Saving the Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta in Vietnam is home to nearly 18 million people, most of whom rely on the delta’s soil and water resources for farming and fishing. Rising sea levels, droughts, dams, and other hydrological changes threaten their livelihoods and the food security of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Video by Frank Suffert and Anna van de Poel, edited by Arthur Keir

A low-lying coastal region, the Mekong Delta is particularly susceptible to floods resulting from the rising sea levels. Unprotected parts of the seaboard are breaking away. It is predicted that many provinces in the delta will be flooded by the year 2030. Furthermore,

The Mekong Delta is among the regions in the world most seriously impacted by climate change. Coastal erosion, salinization, freshwater shortages, and increasing extreme weather events are threatening the livelihoods of more than 17 million people in the Delta, which is home to around one-fifth of Viet Nam’s population. Intensive land and water management, construction of flood protection dikes and the unchecked expansion of dam-building projects – particularly in upstream areas such as China, Laos, and Cambodia – are increasing the pressure on the complex and delicate ecosystem.

People living on the poverty line are often hardest hit by crop failure. The infrastructure and land-use measures of an investment policy that is scarcely adapted to the meet the challenges of climate change are compromising the quality of already-scarce groundwater resources and soil fertility and indirectly jeopardizing further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Vietnamese Government is currently working on a holistic approach to integrated and sustainable management of the Mekong Delta. To date, however, regional implementation in the Delta has been unsystematic. There is a lack of coordination between the national authorities and the provinces as well as a lack of cooperation between provinces.


"In a certain part of the land they have observed, the rate of subsidence is much higher than the rate of the sea level rise. So if the sea level rise is one centimeter per year, the rate of subsidence in some parts may come down to 3 centimeters per year. If you add it all together, the Mekong Delta will be much more underwater than the climate change scenario predicts." -- LY MINH DANG, PROGRAMME MANAGER, ICMP GIZ VIETNAM

The people of the region have also come to depend on the Mekong River’s ‘single, smooth and regular flood peak and the consistent size and regularity of that peak’ (Adamson et al. 2009). This regularity is no more.

Even more than the climate change, certain socio-economic developments constrain the delta’s land and water resources.

"Of course you are aware of the things that are happening more upstream, like the construction of new dams and the diversion of the river in Thailand, for example. Besides the dam construction, huge amounts of water are diverted for irrigation projects..., which is also impacting the fresh water supply of the delta." -- DR. CHRISTIAN HENCKES, PROGRAMME DIRECTOR, ICMP GIZ VIETNAM

A lot of people are forced to resettle and adapt to new, often unfamiliar lands and agricultural practices, which takes a toll on personal resources and time they do not have.

Threats to the Mekong Delta

  • Extraction of water for agricultural, industrial, commercial and domestic uses

  • Poor management of water storages (eg. canals, wells), dikes

  • Sea level rise and saltwater intrusion. Severe weather patterns

  • Unplanned urbanization

  • Declining water quality limited or no access to freshwater

  • High variation in flow regime, water fluctuation

  • Degrading flood plains, wetlands, and their ecosystems

  • Siltation and erosion reduced sediment movement

  • "Of course you are aware of the things that are happening more upstream, like the construction of new dams and the diversion of the river in Thailand, for example. Besides the dam construction, huge amounts of water are diverted for irrigation projects..., which is also impacting the freshwater supply of the delta."

  • Food shortages and exorbitant food prices increased the risk of infectious diseases and malnutrition

  • Refugee dynamics political instability

The water volume flow rate of the Mekong River in Vietnam measures down to 500m3/sec. People have not enough water for irrigation and everyday use. In addition to that, such an inadequate flow cannot withstand the intrusion of saltwater from the sea.

Several projects work to save the Mekong Delta. One such program, implemented by the German Society for International Cooperation and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade focuses on the restoration of mangrove forests, sustainable rice cultivation and better management of the many water channels that criss-cross the region.

"We have been trying a lot to do rice and fish farming, but it hasn’t worked due to saltwater intrusion. Since the project was introduced, the dikes were built and the mangroves were rehabilitated, it has been getting better with agricultural production." --DOAN VAN DAU, FARMER

One of the coastal management program solutions is a solution to erosion - a breakwater fence made of bamboo. This so-called T-fence absorbs the power of the waves and creates mudflats for the mangroves and other plants to grow in. What is more, in this way the coastline can be extended up to 180 meters into the sea.

"The harvest used to be low due to saltwater intrusion. Since the construction of breakwater fences, the agricultural land has been protected. And it brings a positive effect to my garden: the fruits grow well." --NGUYEN VAN KICH, FARMER

Another important initiative tackles the issue of government. Whilst 13 different provinces of the Delta fail to coordinate plans and investments, and national ministries implement different policies in response to climate change, farmers cooperatives make it easier, for example, to introduce better cultivation methods into the area and put into effect more reliable production standards across borders.

"There's one way that we call alternate wetting and drying method, where you don't flood the rice permanently, but where you let the water table go down, let's say five-six centimeters on the ground. People can see it through a pipe, and if the water goes underneath a certain level, you irrigate again, so you can save thirty-forty percent of your freshwater. At the same same time, you'll reduce co2 emissions, so it also contributes to mitigation, to reduction of co2 equivalent emission." --DR. CHRISTIAN HENCKES, PROGRAMME DIRECTOR, ICMP GIZ VIETNAM

Mr. Hoang Huong demonstrating Wet-Dry Rice Planting

"For a farmer, saving water in rice production means decreasing production costs… The traditional method implies a constant level of water in the paddy field. Nobody thought rice could be grown in a dry field." --MR HOANG HUONG, RICE FARMER

"We are planning to train more farmers in the near future, to show them how to produce sustainably, how to adapt to climate change. The main objective is to improve the livelihood of local farmers, help them get more income."--HONG KIM THU

The Mekong Delta is but one of the world’s many delta regions that face the same problems. The solutions that take place here showcase what can be done in places like Bangkok, Jakarta, and Bangladesh.

"I have no idea how exactly it will look like in 50 years, but it will not disappear for sure. A good question is how it will look like, but we don't know yet." --DR. CHRISTIAN HENCKES, PROGRAMME DIRECTOR, ICMP GIZ VIETNAM

The demand for quality water grows exponentially. Access to a reliable supply of this finite resource is imperative for human survival and sustainable progress.

Supported by organizations like the GIZ, farmers like Mr. Hoang Huong and Doan Van Dau face an uncertain future with courage. Science and technology, nature and local knowledge are creating actionable solutions that will help us adapt to problems like population growth and climate change.

This story was created with the support of the GIZ, Vietnam. Special thanks to Dr. Christian Henckes, Linh Vu Phuong, Thomas Krause, Thuy Tran Thi Thanh, and our team members Anna van de Poel and Arthur Kier for their participation and engagement.

More Infos on Wikipedia about the Mekong Delta

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