Young people act now: Help protect Mekong Delta’s natural wealth

As the setting sun gave its last light, I was travelling down the highway one evening in May. I was traveling from Ho Chi Minh City back to my hometown in Can Tho. At this time of the year, the paddy fields look like a giant green carpet, stretching for many kilometers along both sides of the road. In the distance, I could see the homes of the farmers; the huts they store their crops in seemed to be waiting eagerly for the upcoming rice harvest. The road, rice fields and the villages that afternoon seemed a world away from the many anxieties that I had about the Mekong Delta.

I am a high school student and passionate about my home, the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is home to 17 million people. More than 60% of Vietnam’s rice is produced in the delta region along with fish and vegetables making the delta key to food security not just for Vietnam but for the entire Mekong region.

But now a series of dams that are planned, and some already being built, look set to destroy the delta, and the people’s ways of life and threaten an entire region’s food security.

Environmentalists have warned about the many environmental impacts if these dams are built: from changes in sedimentation transportation and deposition, to changes in hydrology and water-flows, to sea-water inundation in the dry season, and the destruction of the rice growing areas, as well as affecting the Mekong “plume” which is a large area of silt that spreads around the sea around the Mekong Delta and supports the rich coastal fisheries.

However, this wealth of food, vegetables and fisheries are to be sacrificed as officials and investors rush headlong to embrace hydropower development projects along the main stem of the Mekong River.

A ship carrying dredged sand from a branch of the Hau River to be used in construction. (Photo by Thuan Nguyen.)

A ship carrying dredged sand from a branch of the Hau River to be used in construction. (Photo by Thuan Nguyen.)

One of the biggest impacts is that the dams (and their turbines) will block fish migrations in the Lower Mekong Basin. From 50-90% of fish species in the Lower Mekong Basin are migratory, but many of these fish species could become extinct if these dams are built.

“No fish means no money,” said a fisher living along the Hau River bank. “How will I continue to feed my family and children if I don’t catch any fish,” he lamented to me.

The dams will also block the flow of rich sediments that are crucial to maintaining the extraordinary fertility of the delta region and its rice harvests.

“The situation is dire,” said one young person at the ASEAN People’s Forum 2015 (APF 2015) in April in Kuala Lumpur, “These dams will do immense harm to the young generation,”

The future of young people is at stake

After we finished our school exams, my friends and I went out for cool drinks and ice cream along the beach in Can Tho one hot summer day. We talked about many things including about our future.

“What are your future plans?” I asked one of my friends. “Where will you go for the adventure of your life?”

My friend put his glass of ice cream down and laughing replied: “I will get a job and hope to settle here forever, what else do you think?” I smiled and we soon moved on to another topic.

But his reply struck me and made me think hard. “Is he aware of what will come, does he know that our delta region may undergo huge changes that will affect us all?” I asked myself. What would my friend say if he knew the environmental problems that are set to arise soon?

A photo of Thuan and his friends on the final day of the Secondary School graduation exams, April 2015. (Photo by Ms. Huyen.)

A photo of Thuan (2nd from right) and his friends on the final day of the Secondary School graduation exams, April 2015. (Photo by Ms. Huyen.)

It is my generation and many other generations to follow who will pay the price for the dam decisions being taken now. However, many young people are still not yet aware of these changes; their time is often taken up by entertainment news about actors and singers – especially K-pop and other celebrities.

Despite numerous efforts to raise environmental awareness, most youth in the delta do not know about the ecology of the delta and its value, and how the delta could be affected by the Mekong dams.

Once I asked my friend, “What do you think about the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community this year?” My friend shook his head and said “I am not interested” he said “It’s no fun reading such boring articles. I don’t have time for that.”

But given the dire environmental situation that the Mekong Delta could soon be facing, the younger generation needs to find out more information and try to get involved to prevent or reduce the potential impacts.

In my work with young people, I am trying to encourage my friends and other youth to join in environmental activities that can build awareness and lead to action to protect the Mekong Delta and its ecological wealth.

Otherwise, the farmers’ huts that I saw along the road awaiting the delta’s rice harvests will not have any rice to store in the near future.

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