Delta’s double dose: drought and salination

This photoblog explores the effect of the drought on Vietnam's Mekong Delta.

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Extreme stress on fresh water supplies in the Mekong Delta because of severe drought, mainstream Mekong River water flow reduction, and the resulting salt water intrusion is drastically impacting the lives of the Delta’s 18 million residents.


This severe drought, a consequence of El Nino, has forced 39 out of 63 Vietnamese provinces to declare a disaster status.


With 50 per cent less water streaming into the Delta from the Mekong mainstream, a result exacerbated not only by drought but upstream infrastructure developments, the salt water from the ocean is intruding and increasing salt intensity in the soil to unprecedented levels, as far inland as 93 kilometres.

These statistics have received international media coverage but Humanitarian Lead for Oxfam in Viet Nam, Mr Vu Xuan Viet, said more effort needs to be invested into translating this scientific knowledge and data about salt water intrusion and drought to help Delta residents and small-scale farmers realise the risks and opportunities.

The result of Salination and Drought - Viet Nam Delta hit with a double dose of extreme water conditions April 2016: Photo Oxfam Viet Nam

The result of Salination and Drought – Viet Nam Delta hit with a double dose of extreme water conditions. April 2016: Photo Oxfam Viet Nam.

“We need to listen to community needs and get more scientific details and specific information about the salination to help inform future actions of the farmers because it is about their lives; it is about security and it is about their livelihoods so we can’t just say salinity has intruded 93 kilometres.


“What does this mean for them?”


Mr Viet said the Mekong River should be viewed as one common water resource with water management and control shared equally among the Mekong countries.

“We realize that despite recognized efforts the crisis issue has gone very far from the normal expectations of Viet Nam and other Mekong countries.

“We know that other countries also suffer from the drought but in Viet Nam the situation is much worse because we are close to the sea, and the salt water intruded into the mainland which doubles the crisis situation.”

News reports focus on farmers in the Delta region falling victim to the immediate effect of the salt increase in the soil and the resulting loss of this season’s rice crops, but the high salination levels will last and experts suggest plans at government and provincial levels should be made to support communities to diversify their crops.

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Oxfam’s previous project in Ben Tre province provided livestock grants. Extreme conditions are forcing farmers to sell the cows before the recommended 24 months and they are making less than 40 per cent of the expected profit: Photo Oxfam Viet Nam.

Humanitarian needs of communities are exceeding the coping capacity of local authorities and Oxfam has responded with a two layered approach.

First by providing fresh water supplies and financial aid for small-scale farmers to afford livestock food to meet the immediate needs of communities in Ben Tre province in the Mekong Delta.

At a broader level Oxfam is promoting a participatory collection of needs assessment that provides a platform for feedback from the affected communities to ensure international humanitarian response standards are met.

“There should be both long and short term support.

“We can’t just provide two months of water supply in a filter tank and the job is done, in this case government interventions to support will be essential,” Mr Viet said.

Transboundary communication and response

This year’s extreme situation highlights the need for investment that strengthens transboundary water governance.

There is a need for long term sustainable interventions and solutions that use the Mekong River Commission (MRC) as a coordinator between governments and includes China, and also involves civil society through the aid of NGOs such as Oxfam.

The MRC’s current lack of strong coordination measures is one area where leading experts are calling for improvement.

“With its technical resources and expertise, it must have been within the capacity of the MRC to predict and give a serious warning of the drought to the member countries, especially to Viet Nam concerning the salinity intrusion but it didn’t seem to do so,” Nguyen Huu Thien, an expert on Delta Ecology, said.

Upstream countries individual short-term drought solutions and hydropower developments, such as Thailand’s three mainstream water diverting pumps, are contributing to the water drain on the Delta’s traditionally nutrient-rich farming land and establishing the conditions for further salt water intrusion.

Mr Thien said independent ownership of the 11 proposed dams in the Lower Mekong Basin, though claiming to be run of the river, will also worsen the situation as the aim is to maximize profit from power generation, not to benefit the communities at the river’s end.

The Vietnamese government, acting separately to the MRC, requested to their Chinese counterparts to release water from Jinghong dam, one of the six mainstream dams built by China in the Upper Mekong Basin, with hopes it would improve the salination situation in the Delta.

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Construction of Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong mainstream March 2016: Photo Oeurm Savann.

“The dams in Yunnan, in theory, are capable of altering the flows of the Mekong through storing water in the flood season and releasing in the dry season for power generation.

“In a dry year such as this year, the large reservoirs can make it worse by holding back water,” Mr Thien said.

The release of water would ideally flow through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before acting as a flushing system, increasing water levels to decrease the salination intrusion in Viet Nam.

“The situation this year is a good example of the lack of the coordinating role of the MRC about transboundary water issues of drought and salination, as water release should have been requested through the MRC,” Mr Thien said.

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However the outcome was a pledge by China and Laos to release water from their dams with Laos already releasing 1136m3 per second to help alleviate the drought in the Lower Mekong.

Whether experts in the delta region are able to monitor a decrease in the salination from the increase of upstream water flow should be established in the coming weeks.

Water released by Chinese dams is likely to be diverted to the drought prevention and hydropower developments in countries along the mainstream, meaning little benefit for the delta.

Sediment to decrease Salination

Experts at a hydropower development conference at Viet Nam’s Can Tho University, April 1, reported the delta must capture 75 – 90 per cent of the river sediment to cope with the salt water intrusion and erosion.

The lack of sediment contributes to erosion, in turn increasing the dramatic impact of rising sea levels and salination intrusion.

The Yunnan province dams in China have already halved the annual sediment load of the river from 160 million tons to 80 million tons and with continued dam construction on the Mekong mainstream the sediment load is expected to half again to 42 million tons, changing the fundamental ecology of the basin.

Sedimentation loss, which increases salt water intrusion, will cause a five billion dollar deficit to Viet Nam’s agricultural industry according to an updated research paper, Environmental and Social Impacts of Hydropower Development in the Lower Mekong Basin, conducted by Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand and supported by Oxfam.

The paper states “the Mekong Delta is crucially dependent on sustained sediment supplies to maintain its delta shoreline position… erosion is affecting the 180 km-long muddy South China Sea.

“This coastal erosion magnifies the vulnerability of the delta as it poses threats to the security and livelihood of subsistence farmers and fishermen.”

The reduction of the sediment load and changing salinity boundary will alter the soil fertility in the delta, affecting agriculture and the productivity of the coastal fisheries along the coastal water known as the Mekong Plume that depends on the nutrient supply from the sediments of the Mekong.

Today’s severe situation and a future of increased salinity

Mr Viet said finding a solution for saline intrusion is a discussion that needs to happen now and should involve collective action by multiple stakeholders.

“On the one hand the salinity should not be treated as the enemy.

“Many scientists say if the water gets saltier and further inland people should look into livelihood adaptation alternatives.

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“For example instead of growing three rice crops a year with high uncertainty, they may consider diversifying their rice crops and using integrated farming with fish and shrimp together with the rice.


“It can provide opportunities for farmers but they are not yet in a position to go for it with confidence and determination because it demands a lot of investment into developing their production skills and perhaps they do not have the full support yet,” Mr Viet said.


While long term solutions, that include a strong communication system between the Mekong countries, are vital they won’t provide immediate support in the currently extreme situation.

With the double dose of drought and salination intrusion draining water and food resources in the Delta region, Oxfam’s humanitarian response team has committed to immediate aid relief until the start of the rainy season as well as establishing long term solutions to ensure the Mekong regional water governance projects are as effective as possible.

Oxfam Mekong Region Water Governance

Written by Sarah Bell
Communications Volunteer
Water Governance Program
Oxfam Australia

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