The Bad, The Good and The Possible

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Climate change threats enjoins all riparian governments and stakeholders to choose sustainable development options, says Koos Neefjes, Policy Advisor Climate Change of the United Nations Development Program.

Thanh Nien Weekly: Given the consequences that downstream countries face from upstream dam constructions by China on the Mekong River, what are the lessons Vietnam should take for the dams it has planned within the country?

Koos Neefjes: Water flow in Mekong River is extremely low at this moment, as Southeast Asia is experiencing drought that is common in "el niño" years. Crops are affected as farmers face a lack of water and in the Mekong Delta saline water is penetrating further inland; it is causing risks of forest fires; and it is limiting hydroelectricity generation. We expect that climate change will continue to cause more droughts such as this year, and dam management is becoming ever more critical as a result.


Dams in the upper regions of the Mekong river basin are often cited as one of the main causes for reduced water flows downstream and especially so in the dry seasons. But even if total annual water flow reduces because of evaporation of water from the lakes behind dams or because of irrigation, dams will not be the only cause of water stresses in the dry season. Dams are not always managed in optimal ways, but they can in fact help maintain a minimum dry season water flow if so managed.

All riparian countries of the Mekong River have interests in dam building in the river and its tributaries, including the Lower Mekong countries. Vietnam also has dams in the Mekong river basin and is investing in dams in Laos so that later it can import electricity.

The different interests in water use electricity generation, flood control and irrigation do not always match and it is not always easy to balance them, as we are witnessing in the case of the Red River within the borders of Vietnam: with low water levels, what comes first, conservation of water so that we have electricity later in the year, or release water now so that farmers can irrigate and we limit crop losses? 

The fact that the Mekong River is international makes this conflict of interests very complex, since all riparian countries want to irrigate and want electricity, andall want a minimum flow of water in the dry season for transport whilst Cambodia and Vietnam want to keep saline water away. International rivers require institutions to discuss and agree rights and responsibilities regarding water use. The Mekong River has such an institution, i.e. the Mekong River Commission. China is not a member of it, but China often interacts to discuss critical issues and such dialogue is becoming more critical because of climate change. 

Vietnam's policy of rapid industrialization needs resources that are being exploited at considerable cost to the environment. Is it even possible to persist on this growth trajectory and ensure environmental sustainability? What are the policy options before Vietnam in such a situation?

It is clear that rapid growth in supply of energy, including hydroelectricity is important for social economic development in Vietnam and not just for industrialization. There are many problems associated with hydroelectric dams, including displacement of people and destruction of forests, and fish migration is often blocked with negative impacts on fish breeding. But there are ways to mitigate some of those problems, such as support to displaced populations, afforestation and protection of upstream forests.

It is also possible that instead of one big dam several small dams could produce the same electricity with less negative impact on environment and people. These mitigation measures are costs that Vietnam can afford, and despite those costs hydroelectricity is a source of cheap energy. Furthermore, it is renewable energy, i.e. hydroelectricity is not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that are the cause of climate change, which is critically important for Vietnam and the rest of the world.

We believe that it is possible to industrialize in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

For example, more dams can provide irrigation water as well as generate electricity, instead of just one of the two, with improved dam operation management and some additional investment. Irrigation efficiencies must improve whilst new cropping techniques suggests that less water can lead to equal or even higher productivity, such with the "System of Rice Intensification" (SRI), which is already being tried out by farmers in different parts of the country.

There are possibilities for artificial recharge of fresh water aquifers in the wet season, so that water wells produce good yields in the dry season.

If, in the face of shrinking arable land lost to industrial and urbanization projects, Vietnam has to extract more productivity, what are the likely environmental impacts of such efforts, and how will they affect the prospects for sustainable development?

Industrialization and urbanization do indeed take agricultural land, so agricultural productivity must go up to sustain food security, rural livelihoods and economies. Agricultural intensification, urbanization and industrialization are all associated with increased pollution and degradation of certain natural resources. We can already observe that in parts of Vietnam.

Now all too often the pure economic interests dominate the decision making on investments, plans are not always implemented, and environmental regulations are not always adhered to in other words there is room for improvement.

But there are many alternative paths to achieve competitive industries and highly productive and profitable agriculture. 

I recently visited some medium sized cassava processing plants in the Central Highlands where wastewater ponds were covered with polyethylene to produce and capture methane gas that substituted the coal that they used earlier for drying the cassava flour. Methane gas that they thus produced themselves was sufficient and so costs of coal were saved. There was so much gas produced by these plants that they now consider buying electricity generators so that they would also become self sufficient in that.

There was no more nuisance from coal dust and smoke and less smell from the wastewater, and so the working environment had improved considerably too and the wastewater discharging into adjacent fields was clean enough for farmers. It seemed that factory managers, workers, adjacent farmers and provincial officials were all proud and happy with the innovations. And less important for the local stakeholders but very important for the country and the world is that this innovation also makes a contribution to tackling climate change with a shift from the use of fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses to the use of biofuel, a renewable energy source. 

NGOs like Oxfam have cited the loss or lack of land as one of the main reasons for poverty in the Mekong Delta. If the plan is to increase the size of landholdings so as to enable increased mechanization, how can this problem be redressed?

Agricultural mechanization is one aspect of increasing agricultural productivity and of the productivity of agricultural workers that is necessary for many reasons, and is happening for many reasons. Agricultural mechanization will only happen on farms of a minimum size, as the smallest and poorest farmers do not have the income and capital to invest. Young people from villages may be interested and proud to work on a modern farm, also if they have a college degree it promises them a future. But young people with degrees who could only work manually or with low productive technology and low incomes will move away whenever they can.  

The problem of growing landlessness in the Mekong delta is a sign that profitability of small holdings with low technology was not high enough, meaning that for example farmers get indebted and in the end may have to give up their land. This may of course also happen because the land is becoming unproductive in some parts because of saline water intrusion. It is also a sign that good, stable employment alternatives are not yet sufficiently available in villages and rural towns. Tackling the problem of landlessness cannot be done by handing out land where that is not available, and so must include strategies for local employment generation. 

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