Some environmental disasters present themselves over years; others come with a bang — or a splash.
The latter happened one day last August, when residents of Binh My, a commune in Vietnam’s lush Mekong Delta, heard a loud cracking sound. They went outside to watch a 25-metre-long chunk of the highway that runs alongside their houses collapse into the river as the asphalt gave way.
One of Asia’s biggest wetlands is subsiding into the sea, the result in part of rising sea levels created by climate change.
But when asked what caused the collapse, a local farmer who gave his name as Mr Bo points to a crane mounted on a boat mid-river — about a kilometre away — that is mining sand. “They are making the bed of the river deeper and deeper,” he says, miming a scooping action.
Researchers monitoring the Mekong say a crisis that has been building on the river for years has turned into a full-blown emergency in recent months. They blame two man-made phenomena: the mining of sand from the riverbed and the building of new dams upriver in Laos and China that are altering the river’s flow, sediment content and even its colour.
Mining boats are everywhere in the delta. Sand is in brisk demand for the concrete needed to build Ho Chi Minh City’s high rises and for land reclamation across the sea in Singapore. Yet all the activity masks the growing cost of sand mining, a globally buoyant but deeply opaque and minimally regulated trade.
What’s at risk is not an untrammelled eco-paradise, but an economically vital, densely populated region that the Vietnamese call their “rice bowl”. Equivalent in size and population to the Netherlands, the delta is the garden of Ho Chi Minh City and the country’s biggest inland fishery — a leading source of shellfish, fish and fruit.
The first of 11 dams planned on the mainstream of the lower Mekong are beginning operations, a development scientists say will change the river forever. Hundreds of kilometres upriver in Laos, two of these came into commission last year, blocking sediment that used to be nature’s way of replenishing the sand that the mining boats dredged.
“It’s like your house: when it’s eroded in the foundations, your house collapses,” says Duong Van Ni, chief executive of the Wetland University Network, a group of researchers who have tracked the delta with growing alarm.
For a world where the loss of coastal communities is a rising concern, the region offers an unsettling portrait of a future present. Villagers in Binh My told the Financial Times they had been told to move their furniture out of their houses and be prepared to evacuate at short notice.
In Thailand to the north, people who live alongside the river say its level has dropped sharply and the normally brown water has turned blue since the Xayaburi dam in Laos began operating in October. Ecologists call this “hungry water” because it moves faster and causes greater erosion.
Just as neighbouring China has discovered in the past two decades, economic lift-off is often accompanied by environmental harm. Last month Vietnam agreed to import more electricity generated by the dams Laos has constructed in order to sustain an economy growing at a rate of 7 per cent — one of the fastest in Asia. Yet the country is paying with rising levels of pollution, resource exploitation and unchecked development.
“Most companies think they aren’t dependent on the river, but if you lose fisheries, then food prices go up and wages go up,” says Marc Goichot of WWF Greater Mekong in Ho Chi Minh City. “It’s reputational risk if you put communities at risk, and regulatory risk if you don’t account for the scarcity of water or sand.”
He adds: “It’s all business risk.”
The Vietnamese call the delta “Cuu Long” (“nine dragons”) because the river, after running from the Tibetan plateau through six countries, splits into multiple channels on its final approach to the South China Sea.
In geological terms, it is young, created about 6,000 years ago from sediment that washed out to the ocean, forming protective sandbars that became land. Mangroves grew, and panthers, crocodiles and other wildlife made it their home before being driven out when humans arrived.
About 20 per cent of Vietnam’s 96m people live in the delta, including many of the workers who commute to jobs making clothes, furniture and electronics in and near Ho Chi Minh City, the economy’s engine room. For more than a century people were enticed or pushed to the delta, from French colonial times through the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam and now under the communist government.
Today the delta is “one of the most-engineered places on earth”, according to Brian Eyler, south-east Asia director with the Stimson Center think-tank and author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.
“The use of the delta is outweighing the ability of the delta to manage itself,” he says. “What we are seeing is diminishing economic returns, and the region is falling behind on economic growth.”
Two decades ago, the delta was still gaining land from the sea. Researchers now say the region is losing as much as 12 metres of its coast in some places. Higher water and sinking land are causing more salt water to intrude, upsetting the balance of fresh water, salt water and brackish water on which the delta’s rice, fruit and shrimp farmers rely.
A recent paper published by Climate Central, a non-profit organisation, briefly made a splash in Vietnam when it forecast that by 2050 most of the delta would be submerged. However, some questioned the methodology used in the forecast, and researchers say the sea level is rising slowly, for now, at about 3mm a year.
A more immediate threat, according to researchers and residents, is land erosion. “Climate change is gradual and adaptable,” says Nguyen Huu Thien, an environmentalist and consultant studying the delta. “Development mis-steps can be corrected with policy change, and in fact policy is changing in Vietnam,” he adds. “But the impact from upstream dams will be serious, permanent and irreversible once the dams are built.”
The impact can already be felt on Minh, an island in one of the Mekong channels. Residents used to subsist on fishing, but have recently planted rambutan, grapefruit, longan and other fruit trees to cash in on demand for fruit.
The sense in the community is that they are living on borrowed time. “People are losing their homes, their land, their gardens,” says Bui Hong Nam, a reporter for local TV and radio who has reported on erosion in the area.
Ho Van Chien, a local official in the island’s An Binh commune, says that two houses there collapsed into the river in October, and about 10 households have moved to “the mainland”. The local people want the government to build a dyke, he says. “If they don’t do it, the land will collapse.”
Like others in the delta, he blames the erosion on sand mining. “All the ships go to Saigon,” he says, using Ho Chi Minh City’s historical name.
As the delta subsides, urban dwellers will be affected too. Can Tho, the region’s biggest city, has a new South Korean-built bridge that runs nearly 3km across the Hau river, one of the Mekong “dragons”. There is a newly built riverside Vinpearl hotel and Vincom Plaza mall, built by Vietnam’s biggest conglomerate Vingroup.
Marring the view of the waterfront, a green fence obscures a part of the riverbank that has collapsed.
Six of the delta’s 12 provinces now require “urgent measures”, Vietnamese state media reported in September, and have declared emergencies or cordoned off land near the river’s edge because of erosion.
Vietnam’s communist planners have adopted an emergency plan, Resolution 120, outlining measures needed for “resilience” in the delta. In large part, it is focused on finding threatened communities new ways of making a living and places to live.
Most of the world’s sand used in construction comes from rivers. It is a commodity that is free of charge, apart from legal and licensing regulations, and mining has been common in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for more than 20 years. Production accelerated over the past decade thanks to demand from construction and infrastructure in Vietnam and land reclamation projects in Singapore.
In response to rampant exploitation, Hanoi has sought to rein in the industry. Its environment ministry has told miners where they can and cannot dig, under threat of prosecution. But researchers say these regulations are easy to get around.
On a ferry crossing the Co Chien, another Mekong channel, the local reporter Mr Nam points to a boat mining mid-river on a weekday morning. The area where the boat is mining is illegal, he says, brandishing an environment ministry map meant to regulate the trade.
Sand mining boats use a number of ruses. Because enforcement efforts are carried out by provinces individually, some boats sit mid-river, on the provincial boundaries, ready to dart next-door to evade fines.
They also take advantage if the river’s expanse. “They work after midnight — four or five ships — because the government has only enough force to catch one,” says Mr Nam. Even if miners are caught, the fine they pay is small.
According to delta researchers and residents, the people in communities most under threat from erosion sometimes clash violently with mining crews, using slingshots or sticks.
The backlash coincides with a growing awareness of the price the delta will pay as more dams enter operation. “Given what we know, in the future, when the 11 dams are online, there will be no sand,” says Mr Thien, the environmentalist. “The sand we have now, that’s it.”
Vietnam’s authorities are increasingly putting climate change at the centre of policymaking. Environmental problems, such as the 2016 toxic spill at a Taiwanese-owned steel plant, have been a cause of unrest in a country that prizes stability. The government’s Resolution 120, on “sustainable and climate-resistant development” in the delta, attempts to address some of the local issues.
“Erosion has been intensified because of sand mining,” says Mai Trong Nhuan, vice-chairman of the Vietnam Panel on Climate Change. He estimates that sediment in the river has been reduced by at least half compared to before the Mekong dams began being built about a decade ago.
He says that government has tried engineering measures such as riverside concrete walls, but is increasingly rejecting these on a cost-benefit basis.
Government is also focused on awareness campaigns, “so people can recognise the near-term danger of collapse”. They are afraid of losing their livelihoods, adds Mr Nhuan: “They have river-based skills.”
Vietnam’s government is encouraging mining companies to find other ways of getting sand: grinding it from sandstone for construction, or processing sea sand to make it suitable for landfill, Mr Nhuan says.
The country has also banned sand exports from 2017, although environmentalists believe miners are finding ways to bypass the ban.
Vietnam’s state-controlled press — a good indicator of both official preoccupations, and the boundaries of acceptable debate — has begun reporting what’s happening in the delta.
A recent story about Ca Mau, one of the provinces most exposed to the sea, said that authorities were evacuating households and building new housing for 5,000 people. Some of the reports, with images of collapsed roads and houses, make for unsettling reading.
“The Vietnamese government is looking for a 180-degree change,” says Mr Eyler. “It’s recognising its mistakes, and that’s helpful.”
Additional reporting by Pham Hai Chung and Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart