Soon after going through Phnom Penh, the Mekong River starts to branch into the tributaries that will lead it to the ocean, slowly becoming the region of the delta, located mainly in Vietnam. This area, where the waters of the Mekong meet with the sea, has been a protagonist in the development of the history, culture and economy of this country. Archaeological findings suggest that as early as the first century, this area was already an important commercial hub for the Funan Empire. More recently, it was also a key area for the french conquest, the independence battles, the invasion attempt by the Khmer Rouge and the infamous American War. Its importance as a commercial center and the fertility of its lands -called the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Vietnam- is probably what has kept the Mekong delta as a main actor on the development of the country. Today, this area is home to about 18 million people, whose lives are intrinsically linked to the river. Nevertheless, climate change, fast urbanization and other anthropogenic interventions like the construction of dams along the Mekong and the dredging of sand for construction, threatens with changing drastically the geography of the delta and with it the lives of its inhabitants.
It is a saturday evening in Chau Doc, in the middle of April’s summer. The laid back picture of the jianzi players at the riverside and of the people showering in their house-boats, don't warn of the imminent threats that have this region on the brink of extinction. Being a low altitude area, the Mekong River Delta is amongst the regions of the world that are most vulnerable to climate change in the short term. In fact, many of the effects can already be seen. Monitoring stations indicate that on average, sea levels have risen 3 mm per year for the past 30 years. Scientists from the Mekong River Commission, have advised that if the levels rise to the 1 metre mark projected for the end of the century, almost 40% of the delta would be eliminated due to permanent flooding. Even if it doesn’t cause floods, the rise in sea levels means an increase in the intrusion of the sea, and therefore of salinity, which can affect crops, aquaculture, and more essentially, access to fresh water for everyday living -in fact, nearly half of the population of the delta already lacks access to clean water.
Fluctuations in temperature and rainfall could also bring a negative effect on the delta. For years, the Mekong river, as a lung that inhales and exhales, has increased and decreased its riverbed in predictable patterns, thus making flooding a normal and even beneficial cycle with which the people have learned to coexist. However, the increase in rainfall and temperature has altered the cycles, with rainier winters (in some areas the precipitation has increased up to 117%), drier summers and more frequent climate events such as typhoons. All of this has affected the daily lives of the people, specially the 80% whose livelihood is based on agriculture.
Not only climate change contributes to salinity increase. The renewal of freshwater in the delta depends on the healthy flow of water and sediments from upriver, but this has been affected by the fast and unorganized development of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong in the four countries it crosses before arriving in Vietnam. The disputes on the use of the river for hydroelectric power has at the same time hindered the cross-border cooperation to create an adequate plan for adaptation along the riverbed. Environmental activists have declared the importance of including downriver inhabitants in the decision-making process about the area’s development. In some cases, these developments offer economic compensation or relocation for the people being directly displaced, but they overlook the indirect consequences that affect those who live on the river mouth. If the differences between countries keep getting deeper, there will be less possibilities for the effects on the downriver to be considered, and even less chance to coordinate an action plan along the Mekong.
The development of the delta itself has also brought its consequences. The mining of sand for construction and the dredging to allow the pass of bigger comercial ships have redrawn the bottom of the river and changed the navigation routes, increasing the riverbank inhabitants’ vulnerability to floods. Ironically, the dykes built in past years to protect from these floods have also prevented the flow of sediments.
On top of this, the Mekong Delta is one of the areas that has been most rapidly urbanized in the past years, and with the conditions in rural areas getting more and more difficult, many people are choosing to move to the urban centers along the delta or to Ho Chi Minh City. Several relocation projects have already taken way, moving people to urbanized areas due to erosion and floodings at the riverbanks, but studies have shown that in many cases, despite providing a safer geographic location, living conditions in the new settlements are not adequate, with no access to clean water, few working opportunities and a complete lack of the social fabric that previously characterized the relocated communities. Furthermore, without the appropriate planning, the disorganized growth of population density in urban areas has meant more trash and pollution, blocking water systems that drained rainfall and thus decreasing or eliminating their effectiveness in the flooding seasons. In places like Can Tho, for example, nearly 70% of the city lies within an altitude of about 1 metre above sea level or less, which makes it particularly vulnerable to Mekong overflows.
The fast urbanization of the area responds partly to the bridge and road constructions increase over the past years. The wager on this new type of infrastructure in order to benefit commerce, is having deep effects on the aquatic culture of the local people. Some years ago, Cai Be was presented on tourism guides as one of the most authentic floating markets in the delta, but after the construction of the My Thuan bridge, it has been shrinking. Today, the view of barley a few boats waiting for ghost customers disappoints tourists that were expecting the tumultuous exchange of years back. As more people change their boats for motorcycles, their houses, shops, markets and rest of activities that used to follow the flow of the river, now too follow concrete roads. The cities of the delta are evolving then into a more terrestrial culture, where the river is increasingly absent form the structural design of the cities. The dock, channels, floating market and ferries are being slowly displaced. As a consequence, the area has been losing its unique characteristics: houses are no longer being built on floating structures or above high columns, the transport moves increasingly by land, fairs on boulevards are replacing the markets on the water. Little by little, the fluvial culture which so far made people resilient to floods is falling into oblivion.
Against this backdrop, migration is almost inevitable. In comparison to other regions of Vietnam, the population growth rate of the Mekong Delta Region is relatively low, as a consequence of an increasing emigration. Among the primary causes of this flow of persons are the different pressures created by environmental factors, which have significantly reduced income in the households. It is estimated that by the year 2050, the rise in sea level could affect nearly 1 million people, which without a doubt will increase the number of forced migrations.
Experts around the world, gathered in a workshop of the United Nations on Climate Change Adaptation and Migration on the Mekong Delta, have even proposed migration as an adaptation strategy given the circumstances the delta faces. Aware of the low possibilities of reverting the effects of climate change and other anthropogenic effects, this group submitted a document detailing the difficulties that the migrants from this area face nowadays, with the purpose of making recommendations on how to facilitate the free movement of people and improve their conditions on their new locations. Given the facts, the inhabitants of the Mekong River could constitute one of the exodus of environmental refugees in a not so distant future.
The increasing threat of climate change, the upstream environmental impacts and the indiscriminate urban expansion are rapidly taking their toll on the area and, as usual, those downriver will be the ones to pay for it. Beyond the great economic impact of losing the biggest rice production area of the country, the future scenarios of the delta threatens the basic rights for clean water and adequate housing of millions of people. The socio-geographic landscape of the Mekong Delta is going through a period of deep transformation: much of what my camera portrays today could be in the not-so-long-term just the vestige of a civilization fallen due to the clumsiness of their priorities.