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UN in the News: Vietnam's rice bowl threatened by rising seas

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As published in the Guardian newspaper, 21 August 2011

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Nguyen Thi Lim Lien says the rivers of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam are turning salty. Photograph: Guardian, Jeffrey Lau
Climate change is turning rivers of Mekong Delta salty, spelling disaster for millions of poor farmers

Sitting amid buckets of rice in the market, Nguyen Thi Lim Lien issues a warning she desperately hopes the world will hear: climate change is turning the rivers of the Mekong Delta salty.

"The government tells us that there are three grams of salt per litre of fresh water in the rivers now," she says. "Gradually more and more people are affected. Those nearest the sea are the most affected now, but soon the whole province will be hit."

The vast, humid expanse of the delta is home to more than 17 million people, who have relied for generations on its thousands of river arteries. But rising sea water caused by global warming is now increasing the salt content of the river water and threatening the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and fishermen.

Vietnam is listed by the World Bank among the countries most threatened by rising waters brought about by higher global temperatures, with only the Bahamas more vulnerable to a one-metre rise in sea levels. Such a rise could leave a third of the Mekong Delta underwater and lead to mass internal migration and devastation in a region that produces nearly half of Vietnam's rice.

"If there was a one-metre rise, we estimate 40% of the delta will be submerged," says Tran Thuc, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. "There is also the threat of cyclones and storms linked to climate change. The people in this area are not prepared for any of this."

Already affected by regular flooding, those who live in the low-lying delta are focusing on the rising salt content of water in land that has for thousands of years been used for rice paddies, coconut groves and other crops which locals rely on for their livelihood.

According to the Ben Tre department of agriculture and rural development, salt water at four parts per thousand has, as of April, reached as far as 35 miles inland, causing significant damage to crops and livestock, with rice production particularly affected.

"Salination will become higher and higher and the salt season will last longer and be worse," predicts Thuc.

The city of Ben Tre, one of the gateways to the Mekong, is inland, on one of the many tributaries of the Mekong river where the waters are still only partially affected by the increased salination. But further downriver, the effects are more pronounced.

"I have to travel five hours upstream by boat to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking," says Vo Thi Than, 60, who cannot afford the prices charged by those who travel down the river selling fresh water from upstream.

Than lives beside a dock and runs a little restaurant on the small delta island of Cu Lao Oc, home to approximately 6,000 farmers and coconut growers.

"A long time ago, there was no salty season at all. Now, five months a year the water is salty," she says.

"We grow oranges, mandarins, lemons and coconuts, but these trees cannot survive if it is salt water only. During salty seasons, the trees bear less fruit and smaller fruits, and if there was only the salt season, nothing would grow."

Government officials and international observers are predicting significant lifestyle changes for the delta's population, which will be forced to adapt to survive.

Dao Xuan Lai, head of sustainable development at the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam, said: "Rising sea waters will cause inundations to the Mekong and will require drastic changes in lifestyles for the people. They will be forced to switch crops and innovate. People close to river banks and river mouths have already had to find different ways to make a living in fresh water."

In the area around the town of Ba Tri, near one mouth of the delta, the salination of the water has reached a point where many locals have been forced to abandon centuries of rice cultivation and risk their livelihoods on other ventures, mostly farming shrimp, which thrives in saltier water. Pham Van Bo is still able to plant rice on half his land thanks to an embankment built by the government four years ago, but he is risking his family's savings on the new venture.

"We had to sell our fishing boat to pay to dig the cultivation pool and also had to pay someone to teach me how to do it. It was expensive, and I had to get the shrimp food and medicine on credit," he said. "It takes about four months from when they are small to selling them. It should be more profitable than rice planting, but I am worried since this is our first try."

Bo needs only to walk two hundred metres along the riverbank to see a cautionary tale. Nguyen Van Lung and her family started raising shrimp six years ago, but now all but one of their pools are empty.

"Last October, the sea washed out all of our shrimp, we lost them all," she said. "We saw the water rising up and getting closer and closer, but we couldn't do anything about it. This season, we have been forced to just dump the shrimp in and let them grow with no fans, medicine or special food."

The family received a loan from the local government to survive, but it takes a lot of money to farm shrimp, on which they now rely almost exclusively for their livelihood.

Olivia Dun is a PhD student at the University of Sydney's Mekong Resource Centre. She is studying environmental changes, flooding, saline intrusion and migration in the Mekong Delta. "Some households have benefited from the switch to shrimp and have been able to raise their level of income," she said. "Other households have continuously struggled to raise shrimp, which are sensitive to the conditions in their pond environment and easily susceptible to disease. These households face mounting debt, and of these households, some choose to migrate elsewhere temporarily in search of an income."

Tough decisions like this are going to become more common for Mekong residents in the years ahead as the environment changes around them.

"Even if we stop all emissions worldwide now, the water will still rise 20 to 30 centimetres in the next few decades," said the UN's Lai.

"At the moment the prediction is a rise of 75 centimetres by 2050. People in this region are still very poor and will need help from the international community to survive this."

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