Vietnam’s demand for water is skyrocketing while water resources are being depleted, certain river basins are being overexploited and competition for water resources is soaring. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said in a report that the basins of some rivers like Ma, Huong and Dong Nai are being overused during dry months. The report, which came out on January 9, issues a warning against significant impact on the lives of many people as underground water resources are being overexploited, water pollution is worsening, and upstream forests are overexploited, leading to water shortages in the dry season and flash floods and landslides in the rainy season. Climate change, rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion have left strong impact on aquaculture in many parts of the country, inflicting huge damage on Vietnam’s agriculture in 2016. The environment ministry pinpoints another worrying issue: rapid land degradation. South-central provinces are facing a rapid pickup of desertification and the Mekong Delta is struggling with land subsidence and flooding, affecting socio-economic development.
Saltwater has intruded into a large section of a major river in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, threatening the livelihoods of local residents. Saline water has spread to some 20 kilometers of the Tien (Front) River, with locals now bracing themselves for an extended drought and further salinization. The Mekong River splits into two at Phnom Penh to form the Tien River, the main northern branch, and the Hau River, the primary southern distributor, after entering Vietnam. The two rivers remain the primary source of fresh water for both agriculture and daily consumption by residents of the Mekong Delta. A delegation from the Water Resource Department in Tien Giang Province, which is heavily affected by saltwater intrusion, has recorded a high salt content along the Tien River since November 13. The salinity level in the affected section was between 1.77 and six grams per liter of water, which is above the average amount in previous years, said Nguyen Thien Phap, head of the provincial water resource department.
Irrigation systems will be able to supply water to about 180,000 hectares of crops this dry season, even though some systems are in need of repair. About 120,000 hectares of the irrigated land will be given over to rice, while other crops will be cultivated on the remainder, according to the Irrigation Department. Department officials are concerned that the prolonged dry spell could lead to a shortage of water in some irrigation reservoirs but are confident that many pumping stations will continue to function. Last dry season, irrigation systems were able to deliver water to about 113,000 hectares of rice although farmers planted rice on only about 99,000 hectares or 88 percent of the area targeted, and 659 hectares of rice was damaged, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said. To ensure that farmers grow more rice this dry season and to ensure a good quality crop, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Dr Lien Thikeo has instructed the relevant sectors in Vientiane and all provinces, especially those responsible for agriculture and forestry and rural development and poverty eradication, to actively encourage farmers to harvest their wet season rice and prepare to plant dry season crops.
Eight countries signed a ministerial declaration in Chiang Mai on November 6 to cooperate on improving irrigation systems among member countries to ensure food and water security. A high-level advisory group on “Partnerships for Agriculture Water Management” was established by the Chiang Mai Declaration to facilitate improved agricultural water productivity and management. It aims to ensure food security according to sustainable development goals, amid fears of water scarcity caused by climate change. Meanwhile, ministers from four countries visited the Huai Hong Khrai Royal Development Study Centre in Chiang Mai’s Doi Saket district yesterday to learn about a sustainable water and agriculture project initiated by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Ministers from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan and Sudan visited the centre.
Low levels at dams could lead to problems if resources not carefully managed. While there is enough water available, resources have to be managed very carefully, as water experts have warned that mismanagement could result in serious problems. Sucharit Koontanakulvong, head of water resources engineering at Chulalongkorn University, pointed out that even though the water level in our reservoirs looks positive, the authorities should be careful as the current level of water in dams was still quite low. The Bhumibol Dam, one of the country's major reservoirs, is just about 38 per cent full. Other key dams namely Sirikit, Pasak Jolasid and Kwai Noi, are also less than half full. "As predicted there will be more rain throughout September and some places can be hit by flash floods. However, from October onwards, the precipitation will fall and we will enter the dry season," Sucharit said. Floods have already hit many provinces such as Phichit, Phitsanulok and Prachin Buri.
The World Water Week has put the focus back into shrinking glaciers but the jury is still out on the impacts they will have on the flow in snow-fed rivers and hydropower generation. Glaciers are retreating due to climate change. What does that mean for water flow in the streams and rivers downhill? The effect is very varied, says Arthur Lutz of the Netherlands-based think tank Future Water. To start with, the importance of glacier meltwater to the rivers below is not the same everywhere, he said at a session on glaciers and hydropower at the ongoing World Water Week in Stockholm. It is far more important for rivers in the Indus basin than for those in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins. Then, the effect of this glacier retreat also varies from catchment to catchment, he added.
Salinity and arsenic affect 60% of underground supply across vast Indo-Gangetic Basin, according to research published in Nature Geoscience. Sixty per cent of the groundwater in a river basin supporting more than 750 million people in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh is not drinkable or usable for irrigation, researchers have said. The biggest threat to groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic Basin, named after the Indus and Ganges rivers, is not depletion but contamination, they reported in the journal Nature Geoscience. “The two main concerns are salinity and arsenic,” the authors of the study wrote. Up to a depth of 200m, some 23% of the groundwater stored in the basin is too salty, and about 37% “is affected by arsenic at toxic concentrations”, they said.
The 2016 World Water Week kicked off on August 29, focusing on water to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Opening the event, Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Angel Gurria said that water, from having been a subject that was rarely discussed with urgency, has come to the front and centre of international deliberations. “Water now has the place it needs to have in international priorities,” said Gurria. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom reinforced the message that water is a connector and an enabler in realizing the SDGs.
Recently, the Royal Irrigation Department has reinvigorated its irrigation plans through the “Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun River Management and Diversion by Gravity in the Northeast” project. It entails diverting water from the Mekong River’s mainstream into the Loei River in Northeastern Thailand, which would then be connected via tunnels to the Chi and Mun Rivers. According to official project statistics, the plan would expand the Northeast’s irrigated agricultural zone by almost 50,000 square kilometers.
Amid a devastating drought, the need to dig more, and deeper, wells is threatening to overwhelm the government’s relief budget. The cost of wells rises exponentially with depth. And as groundwater continues to drop, itself exacerbated by the digging of more and more wells, deeper is the only place to go. Men Neary Sopheak, deputy-general of the Cambodia Red Cross, said that the CRC is working with provincial authorities to dig between 20 and 200 wells in affected villages or communes.