The effects of the severe drought that the El Niño weather phenomenon — exacerbated by climate change — delivered to Southeast Asia this year will be felt for months, if not years, to come in the economically vital Mekong Delta, environmentalists and United Nations experts said.
They also said Vietnam and other Mekong states must brace for an increase in extreme weather events, bolstering early disaster preparedness and response activities to mitigate the potentially devastating effect impact on tens of millions of people and natural resources.
“These types of extreme climate events are foreseen to increase in number and seriousness in the future, which intensifies the current desertification trends in several areas in Vietnam,” said Vu Minh Hai, a senior program manager and chairman of the Climate Change Working Group in Vietnam, a member organization of the NGO network Climate Action Network-International.
Even though the latest El Niño — a weather event that occurs every four to five years and triggers drier and hotter weather conditions in countries in the Southeast Asian monsoon zone — wound down in Vietnam in September, it left in its wake diminished water supplies, risks to people’s health and food security, and a loss of livelihoods.
This El Niño was the strongest ever to hit the Mekong Delta, the fertile region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River empties into the sea through a network of channels, and which is one of the world’s top rice producers and exporters.
The weather system ushered in an increase in storms in 2015, followed by the worst drought in the Mekong Delta area in 90 years, wreaking havoc on the area’s fragile ecosystem and the lives of many of the more than 20 million people who live there.
The climate change issue is “very serious for particular parts” of Southeast Asia, said David Nabarro, the United Nations special adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, during a briefing with reporters at the Social Good Summit in New York in September.
“In the Mekong Delta, we see salination is coming up the river, and it’s affecting the productivity of quite a bit of the land in southern Vietnam, and it’s also affecting parts of Cambodia,” he said. “That whole climate change issue is hitting hard in that region.”
Extreme weather patterns like El Niño, which scientists believe are related to climate change, are increasingly causing slow-onset disasters that pose problems for the global humanitarian system, drive people away after they have lost their livelihoods, and undermine economic development, experts said.
“It’s heartbreaking to see poor countries seeing their development undermined because of climate change that is human-induced now,” said Mary Robinson, one of two special envoys on El Niño and climate appointed by United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon in May.
“Make no mistake about it, it is human-induced, and we are responsible for undermining the development chances—people who haven't been held responsible for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions,” she said during a briefing with reporters at the Social Good Summit in New York in September.
High cost of El Niño
The government of Vietnam has estimated the total economic loss from El Niño at 15 billion dong (U.S. $660.8 million), or 0.35 percent of national GDP, with negative agricultural growth of 0.18 percent for the first time in decades for all affected parts of the country, according to a drought recovery plan issued on Oct. 17 that includes measures to be taken in the short, medium and long terms.
The intense drought that peaked in the country between February and May brought record-high salt levels and severe water shortages. About 2 million people had no access to water for consumption and domestic use, 2.2 million were food insecure, and more than 2 million lost income due to damaged or lost livelihoods, the report said.
Though drought conditions in Vietnam ended in September, their ramifications have created an ongoing need for humanitarian assistance.
“[The] drought impact for affected households is still lingering and needs are pertinent, particularly in terms of water storage and purification, hygiene and nutrition support, disease surveillance and response, and livelihood recovery,” the report said.
The drought recovery plan lays out myriad goals aimed at ensuring that the 18 provinces affected by the drought, including those in the Mekong Delta region, receive water and water treatment supplies, foods, seed packages, nutritional supplements, essential medicines, and fish and poultry restocks. The plan also will provide irrigation infrastructure repairs, cash-for-work programs, and technical assistance and technology for improved meteorological and disaster forecasting.
The provinces have estimated that the total cost of the recovery from now until 2020 will be more than $1.2 billion, the report said.
Significant investment is also needed for recovery measures along with access to climate information services and early warning measures, particularly in light of recurrent droughts and a possible La Niña — the weather pattern closely related to El Niño that usually brings more rain to the region — in the next few months, the document said.
“For medium- and longer-term recovery, there should be a more comprehensive approach to water supply, water, and land resource management, adaption measures for livelihoods and agricultural restructuring for a changing climate,” said Vu Minh Hai of Vietnam's Climate Change Working Group in an email.
The Mekong’s rural poor
Roughly one-fifth of Vietnam’s population of about 94.1 million people who live in the Mekong Delta region are rural poor who depend on fishing and agriculture to eke out a living. They are the ones who have been most affected by the fallout from El Niño.
“Extreme weather events such as storms, droughts and floods … have huge human tolls,” said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director of environmental watchdog International Rivers, in an email response. “Those hardest hit tend to be those living simple and subsistence-based lifestyles in rural areas — farmers and fisherfolk.”
“In the Mekong, many of these are also ethnic minority and indigenous people,” she said.
The high levels of saltwater intrusion brought by El Niño began two months earlier than usual this year, with saltwater reaching about 60 kilometers (37 miles) inland, according to the Vietnamese government.
It damaged rice production and groundwater supplies in the Mekong Delta, raising concerns about food security and reducing the incomes of farmers who must buy supplies for the next planting cycle.
“For people living along the river, the changes from climate change and hydropower development pose a major threat to food security and livelihoods,” Harris said, referring to dam projects being built upstream by China, Thailand, and Laos that have affected fisheries in the Mekong.
About 80 percent of the Mekong Basin’s population relies on natural resources for subsistence and livelihoods, she said.
“Any significant loss of critical resources such as productive agricultural land, riverbank gardens and the protein from fisheries would critically increase food insecurity,” she said.
The Vietnamese government has provided support of nearly 1.5 billion dong (U.S. $60.7 million) since 2015 to provide food, water purification tablets, financial aid, and water infrastructure repair work to drought-affected areas of the country, according to the recently issued drought recovery plan.
United Nations agencies and NGOs have mobilized a further U.S. $6.1 million from various sources to provide water supplies, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, food, health, and financial aid for Vietnamese who live in the provinces affected by the drought, the report said.
Robinson, a former president of Ireland who previously served as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said leaders of countries affected by El Niño must do more, especially since other extreme weather events will continue to take a toll on areas with vulnerable populations in the future.
“We want leaders of countries to be in the forefront of a new approach,” said Robinson, who visited Vietnam earlier this year as part of a U.N. mission to see how the El Niño weather pattern affected the Mekong Basin.
“It has been very important to talk to the leaders in the countries most affected by El Niño to get them to understand that we’re now only talking about an El Niño aggravated by climate,” she said. “We’re into a new normal which won’t get better — it will get worse. And how are they preparing their people for this, and how can we get a better approach?”
Robinson also warned of what she calls a well-founded prediction that there could be as many as 200 million climate-displaced people by 2050.
“It may not be as many as that, but could be along that order because we have millions in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and parts of Africa that could not live in the places that they are now,” she said.
‘Slow and uncoordinated’
Despite ongoing efforts to continuously monitor and address El Niño’s impact, saltwater intrusion, and water availability in the Mekong Delta’s farmlands, the sharing of information with farmers remains “still slow and uncoordinated,” said Wilhelmina Pelegrina, food and ecological agriculture campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
“Democratizing and decentralizing climate information at the level of villagers or municipalities and enabling farmers and fisherfolk to have access to this information and its interpretation are crucial,” she said in an email. “By having climate information in the hands of farmers and fisherfolk combined with their local knowledge systems, they will be able to plan and adjust their farming and fishing systems.”
Farmers in the Mekong Delta must “climate-proof” their farming by diversifying their crops to ensure that they have food when extreme weather events occur, Pelegrina said.
“Having diversity on-farm will be a challenge in the Mekong Delta as this is the rice bowl of Vietnam and the source of almost 90 percent of exported rice,” she said. “The region will have to look into ways to diversify and ensure resilience in their rice system — at the very least, by having different rice varieties that are adapted to local conditions.”
Research for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation.