Development policies have all but destroyed the natural bounty that the delta was blessed with.
In 1954, when the French withdrew from Hanoi and peace reigned once more in our capital, I was only 8 years old. Where I am from, students could only study up to 3rd grade. Our teacher, originally from the south, was a child of the Mekong Delta.
He often told us stories about his hometown, about how it needed no dam to tame the Mekong River unlike our Red River since the Mekong people had learned to live with the behemoth.
Every few months, when the water rose, people would get into their boats and go wherever the river flowed.
The life-giving floods would provide their land with silt and fish, so the people could plant their crops without using fertilizers or go fishing with little effort.
Life was good in the delta back then. But we never understood that as children since we never saw anything like that where we lived.
As I grew up I learned about “Dat rung phuong Nam” (The southern land) by Doan Gioi, a fictional novel about the adventures of a little boy named An, who lost his family when the French invaded his village.
The beauty of the Mekong Delta depicted in the novel was exactly like how our teacher used to describe it, only elevated even further by Gioi’s brilliant writing.
In it, people and the nature around them were two sides of the same coin: the people embraced nature and in return nature provided them with what they needed to thrive.
I’ve always dreamt of going to a place like that.
In 1977, a year and a half after the North and South of Vietnam were unified, I was in charge of collecting documents, maps and other things left behind by the former administration.
The work was mostly in Da Lat and Saigon, but I insisted on taking a few days off to venture to the south-western region to see with my own eyes what had become to the beloved plains of my childhood fantasies.
Back then traveling wasn’t very easy since fuel was scarce. But it didn’t matter to me; I traversed cities and provinces – My Tho to Can Tho to the U Minh forest in Ca Mau, one of the main settings for “Dat rung phuong Nam” – before returning.
As I walked through verdant, lush woodlands and spoke with locals, I realized that people and nature were still able to live in harmony there.
But would that last?
As time went by the government began to formulate new policies for the Mekong Delta to develop the region. It involved knocking down dams, building dams, constructing new power plants, attracting investment … you name it.
It has changed the region, but not in a good way.
There are people who want to do aquaculture but can’t because the government wants them to grow crops.
There are people who want to move to higher ground to avoid flooding, but that means leaving their paddy fields behind.
People have grown too accustomed to living side by side with nature that they cannot adapt to all the innovations that modern life brings.
Worse, nature itself is at stake. The push for aquaculture has seen people destroy protective coastal forests to make room for new ponds, groundwater is dwindling due to overexploitation, erosion is becoming increasingly common in the region…
The once lush and verdant forest of the Mekong Delta is now a distant memory. Photo by AFP/Paritta Wangkiat
Provinces in the southwestern plains are looking for a way out or at least a way to distract themselves from this precarious situation.
Tien Giang and Long An have chosen industrialization like their eastern counterparts.
Kien Giang has decided to push forward with tourism while Dong Thap is cultivating high-quality fruits to export to other countries.
But many of the other provinces are struggling to extricate themselves from this mess, with little success to show yet.
In September last year the government decided to create a more sustainable development plan for the Mekong Delta in light of the increasingly apparent effects of climate change on the region. Scientists in and outside the country have all contributed to this plan.
I was hired by the Ministry of Planning and Investment to supervise the project. As I looked at the files, read the reports and analyzed the charts, I started to realize that the delta of my childhood memories is now just that, a memory.
The region has changed so much since 1977 that it is barely recognizable now.
My “Dat rung phuong Nam” is literally a work of fiction now.
I don’t even know where to begin when listing the issues plaguing the place. People are not educated about the consequences of climate change.
Our government regards dam construction as the ultimate solution to flood prevention, with no consideration to how it could actually exacerbate the problem.
Groundwater and sand are depleting by the day due to overexploitation.
The ground continues to crack and subside as erosion makes its way deeper into the land, faster and more dire than ever.
My fears have found their way into several newspapers and documentaries, but my one message to the government is that the western part of the delta cannot flourish without a sustainable development plan centered around its ecosystem, that the environment needs to be protected, that the effects of climate change need to be dealt with swiftly.
To this day the people of the southwestern region are waiting for a sustainable development plan with a clear, far-sight vision.
I know because such a plan is the only way to secure their future.
*Dang Hung Vo is a Vietnamese scientist and former deputy minister of natural resources and environment. The opinions expressed are his own.