Photo Essay: A Damaged Delta in Vietnam

Photo Essay: A Damaged Delta in Vietnam

Photo Essay: A Damaged Delta in Vietnam

All text and photos credited to Luke Duggleby (website)

A young girl helps her family collect snails during low tide in southern Soc Trang province, Vietnam


Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is one of the world's most at-risk areas from the effects of climate change, posing challenges both for its environment and population in years to come.

Local communities are affected by rising sea levels and the intrusion of salinity into farmland. More than half of Vietnam’s rice production, 70% of its aquaculture and one-third of its GDP are generated in the Delta, which is home to 20 million people. Increasing salinization, an upsurge in global temperatures causing droughts and floods in the Mekong region, erratic seasonal weather variations, the destruction of coastal mangrove forests and the reduced flow of the Mekong River (a consequence of upriver dam projects) – poses significant threats to the future of Vietnam’s rice basket.

While long-term approaches and large foreign-funded implementation projects garner most of the spotlight, Vietnamese experts are leading the way in research and solutions at the local level.

Dr. Duong Van Ni from Can Tho University is one of those experts. To help both agricultural and shrimp farmers, he has developed a handheld plastic device that allows farmers to test salinity in the water before it reaches their rice paddy and shrimp ponds.

The simple instrument contains a small float. If this float rises to the top when water is poured into the device, its salt content is too high and could destroy their crop. If the float sinks, the water is safe. The farmers use text messages to relay their findings to a central database at the university where the information is collected and used to warn other farmers in the area. Over the years this system has created a vital data set on the salinity of the Mekong Delta and has helped map the region’s worst affected areas.

In the past salty water seldom intruded more than 20 kilometers inland. But with rising sea levels research now suggests it is encroaching on average 80 kilometers. This is creating serious challenges for those living off the land. Countless people in the region have lost significant chunks of arable land or have become victims of powerful typhoons.

Dr. Ni isn’t the only one concerned enough to focus on trying to help with mitigation of and adaptation to environmental changes. Others work tirelessly to stress the Delta’s importance and to find out what needs to be done to protect it.


Ho The Kieu, a farmer, rounds up her ducks to return them to their pen further down the canal. After local, small-scale chicken farming was almost wiped out by cheaper factory-reared chicken, many turned to duck farming in the Delta. The farming of ducks requires large areas of open land and attempts to factory rear ducks have not been successful.


A Vietnamese man cleans his teeth on his houseboat that is moored on a river in the middle of Can Tho. From his boat he sells fruits and vegetables at Cai Rang’s morning floating market. For centuries the population of the Mekong Delta adapted to life on the water due to the lack of roads and bridges. While that is changing quickly it hasn't disappeared entirely and daily life can still be seen along most waterways.


Women workers spread out fish to dry at the Vinh Nghi factory at the edge of Song Doc town. The factory dries 60 tons of fish daily and employs 140 workers. Sandwiched between the Song Doc River and the Gulf of Thailand, this bustling town of 50,000 people relies heavily on the fishing industry. Virtually all of the dried fish prepared at this factory will be exported to China.


At a morning market in central Can Tho, a woman lays out squid, shrimp, and fish for sale.  Seafood is vital to the people of the Delta in almost every way, from consumption to livelihood. But because of this enormous consumption the waterways and surrounding seas struggle to produce enough.


 Loi, 58, a fisherman, sits in his boat below a newly constructed bridge in the outskirts of Can Tho city. He has been a fisherman all his life and says that compared to ten years ago, he catches half the amount of fish and is only making around US$2-3 a day.  Because of the depleted fish numbers in these rivers, he doesn’t want his children to do the same job and encouraged them to work in a factory instead. 


Foreign tourists take photographs at Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho city. Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta but due to improved transportation infrastructure, the market is slowly declining as vendors prefer the speed and availability of roads. Now tourist boats almost outnumber the houseboats selling vegetables and fruit.


A newly developed riverside area provides locals and tourists with brightly colored neon lighting and skyscraper backdrops. Can Tho is the largest city in the Delta and the fifth largest in Vietnam with a population of approximately 1.5 million. As hydropower dams further up the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos, and China provide electricity for its neighbors, Vietnam is hoping to build 14 coal power plants in the Delta to satisfy its growing demand for electricity which will likely have a negative effect on the environment.


Dr. Duong Van Ni explains to students at the College of Environment and Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University how his salinity test works. Several years ago, Dr. Ni and his team created this simple test kit that would help farmers test the salinity of the water before irrigating their rice fields or shrimp farms. Due to the reduced flow of the Mekong Delta and increased sea level of the ocean due to climate change, increased salinity is a growing problem.


An area of rice paddy tests the growth of various strains of rice at the College of Rural Development of Can Tho University. During the Vietnam War, this area was completely destroyed by bombing. With very little vegetation remaining, the contaminated and acidic soil meant that nothing could grow anymore. But after years of work and research by Dr. Ni and his team, the area was finally returned to its natural state.


Dr. Duong Van Ni shows farmer Ho The Kieu how to use his salinity test kit on the water surrounding her rice fields. The weight dropping to the bottom indicates that the salinity levels of her water are not high and will not damage her rice fields.


Dr. Duong Van Ni and his field assistant Ly Van Loi, left, chat with the family of farmer Ho The Kieu (facing camera) in their family home. Living within the grounds of the College of Rural Development of Can Tho University this family is regularly visited by Dr. Ni and his team to inquire about the current issues facing their crops. During his decades of work, he had visited thousands of families across the Delta to gain knowledge as to each of their individual farming issues.


Ly Tinh, 39, from the ethnic Khmer community, uses a wooden sleigh known as ‘mong’ in local dialect, to glide over the deep mud remaining in this mangrove forest once the tide has retreated. The fishermen have used this method for over 60 years to reach their fishing nets out at sea.


Two men check their nets at dawn on Thi Tuong Lagoon in Ca Mau province. Two kilometers wide and over ten kilometers long it is the largest natural lagoon in the Mekong Delta and is home to hundreds of households who for generations have completely relied on the lagoon's marine resources for their subsistence. But now everything has been changing rapidly. The visible rise in sea level and temperature have caused changes in the lagoon's natural flooding process. Normally the lagoon is influenced by daily tides and during the high tide, adult marine life such as fish and crabs migrate from the sea to hunt in the lagoon. During the low tide, larvae and juveniles are born and grown making it a perfect sanctuary for many marine species. In recent years local farmers have witnessed more frequent flooding in the lagoon, meaning that the high tide is getting higher, leaving little space for a tidal mud flat where baby shrimp and crab can grow.


At a local restaurant surrounded by a mangrove forest, a poster promotes a new development project in the area. Projects such as this have meant that large areas of mangrove forests have been destroyed, leading to an increase in coastal erosion.


At an evening food market in Can Tho city, customers arrive on motorbikes to buy freshly made food. This growing affluence in the Mekong Delta has led to an increase in demand for electricity which in turn has led to ill-conceived development projects to try to meet that demand, putting increasing pressure on the natural environment.


Dr. Duong Van Ni talks to students at the College of Environment and Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University about the local wildlife that has been lost in the Mekong Delta. Many species endemic to the Delta are now critically endangered due to habitat loss and Dr. Ni and his department are trying to protect them. “A species is symbolic of the problems of the Mekong Delta and the need for habitat restoration – the otter – whose natural habitat is the river. Water needs to flow and the Mekong changes direction, allowing otters to feed on fish. Otters are a good indication of the good health of the river, if they breed, there is enough fish,” said Dr. Ni.


A stuffed wild cat – now critically endangered – is displayed in a classroom at the College of Environment and Natural Resources Department of Can Tho University. The department is researching and implementing projects to help protect certain species from extinction.


Wild egrets are for sale at a roadside stall in Ca Mau province. Such extensive farming practices in the Mekong Delta has led to a huge decline in wildlife due to habitat loss and other human activities.


Former rice farmer Nguyen Tuyet Khanh sits in the main room of her house. She has been physically disabled since she was three years old which has made life as a farmer difficult. An increased salinity of her land leading to rice crops failing brought more hardship. She switched to a type of water reed that grows well in brackish water and can be dried and woven into mats for extra income. Presently she weaves two mats a day and makes around US$1 profit each day from selling them. But even now the reed is becoming more fragile from too much rain and she is unable to harvest the reed in the rainy season anymore.


Former rice farmer Nguyen Van Trong, right, shows Dr. Duong Van Ni his reed fields which he began to grow after his rice crop failed due to an increased salinity of the water. This type of water reed grows well in brackish water. Reed is much more resistant to salinization and diseases and can be dried and woven into mats for extra income.


Inside the house of Nguyen Tuyet Khanh, her two children weave dried reeds into mats. Reed weaving is a traditional skill passed by Vietnamese women from generation to generation. Dr. Ni's strategy is to help farmers find solutions themselves, adapting to the changing environment using what they already know. He believes that the collaboration between researchers and farmers is vital to provide long-term solutions.


A government-built canal is used to redirect water and assist during times of flooding. While some of these manmade canals work, others often lead to other issues such as the draining of water from certain areas and increased flooding in others.


A shrimp farmer raises a net to look at the size of his shrimp on his farm in Vinh Chau district of Soc Trang province. He was previously a rice farmer but increased salinity of his land forced him to change from rice to shrimp. Shrimp farms have their own issues –the changing temperature and salinity of the water, from too much rain and the overuse of antibiotics and chemicals to increase yields that in turn pollutes surrounding waterways.


Shrimp farmed in the Mekong Delta are served to restaurant customers. The demand for shrimp is high with much of what is produced being exported. This demand has meant that an increasing number of farmers have started to use antibiotics to improve the health of the shrimp in their farms. This overuse of chemicals has led to serious impacts on the surrounding environment.


Shrimp farmer Ly Sa Luong sits in his small shack next to his ponds. After several years of experimentation and failed crops, he began to farm tiger shrimp which are more resistant to changes in water. But he still struggles and last year was forced to leave his farm to work in a factory so he could buy enough rice for his family.


Water dykes, recently increased in height and size with additional mud, line the waterways of a remote area in Ca Mau Province. A government project dredges the canal, placing the mud at the side for which the local communities can use to further protect their land and homes.


The remains of a mangrove forest pierce the sandy coastline of Ho Be beach in southern Soc Trang province. Mangroves are a natural barrier, protecting the coastline from the ocean’s force. With the mangroves gone extensive coastal erosion and increased salinity ravages the interior. Only a decade ago the mangrove forest would have reached the last sticks used to hold fisherman's nets.


Nguyen Thi Chep, 70, sits in her house with her daughter Than Thi Ut. Both her husband and son were killed when Typhoon Linda devastated southern Vietnam in 1997 but only the body of her 13-year-old son was found. Believed to be the worst typhoon in at least 100 years, thousands were killed and huge areas completely destroyed. Her family were fisherman living in Song Doc town that is one of the most remote communities in the Delta. In response to the typhoon Red Cross workers had to travel by riverboat to bring aid to the 150,000 most affected people, due to the lack of roads.


Nguyen Van Chien, 50, sits in his house on stilts in the middle of Thi Tuong Lagoon with his trusted guard dog. With the quantity of fish caught in the lake reduced by three times in the last decade, he invested in growing clams. He believes what is responsible for the reduced fish stocks is the fertiliser run-off from nearby shrimp farms that pollute the lake. Clams can be harvested only once a year because the gestation period lasts up to 10 months but he can sell them for approximately US$35/kg for large ones and US$25/kg for smaller ones.


A young girl helps her family collect snails during low tide in southern Soc Trang province. These mangroves were completely destroyed by bombing during the Vietnam War but over the last 25 years were able to grow back naturally after being protected and expanded by government initiatives. Nowadays over 20 families come to the beach daily to collect snails and other fish that returned with the healthy mangrove eco-system.


A shrimp fisherman brings in his nightly catch to a buyer in the busy harbor. Sandwiched between the Song Doc River and the Gulf of Thailand, this bustling town of 50,000 people relies heavily on the fishing industry and is reported to have a fishing fleet of more than 3000 ships, over 20,000 fishermen and an annual aquatic animal turnover of more than 100,000 tons.


Workers unload a large barge filled with wooden poles. Transported by the river to Can Tho city the poles are sold for use in construction. While roads have replaced many river transportation routes, for larger cargo the river is still the easiest and most economical way to travel.


Truong Minh Thnan, 36, stands in part of his family house in Nam Can town which has collapsed into the Kinh Tac River. His family business manufacturers coffins and they use the river to transport the heavy wooden coffins to customers. He said the problem of erosion began in 2006 and severely affects 47 communities in this district alone. Despite laying a foundation of two meters of cement under his house and placing steel-reinforced cement supports 30 meters down, it is still unstable.


A view of Ho Chi Minh City at dusk shows rapid urbanization. In the foreground is a water-logged construction site that will soon become a condominium. With approximately 12 million people it is Vietnam’s most populated city, sitting only 10 meters above sea level and surrounded by rivers. With climate change causing sea levels to rise, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta to its southwest could be at serious risk in the future.


This story was produced under the EJN Asia-Pacific Story Grants 2018 with the support of Sweden/SIDA. A version of this story has been published by ARTE

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