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Homes and highways in Vietnam are being lost as Mekong delta washes away

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Homes and highways in Vietnam are being lost as Mekong delta washes away | Thaiger
Nguyen Van Thuong, 71 stands in front of his former neighbors house which has been destroyed and fallen into the river as a result of erosion in Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province, Vietnam. (Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly for China Dialogue)

The following story was written by Michael Tatarski for China Dialogue, a non-profit focused on environmental challenges related to China.

One night two years ago, Lam Thi Le and Nguyen Van Thuong heard loud cracks coming from their neighbours’ riverfront home. The neighbours left, and a day later half of their house collapsed into the broad Tien River as the land beneath it slid away.

The shell of the remaining half sits precariously on the jagged river bank. Le and Thuong live a few metres inland. Nearby, workers use a machine to pack rocks onto the riverbank, laying the foundation for a concrete embankment designed to prevent further erosion.

This community in Vietnam’s Dong Thap province is not unique. The Tien is one of the Mekong River’s main branches flowing down from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. In recent years, dams built upstream in China, Laos and Cambodia and local sand mining have starved delta provinces such as Dong Thap of sediment, causing once-stable land to erode.

The Mekong’s average sediment load used to be 160 million tonnes, according to Marc Goichot, WWF’s Lead for Freshwater in the Asia Pacific, but the construction of dams on the river has reduced this by almost 80%.

“Dams and sand mining are working in a cumulative manner,” Goichot said. “Sand mining is making the impact of dams not only worse but much faster. We know that the impacts of the Aswan dam in Egypt took 50 years to reach the Nile River delta, and in the Mekong it’s much faster.”

Vietnam’s agriculture ministry estimates that the delta, which produces much of the country’s rice, aquacultural goods and fruit, worth billions of US dollars, loses 500 hectares of land per year to erosion.

The island

A nearby ferry crossing protected by a stout concrete embankment leads to Tan Thuan Dong, a large island carpeted by mango orchards in the middle of the Tien River. A sign on a narrow road leading to the northwest edge of the island warns people that they are entering an erosion zone.

Pham Thi Phi, 80, and her family had to move five years ago from their house by the water because the erosion was worsening. Her former home and several neighbours’ houses no longer exist, while the river continues to eat away at the island, taking precious mango trees with it.

“People are losing land and trees, and orchards are losing money,” Phi said. “When I was younger, I had a sampan, and I would take people in it to the nearby temple for charity, but when the land washed away, it took my boat with it.”

Upstream dams have also had a significant impact on water levels in the Mekong delta. Canals and irrigation ditches were nearly empty during a visit by China Dialogue. Small boats rested on almost dry land. The spindly legs of stilt houses were fully exposed.

“We used to have two boats to leave the house when the water was high, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” said Phi.

At the time, water levels throughout the Mekong basin were low due to announced maintenance on the Jinghong hydropower station, the most downstream dam of China’s 11 such facilities on the river.

Nearby, the road ends with a ragged edge of tarmac beyond which the river has consumed everything. A half-dozen sand-mining barges sit off Tan Thuan Dong’s coast, the diesel engines of their excavators shattering the quietude of the rural island as they dredge to feed Vietnam’s voracious construction industry.

Homes and highways in Vietnam are being lost as Mekong delta washes away | News by Thaiger

A road on Tan Thuan Dong island ends abruptly where it has been washed away. In the background, excavators dredge the river for sand to fuel Vietnam’s construction boom. (Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly for China Dialogue)

“I’ve lived here for nearly 60 years, and the erosion started about 10 years ago,” said Nguyen Thi Sum. She lives with her husband and sister in the last surviving house on the road, just a few metres from the river. By the water, concrete foundations hint at former buildings.

The Jinghong dam, considered one of the most impactful on the Mekong’s sediment and water flows, came online in 2008, around the time Sum said the erosion started. China’s dams on the Upper Mekong and those built in Laos and Cambodia with varying levels of Chinese investment have proved a point of contention among downstream national and environmental groups.

Vietnam is a member nation of the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body on transboundary governance of the Mekong. However, the commission has no powers to stop the construction or planning of upstream dams in China or dams financed by China.

“There used to be more houses, but people moved away,” Sum said. “We will stay here until we can’t, maybe one or two more years.”

Both Sum and Phi said the local government had done little to help. Unlike on the mainland, no protective embankments were being built, despite the island being advertised as a domestic tourism destination. Promises of money to help with relocation costs have been unmet, and damaging sand mining occurs in broad daylight.

Neither of the women had any knowledge of the impacts of upstream dams, nor did Le and Thuong across the river. All four largely blamed natural causes for the erosion.

According to Goichot, embankments are not an appropriate solution and can do more harm than good: “Engineers think that static is solid, and in most places it is, but in a very dynamic place like the delta, they make things worse. If you put an embankment on sand, you reflect the energy of the water downstream, so you create conditions for erosion to get worse.”

The highway

In neighbouring An Giang province, National Highway 91 connects Can Tho, the Mekong delta’s largest city, with the Cambodian border 100 kilometres away. Heading toward Cambodia along the bank of the Hau River, the Mekong’s other main branch in the delta, the road eventually runs into a barrier and a large sign warning no vehicles to enter. While traffic is diverted onto a new road, pedestrians can enter the barricaded area.

Further on, a 40-metre long chunk of highway has disappeared into the water. This sinkhole – and another large one just down the road – appeared in the summer of 2019, making national news. Whereas previous domestic media coverage had often pointed to climate change as the cause of such events, VnExpress now squarely blamed hydropower developments and sand mining on the river upstream in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The erosion started here in 2010, and the government built an embankment, but the erosion kept shifting and getting worse,” said Huynh Thi Thu Diem, who runs a café and shop near one of the cratered sections of road.

There were houses on the riverside of the highway as well, but they are long gone. Only a narrow strip of overgrown land separates the water from the remaining road.

“At first, they quickly repaired the highway, but that failed too, so now they’re building a bigger parallel road inland,” Diem added. “The construction workers said this was caused by natural changing currents, though I’ve seen in the news that Chinese dams hold back water.”

She said that some neighbours had left the area after receiving financial assistance. She believes the government will help her as well if it becomes too dangerous to stay.

Further down the road, Thi (not her real name) lives on the edge of one of the sinkholes. She sells rice from her home and previously benefitted from buses stopping outside. Only motorbikes and bicycles can pass now, creating a peaceful setting for a front-row seat to what might be in store for the rest of the delta.

Homes and highways in Vietnam are being lost as Mekong delta washes away | News by Thaiger

A sign in Vietnamese reads “Erosion area, no vehicles of any kind” in Binh My Commune, An Giang Province, Vietnam. (Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly for China Dialogue)

Cracks run across parts of the remaining tarmac, and a machine similar to the one in Dong Thap sits in the river, laying the foundation for an embankment.

“The sinkhole started to form in July and August of 2019. There were houses on the other side of the road,” Thi said. “We were panicked, and officials asked us to remove the front part of our house since nobody knew how large the hole would get. Once it stopped collapsing, we rebuilt.”

The lack of highway traffic has hurt her family’s business, said Thi. Like Diem, however, she expressed confidence in local leadership to help them if it comes time to evacuate the area.

Evacuation will likely be necessary, with China, Laos and Cambodia variously involved in plans for a further 10 hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream, and more envisioned on its tributaries.

Once built, these dams will trap even more sediment upstream, starving the delta of the material that created it over millions of years, while downstream sand extraction removes vast amounts of what is left.

“What still gets through the barriers [of dams] is mainly fine sediments like silt and clays, not sand or gravel,” Goichot wrote in a recent article for China Dialogue. “As a result, riverbeds and banks are not replenished, making sand-mining downstream even more unsustainable and leading to greater erosion in the river channel and banks.”

These powerful forces have created a sense of calm resignation among delta residents threatened by their impacts. “We’ll just keep moving further inland until we can’t anymore,” Le said in the shadow of the collapsed house on the Tien. “Then, we’ll go to a relocation area far away from the river.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ray

    Thursday, March 11, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    An even greater danger in the Mekong delta are rising sea-levels. The Vietnamese government has devised a multi-billion plan to save the delta from climate change but I am afraid they can’t address the problems caused up river.

  2. Avatar

    bruce louis

    Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    There’s a complicated geological picture in the Mekong Delta and sure there’s plenty of inconsiderate action upstream but this area is essentially a swamp. Assumptions about climate change are offered with dogmatic adherence. The assertions of this article are little more than conjecture and regurgitation of some local peoples feelings and observations. Republishing this piece of rubbish is irresponsible. The writer of the article has clearly not consulted engineers or geologists. This is a reckless piece that would be more appropriate on the authors blog. I expect better from the Thaiger.

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Environment

Environmentalists criticise Netflix fishing doco for inaccuracies and misinformation

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Environmentalists criticise Netflix fishing doco for inaccuracies and misinformation | Thaiger
PHOTO: Alex Berger / Flickr

As Thailand accuses a Netflix documentary of using outdated and inaccurate information about the country’s fishing industry, a number of global environmental experts are echoing similar criticisms. According to a report in Coconuts, Seaspiracy has been slammed for being full of inaccuracies and twisting the science behind the damage to the world’s oceans, minimising the role of climate change and plastic pollution.

Brian Kahn, a journalist with an MA in Climate and Society, has written a piece called, Don’t Watch Netflix’s Seaspiracy, in which he also accuses the documentary of resorting to racial stereotypes.

“The bad guys are Asians, specifically Japanese whale and dolphin hunters and Chinese consumers of shark fin soup. The good guys – in this case, the experts he cites – are mostly white.”

According to the Coconuts report, the Marine Stewardship Council in London agrees the documentary contains “several inaccuracies” and the Plastic Pollution Coalition says the makers have “cherry-picked” quotes that will fit with their narrative. Marine biology magazine, Hakai, has also weighed in on the matter.

“Though the film misleads viewers with oversimplified science, its real harm is that it ignores the history, culture, and systemic inequities that are entwined with ocean conservation.”

Seaspiracy had its global release last month and has become one of the top 10 most-watched offerings on the Netflix streaming service. Opinion is divided, with many praising British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi for highlighting the issues with the global fishing industry, while others have slammed it for being biased and scientifically inaccurate.

The Royal Thai Navy has also criticised its portrayal of the country’s fishing industry, claiming it’s based on outdated information. In 2015, reporter Thapanee Eadsrichai exposed the significant role human trafficking and slavery played in the industry. This led to a crackdown of sorts, although slavery is still suspected of playing a role, on a smaller scale. The EU then threatened to ban all Thai seafood when the Kingdom’s illegal fishing practices came to light, but backed down when Thailand took steps to rectify the situation.

SOURCE: Coconuts

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Thailand

Report attributes 32,000 premature deaths in Thailand to air pollution

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Report attributes 32,000 premature deaths in Thailand to air pollution | Thaiger
Stock photo via Wikimedia Commons

According to the State of Global Air 2020 Report, around 32,000 premature deaths in Thailand, back in 2019, have been attributed to air pollution. The report cites the PM2.5 pollution particles as the main culprit as particles in that size range are the most likely to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs.

Exposure to these fine particles can cause short-term health effects, such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. But the long-term effects of being exposed to the particles is much more sinister.

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 pollution particles can affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths.

Studies also suggest that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be more sensitive to PM2.5 particles.

In Thailand, it’s burning season in the north as farmland and forests blaze with abundance (the annual burning season usually lasts from January to April, before the wet season kicks in). Despite increasing cautions against air pollution affecting short and long-term health of residents, the fires don’t show signs of stopping. The government has even issued a no burning ban, but enforcing the ban has proved to be fruitless as such provinces in northern Thailand consist of vast forest lands.

The government helicopter team can only do so much as they set out to locate hotspots and attempt to extinguish them by dropping buckets of water. But crop burning appears to be the cheapest and fastest way to help farmers clear their lands for a new growing season.

Recently, Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai has ranked the 3rd most polluted city in the world, according to AirVisual, which gives live updates of rankings. Today, Chiang Mai doesn’t appear in the list of the top 10 most air-polluted cities in the world, according to iqair.com

SOURCE: Sky News/Health.ny.gov

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Environment

TAT says Phuket beaches have been “revitalised” during the pandemic

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TAT says Phuket beaches have been “revitalised” during the pandemic | Thaiger
Stock photo via Flickr

Phuket’s beaches are perhaps one of the only silver linings from the Covid pandemic, with marine life visibly rebounding after a long break from tourism, at least that’s what the Tourism Authority of Thailand says. The tourism officials say the huge reduction in tourist traffic has contributed to the Andaman Sea and coastlines becoming clearer than it has been in a long time, with local reservoirs teeming with fresh water.

But tourism officials didn’t mention the recent sea urchin phenomenon where hundreds of the red spiky sea creatures washed up on Patong Beach. A marine life expert in Phuket says wastewater being dumped in the Andaman Sea led to an algae bloom near the shoreline. Sea urchins moved to feast on the algae, but ended up getting stranded on the beach due to the tides. He says the sea urchins need to be in the ocean because they filter the water and serve as “cleaner of the sea.”

The Tourism Authority of Thailand recently released a statement, hyping up the Phuket beaches and saying the beaches have been “revitalised,” just as the island province prepares to reopen in July to vaccinated visitors.

They say Kamala Beach is still a popular destination, with a family-friendly atmosphere that offers tranquility along with snorkelling and swimming. Surin and Bangtao beaches are quieter than usual but still remain an excellent choice for those tourists who wish to partake in the nightlife and clubbing scene, according to TAT.

Mai Khao, Nai Yang, Nai Thon, and Sai Kaeo beaches, in northern Phuket, are visibly rejuvenated areas to visit as well. The 4 beaches are part of Sirinat National Park, where Olive Ridley sea turtles and Leatherneck turtles have returned during the pandemic to lay eggs. The Olive Ridley turtles were seen laying eggs on Mai Khao Beach after 20 years of no activity. The Leatherneck turtles also returned to lay eggs after 10 years of being absent.

The process to compromise between tourism and nature, started a few years ago with the beaches only allowing 10% to be consumed by vendors, umbrellas, and beach chairs. The southern beaches of Kata, Nai Han, and Kata Noi have also benefitted from the 10% vendor zone rule, as all seem to be returning to their original, pristine conditions they displayed a decade ago.

SOURCE: TAT News| Phuket News

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