CAN THO, Vietnam – Nguyen Huu Chiem was born in Can Tho province, the eldest of ten children and the seventh generation of a Mekong Delta farming family.
“I have lived here for so long … that I understand the delta’s ecology,” he said over a pot of tea near Can Tho City one balmy evening. “I remember there were many fish in the water and many birds in the air. The delta has always had great biodiversity.”
Chiem, whose father was a rice farmer, decided to devote his life to studying ecology and the environment, because “I see [my father] work very hard at rice farming, [and] I could also see agriculture the way we do here in future is in danger.”
“Formerly, you could drink directly from the water. Now you cannot. You have to boil the water,” he said in rapid-fire English. “Formerly, you could plant rice naturally. Now you cannot.
“Every year, you see the biodiversity changing quickly,” continued the 50-year-old professor, who heads the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Management at Can Tho University’s College of Agriculture and Applied Biology.
“Aquaculture is developing more, because there is no fishing. There are more artificial fisheries. Formerly I never eat the aquaculture. I only like to eat the white fish (wild freshwater fish),” he paused and cocked his head. “You must be the same, eh?”
Vietnam’s rice basket
Eighteen million people live in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, more than 80 percent of whom are farmers, according to Chiem. These people supply the food that feeds the rest of the country. Not for nothing is it known as the nation’s “rice basket.”
But Chiem said that climate changes have affected rice production in the region. For example, in the past two years, a growing number of insects have led to a lower yield.
“It’s changing ecology,” he said. “The government didn’t dare to export as much last year and this year, because they were worried about shortages here in Vietnam.” Normally, he said, the delta produces 80 percent of the exported rice.
Climate change is only one reason for the decline in farming. The bespectacled professor also cited the growing deforestation in the upper reaches of the Mekong, which lead to soil erosion.
In addition, he pointed to the construction of several huge dams in China.
“Some scientists – engineers – say it’s hard to prove the dams are affecting the downriver,” he said. “But in the dry season, if the river runs low, the dam needs to keep the water – for power maybe – so then the flow, of course, will be less. In the wet season, when the water level is high, of course you have to let the water out or else it may burst the dam.”
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and others disagree.
China’s dam-building “does not materially affect the four low-lying countries [of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand],” said Arjun Thapan, director of the Southeast Asia Department at the ADB. “It’s a misconception that China’s dams are impeding flows downstream.”
Perhaps. And it may be difficult to determine, because the Mekong Delta is the final stretch of the Mekong’s 3,000-mile run from its source in the Tibet Plateau.
“It’s a complicated scientific problem. There are many factors at play,” said Carl Middleton of the International Rivers Network, who researches the effects of the Chinese dams on Thailand and Cambodia. “It’s easiest to see the impact just downstream” rather than farther south in more-distant Vietnam.
Regardless of the cause, the Mekong Delta is changing.
Apart from more extreme flooding during the rainy season and growing incidents of drought during the dry season, saltwater intrusion has become a major concern.
During the dry season, the Mekong Delta – which is already below sea level in many areas – has become more susceptible to saltwater creeping inland, destroying crops and reducing the fertility of farmland.
Chiem and the ADB say the delta has experienced saltwater as far as 35 to 40 miles upstream.
“When I go to My Tho, I ordered tea there,” recounted Chiem. “I drink the tea, I find it salty. I ask the people, why you put salt in the tea? They said, what? No salt in the tea! They so used to the water tasting of salt, they don’t even notice! Imagine – salty tea!”
A pioneer for the Delta
Chiem studied agronomy at university – he was the first of his family ever to go to college – and went to Kyoto University in Japan to pursue a Ph.D in agro-ecology and the environment.
After he completed his studies, he returned home and started the department he still oversees in Can Tho. The department has had more than 500 college graduates and more than 100 at the master’s degree level. Chiem said he hopes to establish a PhD program next year.
“The students go back to their home provinces to work on the environment,” he said. Many of them have opened environment departments in schools around the provinces. “We are trying to save the delta,” he says.
Chiem – whose nose was firmly stuck to the window of our van while everyone else dozed as we navigated the back roads of Can Tho province – seemed to relish looking around his home province.
It’s rare he can visit his mother and family. “They think I’m better, because only [I became a] lecturer in university,” he said, prodding me to try some locally grown sweet potato.
“But sometimes I say, I’m tired. I should have been a farmer,” he smiled. “Then I can swim in the river. I can take nap. I can live with my family in the countryside.”