“I remember clearly one day when I was small, two men drilled a well near my brother’s house. They installed a hand water pump with the word UNICEF on it. I remember this vividly; it made a deep impression on my mind. I was so impressed because I could now use water from the pump and didn’t have to go to the river bank to take a bath. It was a coincidence that the school I went to was also built with support from UNICEF. This made a strong impression on me and cherished my dream to work for UNICEF in the future.”
When he returned to the Mekong Delta in January in his role as Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist at UNICEF Viet Nam, Ly Phat Viet Linh was also returning home to the region in which he grew up.
In 2016, the country endured a devastating drought coupled with saltwater intrusion. Around 2 million people, including 1 million women and 520,000 children were affected. Four years on, scientists predict worse is to come.
Determined to prevent a repeat crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) has sounded the alarm bell early across the Mekong Delta to better understand the extent to which provincial authorities and communities are prepared for the challenges in the months ahead.
Salt water intrusion occurs when sea water seeps deeper inland through rivers that have been depleted of water and sediment upstream due to the building of dams, irrigation systems and hydro-power plants. This affects many aspects of life. When salt water mixes with fresh water, it causes crop failure and reduces the water supply for human consumption increasing the likelihood of water-related disease.
The map below illustrates how fast and how far inland saltwater intrusion is advancing.
As the team traveled down the Mekong in a river boat, Linh reflected on the changes he’s witnessed over the years.
“When I lived in this region during my childhood, I recall the climate was very stable. Sunny and rainy seasons were very clear; I could tell when each season started and ended. There was not much variation in terms of the temperature between days and nights. I recall I enjoyed living in such a stable climate. Now when I come back to visit, I notice the climate has become so harsh in this region — much more than it was in the past.”
Linh is not the only one to notice changes. In all the discussions the team had, everyone said the same thing — it’s getting hotter.
The good news is that the team has found examples of lessons learned from 2016 on adjusting to the new challenges of climate change. From water storage containers in households and new sluice gates in the Mekong River, to diversifying farming practices – from rice to shrimp — people are adapting to their new normal. In Trà Vinh, local authorities recently advised rice farmers to combine rice crops with shrimp farming when salinity levels are high.
Despite some signs of progress, the UNICEF team identified many gaps that need to be addressed and many people who need urgent support.
A woman at the night market explained how it used to take her three hours to sell her spinach; now, it takes six hours and she earns 30% less because lack of water means the leaf is poorer quality. During the day, she spends more time watering than before because the climate is hotter and the water is salty.
More importantly, except for MARD, there is little evidence of cross-sectoral coordination, preparedness planning or joint early action. School latrines lack water; the river that nourishes the population is awash with garbage and drop latrines; and in one village we visited, almost everyone we spoke to reported high blood pressure, especially hazardous for pregnant women.
Additionally, there is a strong need for knowledge sharing, behaviour change, and social action. One official told us that people defecating in the fish pond was good because the fish ate the feces and kept the environment clean. A woman in her 70s told us that she’d borrowed money to build a latrine. We saw it. Covered in plastic, it had never been used. When Linh asked why, she said she was keeping it for when she was an old woman and couldn’t defecate in the pond any more.
As Linh reflected on what he’d seen and heard, he remarked, “I feel so sad to witness the difficult situations of these families. I feel the urge to take action, especially because of how climate change is affecting them. Natural disasters are becoming more severe; pollution in the Mekong is exacerbating the situation; salt water intrusion makes life much harder for people, particularly those I have visited.”
Sounding the alarm is the first step to prevent the crisis from escalating; the second is acting on UNICEF and partners’ recommendations. But the third, critical ingredient is doing it with the same kind of passion that Linh brings to his job, every day, for every child.
Sam Mort is Chief of Communication a.i., Viet Nam Country Office, UNICEF.