 9,781 billion. Since the first day of its test run, it proved to be a source of misery to the people living along its banks. [source: theMinistry of Communication and Transportations]

The plan to widen and dredge the 19.2 km long Quan Chánh Bố Canal (the stretch connecting the Hậu River with Long Khánh Village) also calls for the digging of a new 8.2 km long canal named Kênh Tắt extending the Quan Chánh Bố Canal to the Đông Hải Village plus an additional 7 km all the way to the East Sea. If the 12.2 km length of the Hậu River is added, the Luồng Kênh Quan Chánh Bố Canal will measure 46.6 km in total. [Picture 8]

The Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal, at the initial cost of VN$ 9,781 billion, is applauded as the "Panama Canal of Vietnam", a boastful claim indeed. The Panama Canal is of international stature. It is of strategic importance running across the isthmus of Panama in Latin America connecting the two vast Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal will help cut down more than in half the travel distance between New York and San Francisco: from 22,500 km (if one has to go around Cape Horn at the tip of South America) to 9,500 km.

Like with all major projects in the Mekong Delta, it must be said that the Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project was hastily conceived in total disregard for dissenting opinions (4), and implemented since the close of 2009. Like always, in the majority of cases, not enough time has been allocated for scientific research, discussion and assessment in an objective manner but most importantly with transparency. Moreover, during the implementation phase of the Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project, the public bidding procedure, as required by law, has not been observed. Contractors affiliated with interest groups were designated instead. Billions of public funds were wasted just for the sole purpose of finding a waterway for ships with large tonnage to navigate to the Mekong Delta. No concern is shown for the sustainability of the environment, economic impacts, and above all the safety of the people. The victims are the average men in the street being used as guinea pigs. Experiments are performed one after another, efficiency has yet to be proven but negative results are apparent for all to see. 

It would be advisable to pause for a footnote here: The official press reported that the Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project was still in progress when Mr. Hồ Nghĩa Dũng served as Minister of Communication and Transportation near the end of his five-year tenure in August 2011.  At about the same time, in preparation for his retirement, Mr Hồ Nghĩa Dũng designated a construction company for another big project: The Building of the Đèo Cả Tunnel that he later joined as a member of its board of directors. This premeditated move was the subject of a big scandal dubbed "the feathering of one’s nest" as well as "a bad precedence" by the press. The same Minister Hồ Nghĩa Dũng was also remembered as the promoter of the 1,570 km long North South High-speed Train Project bearing a price tag of US$ 55 billion. Fortunately it was voted down by the XII National Assembly.

The Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project came under the purview of Mr. Đinh La Thăng, a native of Nam Định. [length of service: 03.2011 - 08.2016] He took over the helm of the Ministry of Communication and Transportation with a very impressive background: Chairman of the Board of PetroVietnam (2005-2008), Chairman of the Board of Directors of PetroVietnam (2008-2011), Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sông Đà Corporation (2001-2003). In 2018, he was sentenced to jail for "intentional violation of the government’s regulations causing serious harms while serving as Chairman of the Board at PetroVietnam ". 

Seven years later [2009 - 2016], the Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project was completed at the start of 2016; with the following feature: The Quan Chánh Bố Canal allows the passage of seagoing ships with 10,000 tons net tonnage, as a result, vessels of 20,000 tons gross tonnage must navigate the canal at half capacity.

And, after just one year in operation something was amiss about the whole thing. The newspaper Đất Việt reported in its issue dated 04.10.2017 that the Ministry of Communication and Transportation was thinking of replacing the Kênh Tắt barges with a new tunnel under the Kênh Tắt Canal. It created some disquiet on the part of the public.


Picture 9: Kênh Tắt is a newly dug canal connecting one end of the Quan Chánh Bố Canal to the sea. To facilitate the traffic flow between the two banks of Kênh Tắt Canal on National Route 53 the initial plan was to make use of the Kênh Tắt Bridge.  Subsequently, it was substituted with the Kênh Tắt Barges that went into operation for about one year before the Ministry of Communication and Transportation planned to replace the barges with a new Tunnel under the Kênh Tắt Canal/ Đường Hầm Chui qua Kênh Tắt with a price tag of VN$ 10,319.2 billion... Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân, who has been monitoring the progress of the Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project from the start became quite shocked at the cavalier way the investors changed plans even at the cost of thousands of billions to the national budget. (2) [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh] 

Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân, [born in the Mekong Delta on an island located in the middle of the Tiền River, Chợ Mới District, An Giang Province] is a member of long standing in the National Council for Science and Technology Policy/ Hội đồng Chính sách Khoa học và Công nghệ Quốc gia, an advisory body to the Prime Minister, since 1992. He reluctantly stated:

"The surprising thing – bordering on the unimaginable – is the announcement in the Local page of the Vice Minister, former head of the Maritime Administration/Cục Trưởng Cục Hàng hải, that the Prime Minister intended to assign the Ministry of Communication and Transportation with the task of studying the construction of a tunnel under the Kênh Tắt Canal to save the people from having to use the barges and at the same time guarantee the safe passage of the ocean faring ships. For this purpose the Local page stated the need for an additional 50 hectares of land and over VN$ 3,000 billion. The projected starting date is scheduled for the end of this year.

At first, the idea of building a Kênh Tắt Bridge over the Kênh Tắt Canal on National Route 53 was considered to connect its banks. During the implementation of the project, the plan for the bridge was discarded in favor of the Kênh Tắt Barges that first went into operation on 01. 20.2016, the inauguration day of the Luồng Kênh Tắt. Unexpectedly, just after one year in operation, the Ministry of Communication and Transportation planned to replace the barges with a new Kênh Tắt Tunnel. And this is not the only change.

At the time of implementation (official document No. 123/TTg-CN on 01. 22.2007), the project’s cost was reported at VN$ 3,148.5 billion. Ten months later, the Ministry of Communication and Transportation issued Decree No. 3744/QĐ-BGTVT dated 11.30.2007 raising that cost 3.28 times from VN$ 3,148.5billion to VN$ 10,319.2 billion. It was done to account for the increase in dredging from 22 million m3 to 28.1 million m3; the length of the waterway from 27.57 km to 35.94 km; the area from 300 ha to 1,406.47 ha; variation in the slopes of the dredging due to the unstable foundation; building a dyke to contain waves instead of sand; combining that dyke of the waterway project with those of the seaport of Trà Vinh project…

Amazement at the casual way the investor switched from one plan to another… like changing shirts, even at the cost of thousands of billions to the national budget. The voters, who pay taxes toward the national budget certainly have the right to question the validity of the project! It is difficult to imagine that decisions to spend thousands of billions of the national budget could be made so irresponsibly! Not to mention the economic impacts, environmental and societal effects. Will the tunnel project this time be handled in the same fashion? [sic] end of quote (2)

Soon afterward, as reported by VTV.VN [16.11.2017], the state run TV channel felt obliged to sound the alarm (3):

Sea going vessels with tens of thousands of tonnage navigating the Quan Chánh Bố Canal, Trà Vinh Province leave in their wake big waves endangering lives and properties and creating great fear among the local inhabitants. In January, 2016, the waterway to the Hậu River was officially opened for the use of sea-faring vessels with10,000 tons tonnage fully loaded.  The waterway flowing into the Hậu River has a section that uses the Quan Chánh Bố Canal at the Trà Cú and Duyên Hải District, Trà Vinh Province. From the first day it went into operation, hundreds of families in the two Long Vĩnh and Đôn Xuân villages on the banks of the Quan Chánh Bố Canal live in constant anxiety and fear. The big waves the ships left in their wake cause damages to their properties and threaten their lives. People reported that their houses have been frequently flooded by waves. Mrs Đặng Thị Cúc (Duyên Hải District, Trà Vinh Province), reported her maternal grand child was swept by the waves into the creek in front of her house. Fortunately, the child was discovered and rescued on time. After that horrific experience, to protect the children, her family had to build a net barrier at the front of the house. The scar on Mrs Kim Thị Tiến’s leg has not healed fully. It was the result from her attempt to prevent the family boat from being smashed by the waves. To this day, Mrs Dương Thị Phượng is still traumatized at the mention that the big waves from the seagoing vessels have destroyed a boat and a scraping boat. Furthermore, a large quantity of seafood was lost causing her family to incur an estimated reduction in revenue of VN$100 million. The people reported that the ships do not operate regularly but only every other day or two. However, the danger is the 3-4 meter highwaves they create in their wake. They but rarely sound their horns while traversing highly populated areas. They can sail by any time of the day, even at nighttime... [sic]

Then the newspaper Đại Đoàn Kết [07.04.2017], reported landslides along the canal’s banks, necessitating an additional anticipated expenditure of $VN 1,6 billion to deal with the situation.(1)

According to the reports from the company Hải Vận Ship, during this trial stage, [sic] there are in total 14 sea going vessels that used the Kênh Tắt in passage to the Quan Chánh Bố Canal to reach the Hậu River. The Đông Thiên Phú Diamond (tonnage: 4,000 tons) sailed through on 7/7 on its way to the Hậu River, to be followed by other large tonnage ships like the Tân Cảng Glory container ship (tonnage: 9,000 tons) once a week. At the end of November, the Vinalines Unity (tonnage: over 20,000 tons) twice sailed the Kênh Tắt safely to dock at the port on the Hậu River.

Mr. Võ Minh Tiến, Director of Cần Thơ Maritime Administration, explained that because it was still in the trial stage [sic] his unit has to coordinate with the coast guards and local authorities to frequently carry out patrols as well as clearing of the waterway to assure safe passage for the vessels. To this day, the waterway project has met all the technical requirements for the safe two-way passage on the Hậu River of the large tonnage ships.

The noteworthy thing is the Director of the Cần Thơ Maritime Administration only expressed concern for the safety of the large tonnage sea faring vessels as they sail the Hậu River, but failed to mention the safety and lives of the local inhabitants who live along the banks in constant worry and anxiety.

Considering the multitudes of implications associated with the first day the Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal went into operation, the same Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân has openly advocated that the waterway going into the Hậu River to the Kênh Tắt Project and the Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project needs to come under the scrutiny of the National Assembly, particularly on the issues pertaining to the Quan Chánh Bố Waterway. Because, the natural channel ways like Định An are getting shallower while the channel way using the Quan Chánh Bố Canal still needs much more dredging with the stabilization point still to be determined. 

On his part, Lê Kế Lâm PhD argues that during the implementation stage the Ministry of Transportation and Communication should offer scientists the opportunity to research, discuss, and evaluate the project objectively as well as accurately. And the Ministry should also organize public meetings to hear rebuttals pertaining to the project especially from consultancy groups and associations. Also about the way the contractors were chosen through public bidding as required by law, not by assignment. The bottom line is to build a waterway for sea going vessels to sail to and from the Mekong Delta in an economical, safe, and environmentally sustainable way and not disappoint the people’s expectations.

[It should be noted, Lê Kế Lâm PhD, a former rear admiral, is the current (2014-2019) president of the Ho Chi Minh City Marine Science, Technology and Economy Association. He became well-known when his Association courageously issued a public protest against China during the incident of the drilling rig Hải Dương 981]. Đại Đoàn Kết [07.04.2017], Lê Anh.


Picture 10: this 7,000 tons vessel sailed from the ocean to the Hậu River via the Quan Chánh Bố Canal. [source: Đại Đoàn Kết Newspaper 07.04.2017] To this day, the economic merits of the Quan Chánh Bố Project facilitating the large tonnage ships to navigate from the East Sea to ports in Cần Thơ via the Hậu River are still dubious and subject to much debate. The economic benefits of the waterway Luồng Quan Chánh Bố Canal have yet to be seen but their numerous negative effects are already in plain sight.

THE PROJECTS RIDDLED WITH SYSTEMIC SHORTFALLS

In the aftermath of 1975, in a series of systemic shortfalls, the government has hastily implemented a number of core projects to “reform” the Mekong Delta. They mostly impacted in a negative way the eco-system of an entire basin due to defective Strategic Environment Assessments, in the form of pseudo “scientific studies” carried out in perfunctory fashions using the lives and livelihood of the helpless and freedom-deprived people as guinea pigs.  Such behavior is unacceptable in any democratic country.

It can be said the majority of the SEA process are bogus in view of their lack of transparency and accountability when:

1. Conflict of interests. The investors were allowed to choose their own consultants for the SEA projects and pay for their services. Naturally, the consultants are expected to produce a report totally favorable to the projects and cover up to the maximum any shortcomings on the part of the investors. Conscientious and responsible consultants will decline to be party to any contract that would be detrimental to their long term reputation. The end result: SEA reports concerning the projects in Vietnam could not be relied upon in the decision making process.

2. Lack of scientific transparency. The SEA reports are not widely disseminated in the public media. On the contrary, they are kept confidential and reserved to a limited circle of high government officials. If members of the public want to find out, they have to do their research in the dark.  Should they decide to raise a protest they or their families could run the risk of being threatened or even suppressed and incarcerated.

3. The evaluation body of the SEA lacks the participation of independent scientific experts and civil societies. In some instances, their names were fraudulently included in the report to protect the investors, duping even the authorities. But nobody was subject to any sanction or penalty. The SEA process is compromised at both ends: the investors and the overview committee.

4. The agencies charged with monitoring the operation of companies like VN Food, EVN, PVN, Vinacomin... are under the influence and manipulation of interest groups. The latter work in cahouts to promote large projects to profit from them.  A culture of corruption that has been instutionalized and known but helplessly accepted by everybody.

5. After the project went into operation, the system monitoring the pollution was ineffective and the reports were not widely disseminated.  For example: a private investigation done by the Viet Ecology Foundation showed that even the Air Quality Index was intentionally altered by government agencies to avoid responsibility and create disinformation to mislead public opinion.

6. Truly talented people would not consider an institution that creates and tolerates such interest groups to be a good partner to work with unless they are willing to forgo their integrity and sense of responsibility. Some intellectuals refuse to join the government but when the situation arises they are ready to pay the price and courageously raise their voice in protest to mitigate the lasting nefarious impacts on the country’s natural resources for future generations.

The immovable principle is: Primum Non Nocere. It is the primary lesson, the guiding light for all ministers, department heads of government branches to keep in mind before they decide to start any projects in the Mekong Delta. However, we have failed to see any evidence that they have acted in accordance with that fundamental principle.

We can right off hand list the major projects that have caused nefarious and long lasting effects on the Mekong Delta:

_ Spillway Rubber Dams Project to contain the flood water: [The Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development], these dams are used to allow for more land to plant three crops of high-yield rice a year. They severely degrade the soil, prevent the inflow of alluvia, and the stagnant water was turned into sources of pollution. At the same time they reduce the flow of water into the depression of Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral of Khu Tứ Giác Long Xuyên that serve as a water reserve for the entire Mekong Delta during the Dry Season.

 _The Drains and Dykes Project to Ward Off Salinization: [The Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development], prevent the natural flow of healthy rivers and turn them into stagnant lakes or ponds, completely wipe out a brackish water culture and create chain-reaction disruptions of the entire Mekong Pulse of the ecosystem in the Mekong Delta.

_ The 14 Thermal Power Plants Project: [Ministry of Industry & Trade], turn the Mekong Delta into a dumping ground for thermal power plants China discarded. The end result: a polluted land, water source, and air with the health of the people being neglected if not sacrificed.

_ The Lee & Man Paper Plant Project: [Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment] this plant causes severe pollution on account of its waste water mixed with all kinds of chemicals. It is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment that issued the permit for this plant to discharge the waste water into the Hậu River slowly killing it. Moreover, the plant also emits poisonous smoke, foul smell, loud noise from its machines. As a result, the health of the people is being harmed every minute of the day.

_ The Quan Chánh Bố Canal Project: [Ministry of Communication & Transportation], The project to build the Quan Chánh Bố Canal and allow large-tonnage vessels to sail from the sea up the Hậu River to the ports of Cần Thơ necessitates an expenditure amounting to thousands of billions. However, it is causing miseries to the people while its economic merits are yet to be seen and still subject to fierce debate.

The above list is far from complete. There still remain other small projects at the local levels in operation or in the development stage that do not require preliminary research or SEA process by independent experts.

Yet, to this day, there are people in the government or scientists in its employ who claim they have succeeded in raising agricultural production with their hydrological measures while their attempt to "keep alum in check"   is considered an "outstanding achievement". It is surprising that such big feats have not received a single acknowledgement in the international scientific forum! However, those who live and work in the Mekong Delta know full well that those feats only exist on paper. The "star" scientists seem to appear mostly in the state-run media network rather than in serious scientific forum.

Professor Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, a scientist who is an old hand observing the situation in the Mekong Delta stated: "The fact is: a significant number of Vietnamese scientists do not observe international standards while carrying out their research. The results of their works were not published therefore difficult to evaluate. The local news media and even the Ministry of Science and Technology acknowledge that many ‘works' are collecting dust in their drawers but rarely published. Even when published those works are open to criticism and doubts."

The same Professor Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, went on to note: "[…] it is still too premature to ascribe any merits – if any - to the scientists. From my observation in my native village, I realize that the increase in the output of plants and rice are actually the work of the farmers themselves. They achieve it through a trial-and-error method. They may not be familiar with the protocol to carry out experiments or the principle of randomization. They may not be verse in doing computation like engineers or Phds, but through trial-and-error, they are able to do crossbreeding or create new species; invent harvesters, tillers, vacuum machines for water hyacinths…Scientists have nothing to do with those endeavors.  The farmers may lack the words to claim credit for their works but, on the other hand, plenty of diploma-bearing ‘PhDs’ stand eager to claim it for themselves. It’s common knowledge that those who impoverish and make life difficult for the farmers of the Mekong Delta are the food conglomerates with their headquarters…located in Hanoi." 

In Vietnam, there is this popular advice to managers and scientists in the employ of state-run institutions: Don’t do anything, stay put and the people will take good care of you because when you do anything you are like a bull in a china shop.

In reality, in all regions of the country there are people with both competence and integrity. They are like hidden gems waiting to be discovered but the authorities do not have a policy to seek them out and show appreciation for their service. As a result, their talent either goes to waste or they will emigrate looking for greener pastures overseas.

It is not too harsh of the people when they refer to the term "government scientists " in the worst sense of the word: it is a cabale of intellectuals who sold their soul to the government, elbow out their truly talented colleagues, collude with each other, lay in wait at ministries and government branches in Vietnam and become their employer’s willing pawns.   Worse yet, they form a chorus to sing the unconditional praise of the misdeeds of a dictatorial state apparatus that is bent on plundering and divvying up the loot.  And their victims are the very poor silenced people who will be given a deaf ear even if they raise their voice in complaint.

IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION: A 45-YEAR CIRCUIT

Now, we stand at the farthest end of the Hậu River watching wave after wave of light brown alluvia spreading out from the river’s mouth to dilute into the sea. So many feelings revived in me. Like in a flashback, I relived the trip I once made to Long Xuyên and visited the Bông Lúa Con Gái monument by Mai Chửng, [Picture 11a,b] an old friend and also a giant among the sculptors of the South.

Post 1975, along with the campaign to burn books, the Bông Lúa Monument was also destroyed, truly not a very “good omen” for the future of the Rice Civilization and for the destiny of the entire Sông Nước Cửu Long region.


Picture 11a: The Bông Lúa Con Gái Monument 1970 in bronze leaves, a master work of art by sculptor Mai Chửng of the Hội Hoạ Sĩ Trẻ VN, [source: private collection Hội Hoạ Sĩ Trẻ 1966-1975].


Picture 11b: left, sculptor Mai Chửng standing next to his work the Bông Lúa Monument done with bronze leaves, over 16 m high under construction in Long Xuyên, Mekong Delta; the full panorama of the Bông Lúa Monument at the Trưng Vương Park in Long Xuyên 1970; but only 5 years later, after April 30, 1975 this Bông Lúa Monument was torn down, really not a "good omen". [source: collection by Dương Văn Chung, Thatsonchaudoc.com]

What is the dream, aspirations of the Vietnamese and more than 18 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta in particular? They dream of a return to a humanistic education system of 45 years ago. They dream of a return to the affluent existence of the Mekong Delta with its white rice and clear water, tree branches weighed down with fruits, rice fields teeming with fish and shrimps. That Golden Age is gone. After being subjected to 45 years of "re-education", the Mekong Delta’s natural resources become depleted, the people watching rivers in their death throes, their quality of life downgraded. They are forced to live days of uncertainty on their land and rivers, the air being polluted by the day. It’s easy to understand why almost 2 million of the inhabitants in the Mekong Delta have bid farewell to their homes and villages. That environmental migration does not show sign of abating anytime soon. 

More than once, in his works, the author has clearly stated his conviction that: "the environment and democracy form an inseparable duo".

NGÔ THẾ VINH
Mekong Delta 12.2017 – California 08.2020

Reference:

  1. Luồng Quan Chánh Bố trước nguy cơ sạt lở. Việc nạo vét luồng Quan Chánh Bố được dự báo sẽ tiêu tốn chi phí lớn trong nhiều năm. Báo Đại Đoàn Kết 04.07.2017 http://daidoanket.vn/xa-hoi/luong-quan-chanh-bo-truoc-nguy-co-sat-lo-tintuc371653

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  5. Cống Đập Chặn Mặn Gây Rối Loạn Hệ Sinh Thái và Những Cái Giá phải Trả. Ngô Thế Vinh. Viet Ecology Foundation. 12.2017 http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/289

  6. Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng. Ngô Thế Vinh, Nxb Văn Nghệ 2000. Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch. Ngô Thế Vinh, Nxb Văn Nghệ 2000.
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