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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 world.
 
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 environmental impacts.
 
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 protection.
 
"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".

 With 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 countries.
 
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.
 
In Thailand 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.
 
Thai environmentalists said that such dams affected the Mekong river not only in Thailand but in other downstream countries.
 
Such factors 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.
 
The 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 scientists.

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 problems".
 
For Vietnam, therefore, the message is vigilance. "Vietnam is watching the developments of dams upstream closely," the official added.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.