Not Just Harvey, How Climate Change Is Ruining Vietnam's 'Rice Bowl'

A vital source of agricultural crops, fish and shrimp, the Mekong Delta is Vietnam's most fertile area. But it's also the most fragile.

 Rural Vietnam rice paddies, Ho Chi Minh City
Rural Vietnam rice paddies, Ho Chi Minh City
Kannikar Petchkaew

CAN THO — Vietnam's Mekong Delta is a land carpeted in endless shades of greens, a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong River. Boats, houses and markets float upon innumerable tributaries, canals and streams that crisscross the landscape like arteries.

Some 20 million people call the Delta home, and 60 million rely on its river system. The natural environment, needless to say, is essential to life. The Mekong, as on local folk song suggests, is a lifelong partner that provides the people wisdom and guidance.

But the river system that has sustained life for so long, is now taking life. And the area itself is dying. Le Anh Tuan, a researcher with The Climate Change Research Institute at Can Tho University, says the Mekong Delta will be completely gone in the next century or two. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, and is triggering erratic weather patterns, to which the area is particularly vulnerable due to how flat it is, the researcher explains.

Boats on Vietnam's Mekong Delta — Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew

The Mekong Delta is an agricultural miracle area that accounts for just 10% of the country's land mass and yet produces more than a third of its food crops and 60% of its shrimp and fish. Changes to the Delta, therefore, will have catastrophic impacts for the people of Vietnam.

Losing ground

Tam Sau, 61, watches her children play while she explains that the land we're sitting on, here in the Minh Thuong district, four hours drive from Can Tho, is sinking. "Look at that canal," she says, pointing across the way. "It gets wider and deeper, and the bank gets steeper every year. We hardly use the water because the bank is about to collapse. Many houses on the bank have already been moved. People there couldn't sleep at night."

Erosion can kill at anytime.

They have good reason to worry. River banks are eroding all along the Mekong Delta. Just two hours drive away, in the Dam Doi district, more than 30 houses were swallowed by the river. In April, another disaster in Nam Can district killed a family of four while they were sleeping. Everywhere, towns and homes are being swallowed up by rivers.

"Many of us have given up our long-time habit of living by the sea and rivers," Tam Sau says. "Because erosion can kill at anytime."

Phong Dien floating market. Mekong Delta, Vietnam — Photo: Sergi Reboredo/ZUMA

Experts say the erosion is the result of groundwater extraction, which is happening at an ever faster rate to support growing urbanization. At the same time, rising sea levels are swallowing up low lying coastal areas, which are losing hundreds of acres of land every year.

Mai Van Huang works in a natural conservation site in An Giang, not far from where the river just swallowed another row of houses. "We use to have an abundance of fish in the area," he says. "But since they started building dams upstream, fishermen near my village find it's more difficult to fish. Fish are becoming scarce. We notice it at the dinner table!"

Towns and homes all over the country are being swallowed up by rivers.

As seawater penetrates up to 90 kilometers inland, vast swathes of farm land and fisheries are being ruined, if not by the water, then by the increased salinity. "Rice crops were the first to die, followed by hardier fruit trees and coconut palms," Tam Sau explains. "Eventually, even my salt water shrimp were lost."

As I leave Tam Sau's home, I see signs sticking out of dried up shrimp ponds. "Land for sale," they read.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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