To the Friends of the Mekong Group
and the 18 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta whose voice is muted
“Nowadays, Vietnam’s irrigation policy must adapt to the changes that are taking place in agricultural activities. It can no longer pursue the old objective of increasing rice production through intensive farming but has to aim for the amelioration of the people’s livelihood through crop diversification and integrated cultivation. Unfortunately, interest groups adamantly hold on to their original plans and insist on implementing large scale irrigation systems, build dikes to control salinity, construct canals to channel rare and precious fresh water from the distant Hậu River to force the farmers to plant rice like in the case of theCái Lớn – Cái Bé Rivers Irrigation Project (CLCB). Those interest groups know how to pull strings to have their projects approved so that they can make money at the expense of the helpless rice farmers.” [exchange of email on 09.16.2018 between Prof. Võ Tòng Xuân and Dr. Ngô Thế Vinh]
Picture 1:upper and lower, overall picture of the Cống Cái Lớn, Cống Cái Bé, acclaimed as the Project of the Century: the permanent sluice gate system to fight salinity at CLCB, if implemented, in the opinion of independent experts, is not only extremely costly (more than VND 3.000 billion) but also not needed. In addition, it carries the inherent danger of devastating on a wide scale the entire ecosystem of the Mekong Delta that is already fragile. This project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development/ Bộ NN & PTNT stands in complete violation of the spirit of the government’s Resolution 120/NQ-CP regarding the sustainable development of the Mekong Delta and adapting to climate change signed by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc on 11.17.2017 which emphasizes this underlying principle: “Respect natural law and practical conditions, avoid violently interfering in the nature.”(1,2)
THE PROJECTS MEETING WITH FAILURE IN THE MEKONG DELTA: ARE LESSONS LEARNED, PEOPLE HELD RESPONSIBLE?
Over the last two decades, the author never ceased voicing his concerns about the threats facing the entire Mekong River basin emanating from the giant dams in Yunnan, China, the series of 9 hydroelectric dams on the main current in Laos, and the 2 dam projects in Cambodia. Consequently, the Mekong Delta is facing gradual adverse course at the hand of disturbances in the current flow, loss of water retained by the reservoirs, and most importantly loss of sand, and alluvia. In addition, river banks and coastilines along the East Sea are being damaged by landslides.
As far as the threats coming from upstream, there isn’t practically much Vietnam can do. Located at the mouth of the river, Vietnam is in no position to prevent any hydroelectric projects from being implemented upstream in the Mekong River Basin. What is worse, in the past, Vietnam has consented to the approval of the construction of hydroelectric dams in Laos and Cambodia. Just recently, it has agreed to the purchase of electricity from Laos. Since the day the Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm signed The Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin in 1995, he committed the strategic mistake of relinquishing the veto power inherent in the Mekong River Committee in 1957 during the time of the Republic of Vietnam.
And people still remember that the former Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng had to call on China to discharge the water from the hydroelectric Jinhong Dam in Yunnan to save the Mekong Delta from drought at the closing days of March, 2016.
Furthermore, we must also take into account the self-destructive development projects implemented right in the heart of the Mekong Delta over the last four decades that caused severe accumulative impacts on the natural resources and livelihood of the entire basin at the end section of the Mekong River. That process unfolded predominantly in the post 1975 years:
_building a network of dikes and roads to have more land to plant three crops of rice per year while depleting the two water reservoirs in the Quadrilateral of Khu Tứ Giác Long Xuyên and depression of Đồng Tháp Mười.
_ Building a network of dikes to fight salinity but at the same time disrupting the natural cycle of the Mekong Delta’s eco-system with big projects like the Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula and the Ba Lai Irrigation Project.
THE FRESH WATER PROJECT IN THE CÀ MAU PENINSULA: A REGRETTABLE EXPERIENCE
The Quản Lộ – Phụng Hiệp Project, the Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula was started in the early years of the 1990’s with an investment cost of VND 1.400 billon financed with a loan from the World Bank. Throughout the period from 1990 to 2000, investments have been funneled widely into the construction of hundreds of dikes, drains, sea dikes, river dikes to either fight salinity or save fresh water. In the estimation – in theory - of the irrigation branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the fresh water irrigation system running from the Hậu River to the Cà Mau Peninsula will supply water, mainly used in rice cultivation, to 70,000 ha in Bạc Liêu Province, 50,000 ha in Cà Mau Province and 66,000 ha in Kiên Giang Province.
Picture 2: Map of the rivers, canals crisscrossing the basin in the Mekong Delta [Source: Amir Hosseinpour (ZEF), quoted by Simon, 2014] (6)
Picture 3: Map of the irrigation project in the southern part of the Cà Mau Peninsula. (6)
With the following consequences:
On the project’s side, because the dikes to fight salinity have become unexpected obstructions to the traffic on the rivers and canals, projects like the Âu thuyền Tắc Thủ had to be introduced in 2001. It was located at the three-way intersection of the Ông Đốc - Cái Tàu - Trẹm Rivers, in the two districts of Thới Bình and U Minh, Cà Mau Province at an additional cost of almost VND 80 billion. This project was designed and implemented by the company Cty CP Tư vấn XD Irrigation II. Completed in 2006, the Âu thuyền Tắc Thủ Project [Picture 4] besides being useless also proved to be another hindrance to the traffic on the river. To this day, nobody has yet come forward to accept responsibility for this failed and wasteful investment. (6)
Picture 4: Âu thuyền Tắc Thủ Project designed and built by the company Cty. CP Tư vấn XD Irrigation II in 2001 at the three-way intersection of the Ông Đốc - Cái Tàu - Trẹm Rivers, Cà Mau Province, at a cost of VND 80 billion. However, after it was completed in 2006, it proved to be useless and also an obstruction to the river traffic. [photo by Nguyễn Kiến Quốc] (6)
On the eco-system side: since the current flow of the rivers and canals is often halted by the dikes, the organic interplay between the river and ocean is completely turned off during the time the dikes are closed. By the time they are reopened, the pollution that has accumulated, in the meantime, flows downstream with the current destroying the habitat and marine food source at the estuary and nearby coastline.
The inland section of the gate no longer is washed clean due to the disappearance of the daily high and low tide or the biweekly spring and neap tide. Before the sluice gates and dikes were built, the tides in the rivers and canals in the Cà Mau Peninsula, though not regular, can reach an amplitude of almost 2 meters high. Consequently, the dikes are closed throughout the Dry Season and the occluded section of the river turns into a stagnant pond and the pollution worsens. Waste from residential areas as well as toxins from chemicals used in farming like pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers flow down from upstream then accumulate in very thick layers. [Picture 5]
Picture 5: at sections where the river stagnates, the Mekong Delta drowns in pollution and the habitatis experiencing a slow death. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh 12.2017]
According to the Mekong Study Group - Cần Thơ University (6), the system of dikes to fight salinity has seriously hampered the current flow of fresh water from upstream (blue arrows) and the seawater coming in with the tides (red arrow). Consequently, the Mekong Delta can no longer be washed clean daily (high tide – low tide), monthly (spring tide – neap tide), and annually (High Waters Season – Low Waters Season) like in the old days. Therefore, the level of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water drops drastically and the water in rivers and canals can no longer be cleaned through the mechanism of oxidation. [Picture 6]
The water in rivers and canals turns black and emits foul odors coming from decaying organic matters. Consequently, the water in the irrigation areas is no longer suitable for human consumption as well as daily washing. Nowadays, the people must resort to underground water pumped from wells depleting their reserve so much that in some areas people must dig as deep as 80 – 120 meters to reach a fesh water source. The use of underground fresh water is so high that it causes the land in the Mekong Delta to sink at a much faster rate than the rise of seawater. (6)
Picture 6: thanks to the fresh water flowing down from upstream (blue arrows) and the seawater coming in with the tides (red arrows) the natural environment of the Mekong Delta is cleaneddaily (high tide – low tide), monthly (spring tide – neap tide), and annually (High Waters Season – Low Waters Season). This water source also helps the water in rivers and canals to circulate because the Mekong Delta consists mainly of extremely flat lands. (6)The dikes built by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Developmentsound the death knell of the current flow and the pulse of the ecosystem in the Mekong Delta.
On the natural resources side: fishery represents an important source of protein in the daily food intake of the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. The white fish that live in rivers are facing the threat of extinction because the current flows are being hampered by the dikes. Only the black fish living in stagnant waters, lakes, ponds like snakeheads, catfish, tilapia…are still thriving. This is an inevitable phenomenon when a riverine environment is transitioning into a lacustrine one. (Nguyễn Hữu Thiện, 2018).
The water habitats become exceedingly polluted. On top of that, hyacinths are growing profusely covering the surface of rivers or canals and denying access to boats. People resort to the use of herbicides to clear the waterways thus making the pollution even worse; [Picture 7] and the loss of protein from fish, shrimps and other marine food has adversely affacted the health of the people causing children to suffer from malnutrition.
Picture 7: Hyacinths are growing profusely blanketing the surface of rivers and canals and denying their access to boats. In certain areas, people resort to the use of herbicides to clear the waterways thus making the pollution even worse. The hyacinths also block sunlight and air that are indispensible to aquatic species. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh 12.2017]
Plants that usually grow in brackish water like nipa will wither then die because the brackish water has turned into fresh water. Generally speaking, the entire diverse ecosystem of the project’s areas becomes degraded and critically devastated.
On the societal side, in areas where the dikes are built, people can witness the following occurences: more difficulties in farming, higher costs and reduced income, polluted water sources. Those are some of the reasons leading to widespread migration from the countryside to cities or industrial regions outside the Mekong Delta to seek employment. (6) Over the last two decades, there are almost 2 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta who left their homelands they considered the “land of milk and honey” blessed with white rice and paddies teeming with fish, shrimps to look for greener pastures. In any case, it is the women and children who suffer the most.
Picture 8: the people of Bạc Liêu then of Cà Mau call on one another to take matters into their own hands and demolish the anti-salinity dikes. [source: private collection VTV, Giữa đôi dòng mặn ngọt 1998] (6) https://vtv.vn/video/phim-tai-lieu-giua-doi-dong-man-ngot-83951.htm
After five years, the Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula has laid bare the discrepancies between theories and realities that resulted in numerous difficulties in the lives of the inhabitants of the region. During the period of 1997-1998, hundreds of farmers have demanded that the dikes be destroyed so that they could have brackish water to raise shrimps. In July, 1998 the farmers in Bạc Liêu Province marched in groups to destroy the anti-salinity Láng Trâm Dikes soon to be followed by the people in Cà Mau Province. [Picture 8]
Eventually, the government gave in and consented to let the provinces in the project area convert 450.000 ha of rice paddies into shrimp farms. It also means that the government took a correction path to restore the lands in question to their original state and return to the natural ecosystem of annual fresh and sea water cycles.
Moreover, the waste of VND 1,400 billion notwithstanding, the Fresh Water Project of the Cà Mau Peninsula still left in its wake damages to the environment and natural resources that furthermore impoverished the country. The Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula failed to achieve most of its stated objectives.
BA LAI DAM: ANOTHER DISAPPOINTMENT
It was assumed that the Fresh Water Project of the Cà Mau Peninsula would serve as a lesson for all. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development soon afterward came up with the Ba Lai Dam Project that turned out to be a lesson unlearned.
Started in 02.2000, this project straddles the Ba Lai River Estuary extending from the Thạnh Trị to the Tân Xuân Villages. Its initital cost was reported at more than VND 66 billion. In principle – as always “in principle” – the Ba Lai Dam was supposed to: fight salinity, retain fresh water for the use of 115,000 hecta of land, meet the fresh water need of over 600,000 inhabitants of the city of Bến Tre and districts of Ba Tri, Giồng Trôm, Bình Đại, Châu Thành. In addition, it was to be integrated with the water and land transportation networks as well as improve the ecology of the region. [sic]
Two years later, in 04.2002, the Ba Lai Dam went into operation and was acclaimed as the largest hydrological project of the Mekong Delta. Starting on that date, the estuary of the Ba Lai River, one of the 8 estuaries of the Mekong River, was officially closed. [Picture 9]
To this date, the Ba Lai Dam has been operating for over 18 years [2002-2020]. What are its achievements so far? It has proved unable to contain the encroachment of seawater inland because countless other rivers and canals do not have dams or dikes to block seawater from flowing inland and flood the network of the Ba Lai Dam. The only recourse left to the locals is to lament and the people of Bến Tre came up with this proverb:
Ba Lai là cái cửa mình
Trung ương đem lấp dân tình ngẩn ngơ
Ba Lai is an exposed estuary
The central government filled it up, the people are in disarray
Picture 9: From the day the Ba Lai Dam was built, the Ba Lai Estuary, the 8th one, was closed by order of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Ba Thắc Estuary was filled a century back. Therefore, the Mekong River is now reduced to seven branches: Seven Dragons. [photo by Lê Quỳnh, Người Đô Thị Newspaper]
The Ba Lai River stopped to flow. Instead of being turned into a fresh water lake, the people of Bến Tre City must be content with coexisting with a saltier Ba Lai especially during the Dry Season. The end results: the residents of Bến Tre experience a chronic penury of fresh water and have no choice but buy fresh water to meet their domestic use sometimes at the cost of VND 100,000 / cubic meter. [Tuổi Trẻ online 22.02.2016]
To explain away the “adverse-effects” of the Ba Lai Dam Project the government blames it on a lack of funding to carry out other needed works like the building of additional dams, dikes and also the locks on the two rivers Giao Hoà and Chẹt Sậy that still channel seawater from the Đại River Estuary into the "fresh water Ba Lai Lake".
The experience of operating the Ba Lai Dam for the last 18 years demonstrates that in spite of spending so many billions with a stubborn determination to intervene ruthlessly and awkwardly with nature, the building of dams to contain seawater still leaves the water retained by them unsuitable for human use. Those projects will render the water more polluted as it becomes stagnant due to the presence of the dams.
The construction of the Ba Lai Dam is admittedly a costly investment. But when it became evident that the venture was an obvious blunder, the task of dismantling it, cleaning up the environment and redirecting the activities of the locals is not a simple and quick thing to do.
The environment is not a chessboard you can easily reset at will. This question comes to mind: in regard to the devastating impacts of the Ba Lai Dam: is the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment or the central government the responsible party who washed its hand from the whole debacle today?
Two costly lessons. From the first failure of the Fresh Water Project of the Cà Mau Peninsula to the anti-salinity Ba Lai Dam Project, many scientists and environmental activists, acting like a "think tank", have tirelessly sound the alarm that absent a comprehensive, overall strategic assessment for the entire Mekong Delta, any attempt to deal with the problems of sea and fresh water on a region by region basis by introducing projects to build dams and dikes to control seawater at the estuaries of big rivers will only result in destroying an entire fragile ecosystem that has existed for thousands of years with unfathomable consequences. Such unsustainable development has damaged, disfigured the face of the Mekong Delta’s ecosystem and gradually impoverished its natural resources.
THE CÁI LỚN-CÁI BÉ IRRIGATION PROJECT: ANOTHER “PROJECT OF THE CENTURY” BELEAGUERED WITH UNCERTAINTIES
The Cái Lớn-Cái Bé Irrigation Project (CLCB) was promoted in 2011 with the purported objectives of dealing with rising seawater and global cimate change as well as preserve the land for rice cultivation to assure food security and for export in accordance with the general hydrology plan for the Mekong Delta approved by Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng on 04.19.2016.
Picture 10: left, the report of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Cái Lớn – Cái Bé Rivers Irrigation Project; right, the CLCB Project (in pink) within the Mekong Delta Basin. (1) [source: EIA tr.83]
The CLCB Irrigation Project - Phase 1 was approved by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc on 04.17.2017 as reported by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rrural Development. The whole process of writing the project, carrying out the feasibility study and performing the EIA was undertaken behind closed door under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development with no apparent participation of any independent individuals or organizations. The project investor is the Irrigation Construction and Investment Management Board 10 of the same Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Both the unit in charge of writing the project named the joint venture of Vietnam Academy for Water Resources – Southern Institute of Water Resources – Irrigation Construction Consulting Joint Stock Company II and the one responsible of doing the EIA named the Institute of Marine Engineering Institute of Water Resources Planning of Vietnam are under the direct administrative supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development or the same Ministry has the authority to issue direct orders to them. Throughout the whole process, the independent experts, civil social organizations and local people were not consulted or given a voice in the decision making phase of the project.
The CLCB Irrigation Project, located mainly in the Cà Mau Peninsula, is delineated by: in the north the Cái Sắn Canal; in the south and southeast the Quản Lộ - Phụng Hiệp Canal; in the northeast the Hậu River and the west the Gulf of Thailand. The total area of the project is: 909.248 ha, covering the 5 provinces of Hậu Giang, Kiên Giang, Cà Mau, Sóc Trăng, Bạc Liêu and the city of Cần Thơ. [Picture 10].
As reported in the EIA report (487 pages thick) the objective (in theory) of the CLCB Irrigation Project Phase 1 is:
- Control salinity, resolve conflicts between coastal aquaculture and agricultural cultivation areas in the provinces of Kiên Giang, Hậu Giang and Bạc Liêu in the basin of Cái Lớn- Cái Bé Rivers. At the same time, contribute to the stable development of fisheries in the coastal areas of Kiên Giang province.
- Actively respond to climate change, sea level rise, provide fresh water sources to coastal areas to deal with the shortage of fresh water during the Dry Season, prevent forest fires especially during drought years, contribute to stable socio-economic development.
- Increase flood drainage capacity, reduce waterlogging, remove acidity and improve alkaline soil;
- Integrate the development of waterways and roads in the project area.
The scale of the CLCB Irrigation Project (Phase 1) includes:
- the cluster of works Cái Lớn - Cái Bé, a dike connecting those two sluice gates with National Highway 61 and a network of culverts.
- Dredge the Thốt Nốt and KH6 Canals, repair the sewers, Tắc Thủ Dock; the cluster of works on the eastern bank of the Chắc Băng Canal and Trẹm River; Lương Thế Trân Sewer; Ông Đốc Sewer; Xẻo Rô Sewer; Ngọn Tắc Thủ Sewer and Tắc Thủ Pump Station.
The total investment cost of the project amounts to (Phase 1) VND 3,309.5 billion (equivalent to US$ 150 million).
EIA CÁI LỚN - CÁI BÉ: “PROPOSE THAT THE INVESTORS OF THE PROJECT EARNESTLY IMPLEMENT THE MEASURES TO CAUSE POLLUTION”
- The EIA report of the CLCB Irrigation Project - Phase 1, was undertaken by the Institute of Marine Engineering under the direct administrative supervision of the Institute of Water Resources Planning of Vietnam (2018) and part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. This report was said to be not evaluated and approved.
This EIA report that has not being evaluated and approved has immediately elicited extensive observations from experts living in the country and overseas:
- this EIA report of almost 500 rambling pages was written under the direction of the investors or interest groups. It incorporated incomplete as well as unclear arguments with the sole purpose of justifying the urgent implementation of the project. Consequently, it betrayed a lack of scientific objectivity, power of persuasion, and practicality.
- Item 01.1.2 of the EIA: The need to invest in the project was couched in general terms. No references were made to the existing conditions pertaining to the sea-fresh water in the project area, the actual economic and societal impacts that demand remedies and a lack of strategic vision especially within the context of a slew of failed “projects of the century” already noted at the top part of this article. Such approach to write the report aimed solely at pushing it through to benefit the investors. At the same time, it neglected to offer any credible projections, cautionary observations or measures to alleviate or resolve any perceived drawbacks in a zero sum game situation.
- Besides a cursory computation of the investment cost of the project, the EIA did not mention any operating and maintenance costs nor reserve funds earmarked for potential damages and risks.
- the EIA did not evaluate the current plus and minus, costs and benefits pertaining to the people and government. It did not look into any alternatives to decide whether the project does truly offer the optimum solution?
- Most importantly, the EIA only reserved less than three pages to discuss in general terms the measures to prevent and reduce pollution in items 126.96.36.199.With such undefined measures, it would be difficult to see how the problem of pollution could be tackled effectively.
- Considering the project may have a life expectancy of 50 years at the minimum, or even up to 100 years, the EIA, incomprehensibly, focused much of its analysis on the project’s impacts during the preliminary and implementation phases. It barely dealt with impacts caused by the CLCB Irrigation Project after its completion. On top of that, the EIA gave a sketchy account of the fundamental and crucial issues like the impacts on the hydrological environment from the operation of the sluice gates in items 188.8.131.52.4, the reduction of impacts on the hydrological environment and ecological resources … with such general approach, it would be difficult to imagine how the project’s implementation would be carried out in practice.
It is noteworthy to remark that from pages 451 to 456, the EIA continuously reiterated this important opinion collected from 8 of the 39 villages’ People’s Committees during the public consultation process: “propose that the project investors earnestly implement the pollution causing measures.” [sic] The EIA report did not include the first hand documents in support of that opinion but there are two ways the phrase: “propose that the project investors earnestly implement the pollution causing measures”could be understood:
- The consulting firm that wrote the EIA was unable to make the differentiation between “pollution creating measures” and “pollution control measures”. Those two are totally contradictory. They are the most elementary notions that first year students majoring in environtment studies must know. How could the top consultancy groups in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development with a strong team of associate professors, PhDs, MS, engineers, BS commit such grave blunder? It’s not that they did not know but rather they have demonstrated total sloppiness in their writing and reviewing of the report - bordering on carelessness.
- The consultant groups writing the EIA intentionally “put words in the mouth” of the People’s Committees so that they put forth the idea to “propose that the project investors earnestly implement the pollution causing measures.” The result showed there were 8 of the 39 villages consulted that agreed with the consultants and the exact wording of the phrase was reported in black and white in the EIA. In such a case, this dishonesty, untruthfulness could not be tolerated. It is more than untruthfulness. It is gross irresponsibility.
Regardless of the reasons, an EIA report that has in it the phrase “propose that the project investors earnestly implement the pollution causing measure.” would inevitably raise doubts about the motive of the report writers, the project investors and the people who approved that project. In general, the section devoted to the public consultation process was skimpily written pointing to a serious flaw in the project. Instead of seeking the critical opinions of the communities living in the project’s area to help make the project better, it rendered the whole report meaningless.
In the opinion of experts: “The entirety of the scenarios predicted in chapter 3 of the EIA is purely theoretical, devoid of any references to a single successful project either in Vietnam or the world. The EIA report showed that the consultant group overlooked the manifest lessons of the failed hydrological projects that brought about deplorable and irreversible impacts on nature like theFresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula and the Ba Lai Irrigation Project mentioned above. Therefore, we have ground to conclude that the findings in the EIA did not offer any recommendations to avoid past blunders that caused the delta to be awash in pollution. The report lacked in scientific value and reliability.
Such a defective EIA report does not warrant approval of a “Project of the Century” that carries the threat of devastating the entire fragile ecosystem of not only the Cà Mau Peninsula but also of the Mekong Delta. The project will directly impact the livelihood of millions of inhabitants in the project’s areawhile there remains a long list of technical problems that still remain to be solved.
An ecosystem once destroyed could not be easily remedied or restored.
Picture 11: Map of the anti salinity irrigation project on the Cái Lớn- Cái Bé Rivers, that will impact over 1/4 of the Mekong Delta’s area and change the way of life of millions of inhabitants in the region. [source: Ánh Sáng và Cuộc Sống]
WHAT DO INDEPENDENT EXPERTS SAY ABOUT THE CLCB PROJECT?
Picture 12:from left, Professor Võ Tòng Xuân, Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân; below from left, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, Dương Văn Ni PhD, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS. [source: internet], the voices of two generations of intelectuals from the Mekong Delta, they tend to favor the use of non-structural adaptation measures to work for the benefits of the almost 18 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta.
To arrive at a most realistic view of the CLCB Project, the author of this article contacted experts in agriculture, environment, and ecology of the Mekong Delta. They are acclaimed not only inside Vietnam but also in the world for their contributions to science and life. Above all else, they were born and grew up in the Mekong Delta. Their lives are rooted in that part of the land and they know it as the palm of their hand.
In the opinion of Professor Võ Tòng Xuân
on 09.16.2018 in An Exchange of Personal Emails:
NGÔ THẾ VINH WROTE:
Myself and the Friends of the Mekong Group, in our part of the world, are very concerned about the Cái Lớn Cái Bé Project. It is my recollection that according to you Professor Võ Tòng Xuân and other independent experts, projects to fight salinity will disrupt the natural current flow of rivers, bring about unpredictable implications, particularly, in regards to the environment... Between friends, I would appreciate if you can share with us an up to date and more specific observation concerning the Cái Lớn Cái Bé Project so that I can quote the view of a well respected and qualified expert in an article I am working on during a time when the voice of honest scientists is being drowned out by interest groups…
PROFESSOR VÕ TÒNG XUÂN RESPONDED:
I am fully aware that you have a heavy heart each time the Mekong Delta comes to your mind. After 40 years, I finally achieved another success in the area of Science and Social Building when the government signaled it had adopted a policy change. But it must be said, right away, that this is only the first step when the Prime Minister decided to issue a resolution. We must give it some time to see real changes when the ministries, bureaus, branches start to implement it. Therefore, I’d like to put it in these few words:
When Resolution 120 NQ-CP was issued in November, 2017, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has agreed with the recommendations I made 28 years ago when Vietnam again joined the rank of the three largest rice exporters in the world. This is a historical resolution as far as the Mekong Delta is concerned because it frees the farmers from having to plant rice forever so that government officials can meet their quotas in spite of the fact they have to suffer from falling rice prices as a result of surplus production. Nowadays, the irrigation policy of Vietnam has to adhere to changes in agricultural activities and can no loger be held captive of old quotas of intensive rice cultivation. It must be geared to the objective of improving the livelihood of the farmers through diversification of planting and integrated farming.
Regrettably, interest groups still hold fast to the initial plans of buiding large-scale irrigaton projects, constructing dikes and dams to fight salinity, digging canals to carry the precious fresh water from the distant Hậu River to continue the forced cultivation of rice as it is the case with the Cái Lớn – Cái Bé Project. Those interest groups never let go of their powerful ability to have their projects approved so that they can enrich themselves at the expense of farmers who are getting poorer by the day.
True scientists have turned the table on those interest groups by using the same arguments the latter used in order to work for the projects’ rejection. But those who oppose the project seldom mention that in light of Resolution 120 NQ-CP, food is no longer the main objective the government aims to attain and it no longer forces everybody to stick to what they are doing regardless of the price they have to pay. Times have changed. We are experiencing a large surplus of rice now. With the existing cultivation techniques, we have a new rice harvest every three months. Why is it that the selfish interest groups still insist on fighting salinity to continue planting rice while the farmers who do it have been suffering from dramatic loss of revenues over the last 40 years? Do those people want to see the rice farmers of our country persist in their misery?
On one hand, those who continuously proclaim rice, rice, rice really do not know how to do business besides rice. The more they insist on producing only food the more they reveal their lack of knowledge. Just imagine if Malaysia or Singapore only focuses in producing food, certainly they wouldn’t rank among the richest ASEAN countries today. Or looking to the far away West, if Switzerland also aims at achieving food security, assuredly, it wouldn’t make the list of the richest nations in Europe.
On the other hand, hydrology experts in our country are quite capable of using the existing irrigation works in the flooded regions of the Mekong Delta to plant non-rice trees especially the farming of aquatic animals suitable to brackish water habitats along the coasts. You should not go along with managers who only focus on rice planting, but rather shoud help the people who can introduce new plants or raise animals that can command higher prices so that they can prosper faster. The next step is to connect with competent businesses that have established outlets to market the farmers’ products. [End of quote from the private exchange between Prof. Võ Tòng Xuân and Dr. Ngô Thế Vinh, in an email dated 09.16.2018]
We should add: Profesor Võ Tòng Xuân is known as an agriculturist who had devoted his life working extensively with rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta prior to 1975 to this day. His peers in the West calleđ him Dr. Rice on account of his efforts to educate the farmers in the Delta to switch to the Miracle Rice HYV / High Yield Variety throughout the Mekong Delta making Vietnam the second largest rice exporter in the world [after Thailand]. It was also he who, for the last 28 years, has courageously and timely advocated for a change in farming policy to free the farmers from the eternal yoke of being forced to plant rice regardless of the low price it fetches as a result of a huge surplus. He is among the respected and influential voices that helped the issuance of the Resolution 120 NQ-CP by the government in November, 2017.
In the opinion of Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân:
A member of long standing in the National Council for Science and Technology Policy, Professor Trân has accumulated extensive experience in the way government agencies work. A native of the Delta, he saw life on an island located right in the middle of the Tiền River in the district of Chợ Mới, province of An Giang. His research work on the Mekong River and Mekong Delta bears the title “Điều tra Cơ bản Tổng hợp vùng Mekong Delta”.
Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân raised this question about the CLCB Project:
“We have completed the Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau Peninsula and the Ba Lai Irrigation Project in Bến Tre. The question that needs to be asked is:“What are the reasons that led to their failure?” Before we begin the implementation of new projects, we have to find the answer to that question first.” Still, no answer has yet to come from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân reiterated: “the lack of fresh water is only a phenomenon. We need to determine the correct answers to arrive at the correct solutions. We are living in a region with a very diverse ecosystem yet we somehow try to simplify it. From a multitude of living forms in nature, we narrowed it down to rice and shrimps. We are impoverishing our evironment and ecosystem. In my view, we need to analyze carefully Resolution 120 in a very objective and scientific manner.Weshould have a seminar to discuss non-structural adaptation measures first before thinking of looking into alternative options like building dams to tackle the problems.”
The main objective of the report is to assess the impacts of the preparation and implementation phases of the project. As for the rest of its chapters, they were in general only “copy & paste” works from feasibility studies.
In the meanwhile, we are waiting for the assessment of the project’s impacts on the environment after it is implemented and goes into operation. Only then, would the project’s feasibility study show its full meaning or value in the approval of the project.
Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Trân continues: “We should not build dams to contain sea or brackish water. We need to arrive at a correct understanding to avoid having an incorrect perception of climate change that leads to an erroneous choice of inappropriate and ineffective corrective measures. In this specific case, we have the irrigation project on the Cái Lớn and Cái Bé Rivers that could potentially pollute the entire Mekong Delta due to a lack of exchange of water flow with the exterior. The provinces on the coastline should also look at sea and brackish water as beneficial natural resources and should not build dams to contain them.” (3)
In the opinion of Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, Deputy Director, Research Institute for Climate Change, Cần Thơ University:
Regrettably, in the last several decades, in order to increase food production -mostly rice - many “nature adverse” projects have been completed with the building of dams to “block the current”, “stop seawater and save fresh water”. No attempt was made to look at seawater as a natural resource. Thousands of billions have been spent to build cement works like sewers, dams, revetments and palisades …to block the current right at the river estuaries. At the end of the rainy season, the dam gates are closed tight to conserve the rain water preventing the ocean tides from flowing into the fields. Along the coastline, clumps of forest trees wither away then die off, landslides happen more frequently. In the fields, river currents turn into reservoirs, stagnant water rapidly becomes polluted emitting foul odors. Hyacinths and algae thrive and boat traffic becomes difficult, time consuming and costly. At many locations, farmers have to resort to toxic herbicides to get rid of the hyacinths rendering the pollution in rivers and canals worse… Empirical experience taught us that, for millenniums, nature has bound waterways, land, vegetations, humans in harmonious, interdependent and symbiotic ties. The introduction of construction works that disrupt the laws of nature may bring about certain profits in the short-term. However, in the long run, the costs to the environment, ecosystem, society will soar and gradually outpace the benefits then set off a gradual decline in the agricultural sector of the economy… (4)
In the opinion of Dương Văn Ni PhD, the person who spends over 30 years to teach the subjects of Environment and Natural Resources at the Univeristy of Cần Thơ:
In his speech before the conference on the CLCB Irrigation Project Phase 1 held in Kiên Giang on 09.07.2018, Dương Văn Ni PhD stated that the two major products of the Cà Mau Peninsula are rice and shrimps. However, they are mutually inimical when it comes to the issue of water source. “Shrimps require a salinity level of over 4 parts per thousand (ppt) while rice needs less than 4 parts per thousand (ppt). Water discharged from shrimp farms will kill the rice stalks and water from ricefields will kill the shrimps”, he explained.
In Dương Văn Ni’s words, in 1990, he took some High-yield rice from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to show to the farmers of Đầm Dơi District (Cà Mau). The people and local authorities reacted favorably and enthusiastically promoted the building of canals and dikes to preserve fresh water. However, four years later, the same people who built the dikes were the ones who took them down to raise shrimps.
“I said all that to demonstrate that the problem is the lack of diversity in the types of plants and animals being raised in this region. Not at all the dichotomy between sea and fresh water”, he remarked.
“If one fails to pinpoint the lack of diversity in the types of plants and animals being raised in this region as the real issue, then one will forever be caught in the vicious circle of implementing projects. In such a case, the local authorities entrusted by the central government to take care of social programs will look at the people as troublemakers while, on their part, the people will view the authorities as those who prevent them from getting rich. (4)
In the opinion of Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, a native of the Mekong Delta, graduate of the University of Wisconsin USA, independent expert in Ecology.
Being concerned for years about the ecosystem of the Mekong Delta, during a meeting of expert consultants on the CLCB Irrigation Project held on 05.28.2018 in the city of Cần Thơ, Mr. Nguyễn Hữu Thiện has emphasized that investment in that project is not desirable.
Commenting on the four arguments in the EIA about the impacts on the environment caused by the CLCB Irrigation Project, Mr. Thiện asserted that the necessity and urgency to invest in the CLCB Irrigation Project are unwarranted. Mr. Thiện explained:
Argument (1) concerning the reasons that led to the drought of 2016. According to Mr. Thiện, this is an extreme case that only happens once every 90 years, not a common, usual phenomenon in the Mekong Delta. Investment in the above mentioned project should not be based on such extreme occurrence.
Argument (2) relates to the threat of rising seawater level. Mr. Thiện affirms this is a baseless argument not at all consistent with the reality of the Mekong Delta. As he sees it, sea level will rise 53 cm by the year 2100 not the 1 meter mentioned in previous scenarios.
“Therefore, one should not use the threat of rising sea level to cry wolf,” he believes that one should be more concerned about the land sinking phenomenon resulting from the use of underground water due to the devastated waterways, excessive use of fertilizers, herbicides in agriculture and the building of dikes.
Argument (3) points to the need to implement the CLCB Irrigation Project in order to assure food security in the Mekong Delta. In Mr. Thiện’s view, this argument is groundless. During the 2016 drought, there was no food shortage and Vietnam exported over 4.8 million tons of rice while there was still a surplus of tens of millions of tons left. Clearly, food security is not under threat at all.
Argument (4) refers to the depletion of fresh water in the Mekong Delta due to the impacts coming from upstream. Mr. Thiện suggested that the hydroelectric dams do not cause shortage of water but only affect the flow of alluvia and fisheries.
Also in Mr. Thiện’s opinion, the building of the Cái Lớn - Cái Bé Irrigation Project will reduce the integrated projects of the Ministry for Planning and Investment to a "strategic defeat”. Those projects are intended to foster development in a direction respectful of Heaven’s Will and in accordance with the spirit of the government’s Resolution 120/NQ-CP to bring about sustainable development in the face of climate change. (7)
In the opinion of Engineer Phạm Phan Long, P.E. of Viet Ecology Foundation
We’d like to share with the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta and the whole country our concern about the Cái Lớn and Cái Bé Rivers Irrigation Project and the call for its immediate cancellation or at least its postponement to have time for a more cautious assessment, learn from the previous hydrological projects that proved wasteful, regrettable as well as disastrous to this delta. All those projects embodied laudable objectives but, after some momentary success, eventually turned out to be abject blunders.
The Fresh Water Project of the Cà Mau Peninsula started a heated controversy between the choice for sea or fresh water that ended in the peninsula’s destruction. The Ba Lai Dam Sluice Project did not keep the water in the Ba Lai River fresh but blocked its current flow and turned the river into a lake, exacerbated pollution and increased salinity in the current. The dike projects in Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên turned those two regions into stagnant and polluted bodies of water. In addition, those two natural depressions that contain fresh water to compensate for the shortage of water in the delta during the Dry Season can no longer perform their functions.
Even though the delta is covered by immense bodies of water, on account of those projects there is no longer clean water for daily domestic use and farming. The people have no other option than make maximum use of underground water causing the land to sink at ten times the rate of rising sea level due to climate change. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has not shown any evidence that it has learned from those painful experiences. It is apparent the most serious crisis facing the delta is the polluted water source caused by those ill-conceived projects. Pollution must be considered a grave scourge that all projects must stave off at all cost. Like in the case of previous hydrological projects, the Cái Lớn Cái Bé Irrigation Project will cause the Mekong Delta to sink deeper into the grip of pollution albeit at a larger scale.
Once more, I call for an immediate cancellation of this project. Instead of fighting nature with projects to dam rivers and block the sea, let’s learn to be humble and seek solutions that are environment friendly; attain stability inherent in ecoharmony, the natural interplay between rivers and oceans. The simple fact is humans can adjust to live with flood water; alum; fresh, brackish or sea water; but certainly not with pollution.We are convinced that as long as we are unable to control pollution, restore the quality of water sources and remedy the drawbacks of existing projects then there would be no justification to invest in new ones. It would be like rubbing salt into the wound.
SAY “NO” TO THE CÁI LỚN – CÁI BÉ RIVERS PROJECT
In lieu of conclusion, once again, the author would like to send to Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyễn Xuân Cường, this same motto and also first lesson a medical student must learn: Primum Non Nocere / First do no harm / Trước hết là không gây hại. All hurriedly conceived projects without enough time to carry out an objective EIA and with an investment cost in the thousands of billions can wreak havoc on an already fragile ecosystem of a basin once considered among the richest and most abundant on this planet.
To reiterate and emphasize, the author would like, at this point, to convey a concrete suggestion to the innovative Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc: put an immediate stop to the Cái Lớn - Cái Bé River Irrigation Project and use the VND 3,300 billion in the budget earmarked for that project to fund an independent EIA group [possibly involving Dutch specialists who have experience and made important contributions to a number of fundamental research on the Mekong Delta], to look for and conceive non-structural adaptation measures to help optimally adapt as well as coexist with all three ecosystems: fresh-brackish-sea waters in the Mekong Delta within the context of global climate change. This is the real spirit of Resolution 120/NQ-CP on the Mekong Delta [17/11/2017] in it the Prime Minister has turned the spotlight on the principle: “follow Heaven’s will, respect nature’s way, avoid intervening violently in nature.” (2)
TOWARD A “NON-STRUCTURAL ADAPTATION” SOLUTION
During the last 40 years, all over the Mekong Delta, structural measures have been experimented with like building dikes to contain flood water, control the waves, redirect the current; constructing gate sluices to block seawater… They all eventually point to this rule: man should not intervene recklessly with the working of nature. Any derived benefits would be temporary while the damages long lasting. Any remedy to the damages in the ecosystem of the Mekong Delta will be very problematic.
From those failures, the chastised environmental scientists become more humble in their selection of measures to coexist with Mother Nature who is both tolerant and extremely severe at the same time.
The issues of fresh-sea water, climate change, rising sea level…are not new to the Mekong Delta. They have existed since early time and mankind has learned to adapt to and live in harmony with nature. Gradually, that lifestyle has given birth to the riverine civilization. Even with the advances of science and technology, for man to take on Mother Nature is not a wise and even fight to engage in. Therefore, it’s high time for informed environmental scientists to look for “non-structural adaptation measures” to primarily adapt to and coexist with nature.
What are then “non-structural adaptation measures?” That is the choice not to build big, fixed, permanent projects to deal with an everchanging ecosystem. The immovability of the projects is now synonymous to obsolescence in an endlessly changing environment. Throughout the history of development in the Mekong Delta, farmers and fishermen have learned to adapt, survive and prosper without causing pollution to the environment or depleting the natural resources.
_ without a weather service, but thanks to empirical observation, the farmers learned to predict the weather, sunny or rainy times with some degree of accuracy and effectiveness
_ without a weather service, they learned to evaluate the soil in order to choose the right plants to cultivate, not only rice but practice polyculture in order to maintain soil fertility
_ without a weather service, they learned to do selective breeding, carry out aquaculture suitable to the habitat depending on the fresh, brackish or sea water.
In the face of a serious degradation of the environment like today, the government needs to help them to:
_ live in a healthy environment. Not with the pollution that is poisoning them like now. Open the gates of the dams to allow the river currents to flow
_ maintain the current flow and tides, the elements that help clean the heavily polluted environment we have today
_ impose strict controls to regulate the water and discharges coming from the plants built along the river banks, the Lee & Man Paper Mill, the thermal power plants the majority of which came from China
_ raise the consciousness of the communities for the preservation of the environment: help equip their dwellings with minimum home appliances like restrooms, garbage disposals instead of throwing everything into the river as they are doing now
_ enforce appropriate zoning for residential areas, establish a reserve fund to work as a government insurance plan to help the people who suffer damages during times of extreme climate changes like in the year 2016
_ improve gradually a degraded environment, render its dirty water sources usable, reduce need for underground water, lessen the rate of land sinking to less than 10 times that of the rising sea level of today.
_ restore the civilization of “jars”, encourage the people to preserve rain water, drinking water for use during the Dry Season
To a certain degree, we must be prepared to control even accept the damages caused by climate change but have to say “no” to the costly and self-destructive projects we have today.
Lê Anh Tuấn PhD from the University of Cần Thơ gave a clear discussion of “non-structural adaptation measures” in the use of natural resources in the Mekong Delta with an emphasis on the need for a resourceful and flexible interpretation: those are the "soft" methods with the advantages of low costs, ease of implementation, proactive preservation, improvement of the environment, nature friendly, preservation of biodiversity. The drawback is it requires some time before we can see their effectiveness.
Identify livelihood opportunities that prove compatible with the ecosystem and natural conditions: for example plant rice during the rainy season, raise shrimps during the dry one, raise fish in sea or brackish water, organize ecotourism - learn about the local culture; develop, exploit, process the peculiarities of certain plants, animals particular to each region (growing lotus plants, processing the plants, weaving of lotus silk, ... or a certain type of dominant trees), develop renewable energy, ...
Give preference to "non-structural adaptation measures" does not mean rejecting “projects". It rather indicates the need for a harmonious coordination, a willingness to opt for projects only when absolutely necessary, a tendency to start with small projects before considering building big ones.
Lê Anh Tuấn PhD of the University of Cần Thơ chose the area khu vực lúa-sen-cá-du lịch sinh thái in Đồng Tháp as the typical example of a "non structural" solution. He offered the illustration below that the farmers can understand with ease:
THE SAME FLAWED SYSTEMIC PROJECTS
For over 40 years, after 1975, in a series of systemic blunders, the Vietnamese communist government has hastily implemented many projects with costly and ambitious objectives to “reeducate” the Mekong Delta. As a rule, they recklessly interfered with and disastrously impacted the already fragile ecosystem of the entire basin. Under a provincialist viewpoint, the defective SEA / Strategic Environment Assessment of the entire Mekong Delta was carried out with "pseudo scientific" method in “fast cook, instant food / làm nhanh ăn nhanh” fashion. It was done under the control of interest groups composed of project investors. The latter gamble with the lives and livelihoods of the people, give a deaf ear to their opinions, at the same time, suppress critics and brush aside warnings from experienced and authoritative experts.
However, there are plenty of independent and courageous environmentalists who persist to raise the voice of conscience. They hold dear to the ultimate aim of protecting the entire basin and its over 18 million inhabitants, alleviate the disastrous and lasting impacts on the resources of the country and of generations to come.
In regard to the so called “project of the century” the CLCB Project, independent experts have said all they had to say. In general, the picture is pretty grim: the project’s momemtum is momentous, the interest groups and project’s investors too powerful, it is very difficult to change course. But, this also represents a challenge to the “can do” claim of the innovative Government of Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc. Should the CLCB Project be allowed to proceed, it can only mean that Resolution 120/NQ/CP pertaining to the sustainable development of the Mekong Delta in the context of climate change promulgated by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc on 11.17.2017 had totally suffered a “strategic capitulation” – to borrow the very expressive words of the independent environmentalst Nguyễn Hữu Thiện.
NGÔ THẾ VINH
Mekong Delta 12.2017 – California 09.2020
- Dự án Hệ thống Thuỷ lợi Cái Lớn – Cái Bé Giai đoạn 1. Địa điểm xây dựng tỉnh Kiên Giang. Báo cáo đánh giá tác động môi trường. Bộ Nông Nghiệp và Phát triển Nông thôn (Bản báo cáo chưa hoàn thiện, chưa được thẩm định phê duyệt).
- ĐBSCL và Những Bước Phát triển Tự Huỷ hoại 1975-2018. Ngô Thế Vinh, Việt Ecology Foundation 04.2018 http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/299
- Dự án Thủy lợi Cái Lớn - Cái Bé ở Kiên Giang: Đừng làm mất đi lợi thế tài nguyên; NLĐ04/06/18 https://baomoi.com/du-an-thuy-loi-cai-lon-cai-be-o-kien-giang-dung-lam-mat-di-loi-the-tai-nguyen/c/26277343.epi
- Lại Cãi nhau với dự án Thuỷ lợi Cái Lớn - Cái Bé. Trung Chánh, Thời Báo Kinh Tế Saigon Online, 07.09.2018 https://www.thesaigontimes.vn/278260/lai-cai-nhau-voi-dai-du-an-thuy-loi-cai-lon--cai-be.html
- Xin Đừng Bóp Cổ Đất và Nước. Lê Anh Tuấn, Đại Học Cần Thơ, Saigon Times 14.09.2018 https://www.thesaigontimes.vn/278468/xin-dung-bop-co-dat-va-nuoc-.html
- Đánh giá Các Hệ thống Ngăn Mặn Vùng Ven Biên Châu Thổ Cửu Long & Dự án Thuỷ Lợi Sông Cái Lớn – Cái Bé (Bản thảo ngày 06/9/2018)Nhóm nghiên cứu:Lê Anh Tuấn, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện, Dương Văn Ni, Nguyễn Hồng Tín, Đặng Kiều Nhân http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/314
- Project Cái Lớn-Cái Bé: Lý do Không thể Phê duyệt. GS Nguyễn Ngọc Trân, Đất Việt Diễn Đàn Trí Thức 12.09.2018 http://baodatviet.vn/dien-dan-tri-thuc/du-an-cai-lon-cai-be-ly-do-khong-the-phe-duyet-3365429/n
- Chuyên gia: Không cần thiết phải xây dựng dự án thủy lợi Cái Lớn - Cái Bé
Thời Báo KinhtếSaigonOnline Trung Chánh 28.05.2018 https://www.thesaigontimes.vn/273170/chuyen-gia-khong-can-thiet-phai-xay-dung-du-an-thuy-loi-cai-lon--cai-be-.html
- Dự án thủy lợi Cái Lớn - Cái Bé: Quá nhiều lo ngại. Nguyễn Hữu Thiện, Báo Đất Mới http://baodatviet.vn/dien-dan-tri-thuc/du-an-thuy-loi-cai-lon--cai-be-qua-nhieu-lo-ngai-3365385/