Vietnam Rice Bowl at Risk
By Hoang Tri Dan, Sai Gon Giai Phong, Vietnam
Bangkok, Thailand – A "tragedy of the commons" is taking shape in
South East Asia – and the main character is the twelfth longest river in
The 4,800 km-long Mekong river, which feeds more
than one third of the population of South-East Asia, is in danger of
becoming the region’s drain. Environmental experts say the six countries
through which the Mekong flows – China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos
and Kampuchea – are trying to squeeze out the wealth of river for their
own narrow-minded purposes. No country, they say, is taking account of the
The Mekong is thus shaping up to be a
“tragedy of the commons” –the phrase coined by environmentalists to
describe what happens when a “free” resource is over-exploited because
nobody owns it.
Among the six countries sharing the waters of
the Mekong river, Vietnam is the most at risk. The Cuu Long river delta,
where the Mekong flows into the sea, is called the "rice bowl of Vietnam".
With a population of 12 million – 16% of the national population – the
area provides up to 44% of the national annual grain output of Vietnam.
Vietnamese environmentalists therefore argue that it needs special
"If you look at the map you can see that Vietnam
is in the lowest part of the river just before it runs into the sea," one
expert said "That is why the Cuu Long river delta is so vulnerable to
environmental impacts caused by the upstream countries".
per capita GNP about 150-200 USD, many people argue that the greater
Mekong river basin needs developing. This, they say, is the overriding
wish of the 200 million people living in the six Mekong
However, Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the
environmental NGO TERRA, argued that states in the region must devise
their own model of development. "There are thousands of ways to build an
economy. But people are too lazy to think about them all. It’s simpler to
follow one or two bureaucratic models", he said.
over-hasty industrialisation has caused widespread environmental damage.
Carelessly treated toxic water from factories upstream of the Mekong are
said to be threatening the purity of "the Mother of Waters". Dams in the
north and east, notably the Pak Moon dam, have brought untold ecological
consequences. Scientists are raising an alarm about the survival of fish
species in the Mekong.
People around the Pak Moon dam also
complain about the hardships they have suffered since the dam was built.
One fisherman in Ban Wen Buek village told reporters that if he wanted to
catch big fish now he had to go to Laos.
environmentalists said that such dams affected the Mekong river not only
in Thailand but in other downstream countries.
are certain to affect the Cuu Long river delta – the 200-km stretch of the
Mekong river in Vietnam. In recent years the area, which is rich in rice
and fish, has suffered unusually fierce floods, with heavy loss of life
and property. Deforestation upstream is the likely cause. Flows of silt
and freshwater quality and volumes are also affected.
Vietnamese government has built canals to divert flooding to the Gulf of
Thailand. In addition to "man-made disasters" such as flooding, droughts
in the dry seasons also pose problems. There is a close link between the
amount of water flowing down to Cuu Long river delta and the salinity –
and thus fertility – of the rice fields, according to Vietnamese
Officials argue that through bodies such as the Mekong
River Commission, Vietnam can cooperate with neighboring countries to work
out a comprehensive solutions for water use on the Mekong. A Vietnamese
official with the MRC told the IMMF Time: "When the MRC moves from Bangkok
to Phnom Penh, closer to the Cuu Long river delta, it will be easier to
bring the officials to the region to talk about
For Vietnam, therefore, the message is vigilance.
"Vietnam is watching the developments of dams upstream closely," the