Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is suffering from its worst drought in nearly a century, and the effects have been devastating . Experts’ claim that the drought is caused in part by this year’s El Niño, one of the worst on record.
El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, as opposed to La Niña, which is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An El Niño effects weather patterns around the globe, often with destructive consequences.
NOAA also said that April “was record warm for the month, rounding out one full year of record-breaking monthly temperatures for the globe, the longest such balmy streak in the 137-year record, which dates back to 1880.”
Nguyen Van Tinh, deputy head of the hydraulics department under Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture, told AFP in March that the water level of the Mekong River had gone down to its lowest level since 1926, leading to the worst drought and salinization there.
A Bloomberg report said last month that the drought is also compounding a Southeast Asia water shortage along the 3,000-mile Mekong River that runs from Tibet to Thailand to the South China Sea, as climate change and too many dams erode livelihoods for millions of farmers. Water shortages have also hampered agriculture in nearby Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
The impact of this year’s drought on Vietnam has been and continues to be overwhelming for the Southeast Asian nation of 90 million people, which is still largely an agricultural society. Vietnam’s economic growth in the first quarter of the year dropped to 5.6% year-on-year as its agricultural output dropped due to the drought. First quarter GDP growth for the same period in 2015 was 6.17%.
Capital Economics claims that this year’s drought could also lead to a serious reduction in exports of major goods produced in the region, including rice, seafood, and coffee.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that the Mekong River countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar produce about 62 million metric tons of rice, or 13% of global output, which makes this year’s drought particularly problematic, while prices for rice will rise as a result, further impacting the lives of the area’s economically marginalized. Vietnam is the world’s third-largest rice exporter.
The Mekong River, according to the World Wildlife Fund, accounts for as much as 25% of global freshwater catch and provides livelihoods for at least 60 million people.
Le Anh Tuan, a professor of climate change at the University of Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong region, said as much as 40-50% of the 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of arable land in the delta had been hit by salinization.
However, individual farmers are suffering the most. The Bloomberg report said that many in the Mekong Delta could not endure poverty caused by the drought and have fled the area, some looking for manufacturing or other jobs in other regions of the country. Families have broken apart and most have lost not only their livelihoods but their hope as well.
Professor Tuan said that “we do not have any specific measures to mitigate the situation,” adding that residents had been urged to save water for domestic rather than agricultural use.
Preparing for and mitigating the impact of future droughts
The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) states that drought is different from other natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods and can be more difficult to detect and can last much longer than other weather events.
However, just because a drought is different from these other natural disasters doesn’t mean that countries, including Vietnam, can’t plan for the phenomenon and take steps to help protect themselves from its devastating fallout.
According to Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Food-Climate Nexus, published in 2011 by the World Economic Forum, localities can prepare for future droughts by harvesting rainfall. (Rainfall harvesting) catching and storing rainfall has been used for over a thousand years, tracing its history back to the 9th and 10th centuries, in countries scattered across Africa and Asia.
In addition, supplying more water from sea-water by building desalination plants along the coast on a either large or small scale depending on funding and other variables is also an option. Desalination plants nearest the Mekong Delta could help alleviate any future drought induced water shortages.
Desalination plants operate in more than 120 countries world-wide now, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Cape Verde, Portugal, Greece, Italy, India, China, Japan, and Australia, while the cost of desalination plant construction has decreased in recent years.
Farmers can also diversify and plant more drought-resistant seeds to mitigate drought risks as well as planting salinity resistant crops. These as well as other steps can be implemented by all stake-holders in the Mekong Delta region, so that events of 2016 won’t have to repeat themselves in the future.