January 13, 2020

Environmental changes cost the Mekong Delta billions of dollars

January 13, 2020

Vietnam may lose around USD40 billion due to climate change in 2050 if we fail to produce proper and effective policies to cope with climate change, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Central Institute for Economic Management (CIEM), the Institute of Development Studies and University of Copenhagen.  

The Mekong Delta region is facing many challenges caused by a strategic transition to industrial development, negatively impacting air quality and human health. Furthermore, the region is vulnerable to climate change due to its geographical features such as low terrain, which is only several meters above sea level.

Serious air pollution

Air pollution has become a major concern for Vietnamese society and is especially serious in larger cities and suburban areas across the country, and especially in the Red River Delta, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta’s upper course, where manufacturing and industrial construction activities are increasing.

Now home to 52 industrial zones, Vietnam is seeing an era of accelerated industrialization, resulting in severe environmental pollution, especially air pollution. The Mekong Delta is no exception. There, emissions from factories are contaminating the air and damaging health. 

Among the most serious polluters are cane sugar factories in Hau Giang Province’s town of Long My, where emissions and sewage are not fully filtered and treated and are released in the air and water. Similarly, cattle feed manufacturers in Tien Giang Province’s My Tho industrial zone cause extremely unpleasant odors, affecting the people living in the residential areas surround the zone.

Besides industrial activities, slash-and-burn agriculture constitute another contributor to air pollution in the Mekong Delta. Indeed, the region is the country’s biggest rice producer, making up half of the country’s total rice yield. During the harvest, straws are burnt at a massive scale together with other waste and byproducts, thus increasing the number of fine particles (PM2.5) in the air. 

Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta and fourth in the country, has become an economic hub of the region, seeing a vibrant wave of industrialization and modernization. Over 1,000 factories have been established across the city, causing the city to experience rapid population growth, and a concurrent growth in transportation needs.

Figure 1: Can Tho Air Quality Index (AQI) dated 5/1/2020. Source: AirVisual

Figure 2: Can Tho’s PM2.5 index on January 5, 2020: hourly. Source: AirVisual

In 2015, Can Tho residents numbered 1,251,809 with a total of 566,593 motorbikes and 15,105 cars, posing a risk to human health and air quality. Meanwhile, top polluting industries include textiles and dyes, food processing, cement, steel and rice production. The city’s air is mostly contaminated with dust and ozone. 

Transport and industrial activities are the main sources of emissions, causing 80 percent of nitrogen oxide (Nox), 90 percent of sulfur dioxide (SO2), 75 percent of carbon monoxide (CO), 60 percent of total suspended particles (TSP) and 60 percent of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs).

The highest one-hour ozone concentration is 206200 µg/m3, higher than the average air quality guideline in other parts of the country. 

Subsequently, data by independent online air quality index monitor AirVisual on January 5 showed the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the level of PM2.5 in Can Tho were “Not healthy” and “Not healthy for sensitive groups,” respectively, during rush hours. 

The city has taken considerable measures to tackle air pollution. It is the first city in Vietnam to join BreatheLife, a joint campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Environment, World Bank and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) launched in 2016 to mobilize cities and individuals to protect people’s health and the planet from the effects of air pollution.

The municipal government also approved the comprehensive Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) on April 26, 2019. Under the plan, the city prioritizes the monitoring of air quality and reducing main sources of emissions, especially transport and industrial activities. 

During the five years of implementation, CAAP will put forward a clear and specific plan to improve air quality in Can Tho. It aims to deliver the city’s commitments on meeting WHO’s air quality requirements regarding fine particles and other harmful pollutants. 

40% of the Mekong Delta will be submerged? 

Vietnam is among top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world, with the Mekong Delta facing the most significant challenges, due to a combination of factors, including low and flat terrain in the lower course of the river and the dependence on water flowing in from outside the region. 

Furthermore, the region’s economy is dependent on natural conditions for agricultural development, making the biggest risks facing the Mekong Delta rising seawater, erosion, saltwater intrusion and other extreme weather events such as aggravated or more frequent droughts during the dry season. 

Development projects in the river’s upper course affecting water flow and fish population, rampant exploitation of natural resources and the construction of infrastructural projects in vulnerable areas are also contributing to worsen the losses caused by climate change. 

The region represents 40,000 square kilometers of low altitude flat terrain, severely impacted by rising tides and seasonal saltwater intrusion with up to 1.3 million hectares penetrated by saltwater. In the rainy season, floods affect millions of hectares of agricultural land. 

Due to the low terrain, some areas in the Mekong Delta go below the high tides’ sea level, causing saltwater backflows that deeply penetrate into coastal areas and cities along the Mekong River’s branches. Forecasts indicate that the impacts of high tides will continue to increase, since the Mekong Delta’s current altitude as recorded by Climate Central and the Netherlands’ Utrecht University is much lower than official statistics from Vietnam. 

Latest updated data shows the sea level may increase by 30 cm by the middle of the 21st century. In a likely scenario of continued high emissions, the sea level may increase by one full meter, submerging up to 15,000-20,000 square kilometers of natural land in the Mekong Delta, or 40 percent of the region’s total area. 

Saltwater intrusion will further drastically reduce the productivity of farming land, increase agricultural production costs, and badly affect the livelihoods of local people. 

But the risks incurred with global climate change have only been aggravated by human activities that have changed the landscape of the region. The building on the Mekong River basin of dams and hydropower plants, as well as their associated water reservoirs, have fundamentally changed the course of the river and sharply decreased the amount of silt and nutrients carried from the river to the delta, directly causing beach erosion and the destruction of coastal ecology. 

Structures that protect the beaches, such as embankments, ports and breakwaters will be further affected after the continued decline and eventual disappearance of protective forests. 

Furthermore, dam projects on the upper course of the Mekong River and in the northeastern region of Thailand also contribute to lower water levels, and the subsequent dry season droughts and saltwater intrusions during high tide events. Those episodes have become routine in coastal provinces including Ca Mau, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang, Tra Vinh, Ben Tre, Tien Giang and Long An, and have had cascading effects. When freshwater becomes scarce, farmers turn to exploiting underground water, accelerating the crisis. The reduction of water resources also badly affects agricultural production and the fishing industry.

Climate change takes its toll on industrial zones, especially coastal ones, since rising seawater will flood the zones, affecting materials and transport system. When the temperature increases, the consumption of energy in industries, such as cooling costs, will go up, while the electricity output may go down. The consumption of electricity for domestic use will also surge given the rising temperature. 

Unexpected rains and storms and rising seawater will badly affect traffic-related infrastructure, the operation and exploitation of power transmission and energy works, thus affecting the demand and supply balance of energy and national energy security.

It is forecast that the Mekong Delta’s GDP loss will be higher than that in other parts of the country given its high dependence on agriculture, natural conditions, high population density, low income and underdeveloped infrastructure. 

Le Thai Ha – Le Viet Phu

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