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Climate Change’s fearful threat to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

WILL CLIMATE CHANGE SINK THE MEKONG DELTA?, Mongabay News,  3 October 2016 / David Brown

No delta region in the world is more threatened by climate change. Will Vietnam act in time to save it?

  • Scientists say the 1-meter sea level rise expected by century’s end will displace 3.5-5 million Mekong Delta residents. A 2-meter sea level rise could force three times that to higher ground.
  • Shifting rainfall and flooding patterns are also threatening one of the most highly productive agricultural environments in the world.
  • The onus is now on Vietnam’s government in Hanoi to approve a comprehensive adaptation and mitigation plan.
  • This is the first article of an in-depth, four-part series exploring threats facing the Mekong Delta and how they might be addressed. Read the second installment here.

    IIt’s a sad fact that several decades of talk about climate change have hardly anywhere yet led to serious efforts to adapt to phenomena that are virtually unavoidable. Neuroscientists say that’s because we’re humans. We aren’t wired to respond to large, complex, slow-moving threats. Our instinctive response is apathy, not action.

    That paradox was much on my mind during a recent visit back to Vietnam’s fabulously fertile Mekong Delta, a soggy plain the size of Switzerland. Here the livelihood of 20 percent of Vietnam’s 92 million people is gravely threatened by climate change and by a manmade catastrophe, the seemingly unstoppable damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong River.

    Samuel Johnson famously said that “nothing concentrates the mind so well as the prospect of imminent hanging.” It’s been nine years since a World Bank study singled out the Mekong Delta as one of the places on our planet that is most gravely threatened by sea level rise. There if anywhere, I imagined, I’d find a sense of urgency. I’d find adaptive measures well advanced.

    I was wrong. Vietnamese government ministries, provincial administrations, experts from Vietnamese universities and thinktanks, experts deployed by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and foreign governments: all have been pushing plans and policies. The problem has been to sort out the best ideas, make appropriate decisions and find the resources needed to implement them in a timely, coherent way.

    Things may be coming together at last, I concluded after talking with dozens of local officials, professors, journalists and farmers in mid-June. None denied the reality of the problem. Many connected the question of what to do about climate change to older arguments over the best ways to grow more and better crops………

  • No delta area, not the mouths of the Ganges, the Nile or the Mississippi, is more vulnerable than the Mekong estuary to the predictable impacts of climate change. The 1-meter sea level rise expected by the end of the 21st century, all else being equal, will displace 3.5-5 million people. If the sea instead rose by 2 meters, lacking effective countermeasures, some 75 percent of the Delta’s 18 million inhabitants would be forced to move to higher ground.

    Already, said Professor Ni, there’s been a significant decrease in rainfall in the first part of the annual rainy season, and more rain toward the end. The Mekong’s annual flood peak has fallen by a third since 2000. The waters from upstream carry less silt to replenish the Delta floodplain. Also, the volume of fresh water is falling while the sea level rises. This allows salt-laden tidal water to penetrate further and further into Delta estuaries and swampy coastal areas during the dry season.

    Modeling of current trends suggest that average temperatures in the Mekong Delta will rise by more than 3 degrees Celsius toward the end of the century. Annual rainfall will decrease during the first half of the century, and then rise well above the 20th century average. The area that’s flooded each autumn won’t change substantially, but the floods won’t last as long.

  • All things being equal, rice yields will plummet as temperatures rise. Lighter rains in the early months of the wet season will challenge farmers’ ingenuity. Rising seas and reduced river flows will severely test the system of sea dikes. Riverbanks and the Delta coast are already crumbling; this will accelerate. Farmers who are unable to cope will head north to seek industrial and construction jobs.

    That’s not all. At slide 70 (of 86) of the DRAGON presentation, attention shifts to upstream dam construction on Delta water regimes.For China, Laos and Thailand, the hydroelectric potential of the upper Mekong is a seemingly irresistable development opportunity. It may be that not all the dams they plan will be built across the Mekong mainstream. Whether a few or many, their impact on agriculture in Vietnam and Cambodia will be profoundly negative, Professor Ni, his colleagues at Can Tho University, and experts at other institutes in southern Vietnam have pounded the alarm gongs for years. The dam cascade is a nearer and more present danger, and apparently just as unstoppable as climate change.

    DRAGON Institute’s slideshow concludes with a call to action. The future is bleak but not hopelessly so if appropriate adaptation and mitigation strategies are launched. What the Delta needs is revealed: sustainable development based on a triply effective foundation of water source security, food security and social security. https://news.mongabay.com/2016/10/will-climate-change-sink-the-mekong-delta/

October 10, 2016 - Posted by | climate change, Vietnam

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