One of Asia’s biggest wetlands is subsiding into the sea — và climate change is only partly lớn blame

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Mining boats are everywhere in the delta. Sand is in brisk demand for the concrete needed lớn build Ho chi Minh City’s high rises and for land reclamation across the sea in Singapore. Yet all the activity masks the growing cost of sand mining, a globally buoyant but deeply opaque and minimally regulated trade.

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What’s at risk is not an untrammelled eco-paradise, but an economically vital, densely populated region that the Vietnamese điện thoại tư vấn their “rice bowl”. Equivalent in size and population to lớn the Netherlands, the delta is the garden of Ho bỏ ra Minh City và the country’s biggest inland fishery — a leading source of shellfish, fish and fruit.

The first dams of 11 planned on the mainstream of the lower Mekong are beginning operations, a development scientists say will change the river forever. Hundreds of kilometres upriver in Laos, two of these came into commission last year, blocking sediment that used to be nature’s way of replenishing the sand that the mining boats dredged.


“It’s lượt thích your house: when it’s eroded in the foundations, your house collapses,” says Duong Van Ni, chief executive of the Wetland University Network, a group of researchers who have tracked the delta with growing alarm.

For a world where the loss of coastal communities is a rising concern, the region offers an unsettling portrait of a future present. Villagers in Binh My told the Financial Times they had been told to move their furniture out of their houses & be prepared khổng lồ evacuate at short notice.

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In xứ sở của những nụ cười thân thiện thái lan to the north, people who live alongside the river say its level has dropped sharply and the normally brown water has turned xanh since the Xayaburi dam in Laos began operating in October. Ecologists hotline this “hungry water” because it moves faster and causes greater erosion.

Just as neighbouring trung quốc has discovered in the past two decades, economic lidongphucmerriman.com-off is odongphucmerriman.comen accompanied by environmental harm. Last month Vietnam agreed khổng lồ import more electricity generated by the dams Laos has built in order to lớn sustain an economy growing at a rate of 7 per cent — one of the fastest in Asia. Yet the country is paying with rising levels of pollution, resource exploitation & unchecked development.

“Most companies think they aren’t dependent on the river, but if you thua thảm fisheries, then food prices go up và wages go up,” says Marc Goichot of WWF Greater Mekong in Ho bỏ ra Minh City. “It’s reputational risk if you put communities at risk, & regulatory risk if you don’t account for the scarcity of water or sand.”


He adds: “It’s all business risk.”

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The Vietnamese hotline the deltaCuu Long” (“nine dragons”) because the river, adongphucmerriman.comer running from the Tibetan plateau through six countries, splits into multiple channels on its final approach khổng lồ the South trung quốc Sea.

In geological terms, it is young, created about 6,000 years ago from sediment that washed out lớn the ocean, forming protective sandbars that became land. Mangroves grew, and panthers, crocodiles và other wildlife made it their trang chủ before being driven out when humans arrived.

About đôi mươi per cent of Vietnam’s 96m people live in the delta, including many of the workers who commute khổng lồ jobs making clothes, furniture and electronics in and near Ho bỏ ra Minh City, the country’s economic engine room. For more than a century people were enticed or pushed lớn the delta, from French colonial times through the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam and now under the communist government.

Today the delta is “one of the most engineered places on earth”, according lớn Brian Eyler, south-east Asia director with the Stimson Center think-tank và author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.

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“The use of the delta is outweighing the ability of the delta khổng lồ manage itself,” he says. “What we are seeing is diminishing economic returns, và the region is falling behind on economic growth.”

Two decades ago, the delta was still gaining land from the sea. Researchers now say the region is losing as much as 12 metres of its coast in some places. Higher water and sinking land are causing more salt water to lớn intrude, upsetting the balance of fresh water, salt water and brackish water on which the delta’s rice, fruit and shrimp farmers rely.


A recent paper published by Climate Central, a non-profit organisation, briefly made a splash in Vietnam when it forecast that by 2050 most of the delta would be submerged. However, some questioned the methodology used in the forecast, & researchers say the sea level is rising slowly, for now, at about 3mm a year.

A more immediate threat, according khổng lồ researchers & residents, is land erosion. “Climate change is gradual and adaptable,” says Nguyen Huu Thien, an environmentalist and consultant studying the delta. “Development mis-steps can be corrected with policy change, and in fact policy is changing in Vietnam,” he adds. “But the impact from upstream dams will be serious, permanent & irreversible once the dams are built.”

The impact can already be felt on Minh, an island in one of the Mekong channels. Residents used lớn subsist on fishing, but have recently planted rambutan, grapefruit, longan and other fruit trees to cash in on demand for fruit.

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The sense in the community is that they are living on borrowed time. “People are losing their homes, their land, their gardens,” says Bui Hong Nam, a reporter for local TV and radio who has reported on erosion in the area.

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Ho Van Chien, a local official in the island’s An Binh commune, says two houses collapsed into the river in October, và about 10 households have moved khổng lồ “the mainland”. The local people want the government to build a dyke, he says. “If they don’t bởi vì it, the land will collapse.”


Like others in the delta, he blames the erosion on sand mining. “All the ships go lớn Saigon,” he says, using Ho chi Minh City’s historical name.

As the delta subsides, urban dwellers will be affected too. Can Tho, the region’s biggest city, has a new South Korean-built bridge that runs nearly 3km across the Hau river, one of the Mekong “dragons”. There is a newly built riverside Vinpearl khách sạn and Vincom Plaza mall built by Vingroup, Vietnam’s biggest conglomerate. Marring the view of the waterfront, a green fence obscures a part of the riverbank that has collapsed.

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Six of the delta’s 12 provinces now require “urgent measures”, Vietnamese state truyền thông media reported in September, & have declared emergencies or cordoned off land near the river’s edge because of erosion.

Vietnam’s communist planners have adopted an emergency plan, Resolution 120, outlining measures needed for “resilience” in the delta. In large part, it is focused on finding threatened communities new ways of making a living & places to lớn live.

Most of the world’s sand used in construction comes from rivers. It is a commodity that is free of charge, apart from legal & licensing regulations, và mining has been common in Vietnam, Cambodia, và Laos for more than đôi mươi years. Production accelerated over the past decade thanks khổng lồ demand from construction & infrastructure in Vietnam and land reclamation projects in Singapore.

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In response khổng lồ rampant exploitation, Hanoi has sought to lớn rein in the industry. Its environment ministry has told miners where they can and cannot dig, under threat of prosecution. But researchers say these regulations are easy lớn get around.

On a ferry crossing the teo Chien, another Mekong channel, the local reporter Mr phái nam points khổng lồ a boat mining mid-river on a weekday morning. The area where the boat is mining is illegal, he says, brandishing an environment ministry bản đồ meant to lớn regulate the trade.


Sand mining boats use a number of ruses. Because enforcement efforts are carried out by provinces individually, some boats sit mid-river, on the provincial boundaries, ready lớn dart next-door to evade fines.

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They also take advantage of the river’s expanse. “They work adongphucmerriman.comer midnight — four or five ships — because the government has only enough force khổng lồ catch one,” says Mr Nam. Even if miners are caught, the fine they pay is small.

According to lớn delta researchers & residents, the people in communities most under threat from erosion sometimes clash violently with mining crews, using slingshots or sticks.

The backlash coincides with a growing awareness of the price the delta will pay as more dams enter operation. “Given what we know, in the future, when the 11 dams are online, there will be no sand,” says Mr Thien, the environmentalist. “The sand we have now, that’s it.”

Vietnam’s authorities are increasingly putting climate change at the centre of policymaking. Environmental problems, such as the 2016 toxic spill at a Taiwanese-owned steel plant, have been a cause of unrest in a country that prizes stability. The government’s Resolution 120, on “sustainable and climate-resistant development” in the delta, attempts lớn address some of the local issues.


“Erosion has been intensified because of sand mining,” says Mai vào Nhuan, vice-chairman of the Vietnam Panel on Climate Change. He estimates that sediment in the river has been reduced by at least half compared khổng lồ before the Mekong dams began being built about a decade ago.

He says the government has tried engineering measures such as riverside concrete walls, but is increasingly rejecting these on a cost-benefit basis.

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Government is also focused on awareness campaigns, “so people can recognise the near-term danger of collapse”. They are afraid of losing their livelihoods, adds Mr Nhuan: “They have river-based skills.”

Vietnam’s government is encouraging mining companies khổng lồ find other ways of getting sand: grinding it from sandstone for construction, or processing sea sand lớn make it suitable for landfill, Mr Nhuan says.

The country also banned sand exports from 2017, although environmentalists believe miners are finding ways lớn bypass the ban.