Environmental trends and adaptation options in Mekong delta

09 March 2011 | News story

In December 2010, IUCN supported two workshops in the Mekong Delta. The first workshop, organized by Can Tho University, reviewed environmental conditions and trends in the delta. The overall conclusion was that state-led efforts to “re-plump” the Mekong Delta have had significant unexpected outcomes. Indeed, it can be considered a case study in the law of unintended consequences associated with large-scale infrastructure development.

Dykes have been strengthened and new ones built but this is expensive and often unsuccessful because the dykes are now exposed to the full force of the waves, resulting in scouring and collapse. The construction of dykes has also limited the extent and duration of the annual flood, resulting in sedimentation of the canals (requiring extensive dredging) and reduced natural fertilization of the rice fields (requiring heavy use of chemicals). For a copy of the Mekong Delta situation analysis, click here.

The second workshop was organized by the World Resources Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental policy research center, and Can Tho University. What emerged from the discussion was the strong tendency to prioritize investments in infrastructure. But as the discussion continued there was a move to balance investment in hard infrastructure with increased investment in farmer training, improved agricultural extension, crop diversification and other “softer” interventions. This reaction may reflect the growing realization, at least within academia and NGO communities, that continued investment in roads, canals, and dykes is causing major environmental problems. As one participant put it: “The ability of the Vietnamese government to pour concrete far outstrips its ability to decide whether or not it’s the right thing to do.” For a copy of the workshop summary, click here.

There is also an ingrained fear of floods among some participants. A participant from the Mekong Delta observed that the Vietnamese word for flood (lu) was not used in the delta in the past, reflecting the fact that farmers there see floods as normal and beneficial, whereas in the north they are seen as destructive. (The Red River is more prone to catastrophic flooding than the Mekong.) Fear of flooding has dominated government planning in the delta. Indeed, drought is in some respects good news for government officials because there’s less damage to roads and other infrastructure. There are therefore major divides in understanding and approach between the north and south, between farmers and decision makers, and between ministries.