No amount of idyllic boat trips, bamboo beach huts and floating villages can detract from the fact that Vietnam is facing a huge environmental crisis. A booming population growing at a rate much faster than their infrastructure and economy is causing unknown damages to the beautiful South-east Asian nation and its pride and joy, the Mekong Delta.

What’s going on?

Credit: Manhhai

Looking to gain foreign investment, Vietnam has allowed numerous energy and manufacturing industries to set up shop, bypassing many laws and regulations along the way. Many of these incoming opportunities decided to construct factories and plants around the Mekong Delta, a bounteous network of small rivers, distributaries and waterways.

The Mekong Delta is a treasure chest of wildlife, including previously thought-to-be-extinct creatures and incredible flora and fauna. After the basin of the Congo, and the Amazon, the Mekong Delta offers the third largest amount of biodiversity in the world. Sadly, all of this is under threat, as the incredibly polluted waters of the river, in which industry carelessly dumps its waste, continue to poison the surrounding nature. As much at threat as the plants and bugs, are the people, who take the contents of the Delta to water their crops and rice paddies, at least for a little while longer…

How are these polluters gaining permission?

Vietnam is rife with corruption, and bringing foreign investment into the country is a by-any-means-possible sort of activity, which means it’s a playground of scandals and conspiracies.

Most recently, the Vietnamese public were shocked, confused and outraged when a 26-year-old Vietnamese graduate, called Vu Minh Hoang, with no work experience, was made the Deputy Director of Can Tho City’s Investment Promotion Centre. Despite having two master’s degrees, speaking five languages and completing an internship (bizarrely without working a single day) with an umbrella body that oversees socioeconomic development across the entire Mekong Delta, people were unhappy that such an inexperienced person was put into this position, in which they could make decisions that would affect the whole country.

This is one of many attempts, as perceived by the public, to fast-track projects into the Mekong Delta and it’s ultra-fertile ‘rice bowl’ area of high agricultural activity. The environmental conspiracy seems clear, ‘you give us money, you can do whatever you like to our river’, but it’s not quite that simple. The polluting factories and power plants are not seen as the biggest threat to the environment of the area. There’s one type of project that some believe is going a step too far.

Damn the dam!

Stop the damn protesters boats

Credit: Chiang Rai Times

With increased efforts to protect the Mekong River and Delta from further damage, Vietnamese officials did all they could to stop Chinese, Malaysian and Thai investors from building hydroelectric dams that would jeopardise local wildlife. For a while, they succeeded, until the investors followed the stream up river and managed to convince neighbours Laos to proceed with the mega-build.
The Xayaburi Dam in Laos was built despite the protests of the locals and continues to be a sore point for the nation’s humble people.

Fish migration, river dolphins and food security for 60 million people were all put at major risk with the project, and for a while, Thai (see photo), Vietnamese and Laotian fisherman could be seen driving up and down the rivers flying anti-dam banners.
Of the 139 fish species in the river, it is claimed that only 28 of these would be able to pass through the dam safely, and that’s coming directly from Swiss-based Poyry Energy who oversaw the fish mitigating features of the dam.

Vietnam is also suffering a 50% loss in nutrient-rich sediment, and as a result, agriculture is taking a big hit. Ecology and economy are in decline as the Delta shrinks too, with 27% of the country’s GDP reliant on exports from the region.

What does the future look like for the Mekong Delta?

wikipedia table dams planned and proposed

Credit: Wikipedia

Currently, there are 8 dams on the Chinese part of the Mekong and 1 on the Laotian side. Five more are under construction in China, and another is being built in Laos.

This table makes grim viewing for the environmental security of the Mekong Delta, and with the internal corruption and lack of transparency in Vietnam’s investment infrastructure, it seems it’s only time before they take advantage of dam-building too.

With all this being said, it poses the question, can one of the world’s greatest waterways survive the wrath of its own development?