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.

See more from World Affairs here