Lives washed away by Mekong Delta erosion

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Erosion along the bank of the Tien River in the Mekong Delta

Nguyen Thanh Liem has accomplished many of his dreams: he built a concrete house for his family, his seven children are all married, and he supplied them all with land enough for a house and farm.

But the 84-year-old farmer in Dong Thap Province's Hong Ngu District now spends most days standing quietly on his land, looking at his orchard as erosion slowly washes it away.

He spends evenings at home cleaning a portrait of his son Nguyen Van Khon. He said he knows only sadness after the "Water God" claimed the life of his third son and washed away most of the family's 20,000 square meters (5 acres) of land.

The farmland is located on Chau Ma Islet, one of many inhabited islands on the Mekong River. The land was more than two kilometers from the water's edge when Liem's parents gave it to him on his wedding day decades ago.

"Erosion has reached 20 meters inland and several houses have collapsed into the river," he said.

Last year, erosion reached his home and he had to move deeper into the island to build a new house.

Liem's story is a common one in the Mekong Delta, especially in Dong Thap Province, where the Mekong River splits into the Tien and Hau rivers.

Pham Van Nhut, 75, a former commune official, said Chau Ma Island was once home to 5,000 people but that the entire Phu Trung Commune has been eroded away. He used to be an official in the commune, which no longer exists.

"Besides material losses, local residents have suffered mentally when their relatives were killed in land collapses," he said.

Eroded lives

"My son died twenty years, one month and 14 days ago," Liem told Tuoi Tre newspaper. "He was a good son but what a pity he died and no one found his body."

Khon, Liem's son, was deputy chairman of Hong Ngu District People's Council and died in April 1992 when his office, the district state treasury office and the district People's Committee guest house, all slipped into the river due to erosion.

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"It seems like erosion does not forgive me. I lost almost all my land and my son who studied hard in the hope of tackling the erosion problem for local people," he said.

He pointed to Khon's portrait.

"It is lucky that I still have his picture. I have been keeping it over the past 20 years as a precious thing.".

Khon's wife, Huynh Thi Mi, was also a victim of land erosion.

When Khon died, the 34-year-old widow decided not to remarry and gave all her love to their three children.

She spent all her money renting 4,000 square meters of crop land on Chau Ma Island to earn a living.

However, the land owner refused to take back the land and return her deposit after knowing that erosion was about to reach his property.

Mi moved inland and bought a small house in Hong Ngu District's Phu Thuan B Commune to open a café.

She said there used to be four houses between hers and the Tien River and there used to be no erosion in the area. However, in 2011, erosion took a line of houses on the river bank down into the water and the area was given the nickname "erosion neighborhood".

"I don't know where I'll live if erosion reaches my home in the next few years. I wonder when erosion will forgive my family," she said.

Saving the land

Experts are warning against increasing erosion and urging more action from the government to protect people living on riverbanks in the Mekong Delta.

Ha Quang Hai of the University of Science Ho Chi Minh City said erosion on the Tien and Hau rivers has drastically increased over the past two decades.

"Major erosion areas are on the sections in An Giang Province's Tan Chau District and Long Xuyen Town, Dong Thap Province's Sa Dec Town and Hong Ngu District, and Can Tho City.

"Erosion takes with it several hundred hectares of land each year, collapsing houses, schools and hospitals and killing riparian residents," he said.

Hai said soft soil on riverbanks, rivers with curves and complicated river system are all reasons for erosion.

"This is a common and certain result of the riparian lowland," he said.

Dang Ngoc Loi, deputy director of Dong Thap Agriculture and Rural Development, said he was born in Sa Dec Town's Tan Hung Village, which has been fully erased by erosion.

"Hundreds of families have lost their houses and land and even their homeland," he said.

Nguyen Huu Chiem, a lecturer at Can Tho University, said local authorities have not taken sufficient actions to help residents prevent damages due to riverbank erosion.

"Some locals have issued general warnings without pointing at specific areas and people have only been evacuated after erosion happens and causes damages," he said.

"Mekong Delta provinces should survey and research river-beds  to give accurate warnings. It is not a difficult job at all," he said.

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