11 july 2009

Climate change may displace millions in Mekong Delta: report, July 11, 2009

Climate change impacts will force the displacement and migration of large populations in Vietnam, particularly the Mekong Delta, international experts reckon.

A report jointly written by experts from the United Nations, CARE International, and the Earth Institute of Columbia University estimates more than 14 million residents in the Cuu Long River Delta could lose their rice fields if sea levels were to rise by two meters.

In Vietnam, the Cuu Long, as the Mekong River is known, flows through the southwestern region before it joins the sea.

The impact of flooding is a major contributing factor to migration and displacement in the delta, according to the report.

Actually locals in the Mekong Delta have few choices to sustain their rural livelihoods in the face of flooding. And together with mounting debt following disasters and higher consumer prices, they have to make the decision to migrate.

The report predicts that in the future, one out of every 10 residents of the Mekong Delta may face displacement because of rising sea levels.

Many of the delta residents have already undertaken seasonal migration to urban centers during the flooding season, it says.

The delta, which is home to 22 percent of the country’s population, produces half the nation’s rice output, 60 percent of seafood, 80 percent of fruit crops and accounts for 90 percent of total national rice exports, the report notes.

Titled “In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement” the report says Mekong Delta residents are used to living with flood cycles, but “within certain bounds.”

To a significant extent, the livelihoods of most delta residents depend on the flooding season that renders the Mekong Delta fertile by depositing rich silt before it flows into the sea.

Mekong Delta residents differentiate between “nice floods” – those between half a meter and three meters deep and considered normal; and those that are between three and four meters deep that are called “ugly.”

The latter type of floods that “challenge the resilience capacities of affected people and often have harrowing effects on livelihoods” have increased in magnitude and frequency in recent decades, the report says.

Imperative measures

The report expresses concern that efforts to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been “too little, too late,” causing global emissions to rise at much steeper rates while safe levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases may be far lower than previously thought.

It notes that an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels by the end of this year is a must.

A failure to this will “commit future generations to a much more dangerous world in which climate change-related migration and displacement, on a truly massive scale, is unavoidable.”

They call for substantial investment in increasing people’s resilience to climate change, especially among the poorest people. This would include “in situ adaptation measures” like “water-wise irrigation systems” and “low/no-till agricultural practices.”

Adaptation funding should reach the people that need it the most, the report says.

Policy makers will have to “recognize and facilitate the role that migration will inevitably play in individual, household and national adaptation strategies,” it says.

It notes that the Vietnamese government’s “living with floods” program that is currently resettling people living in vulnerable zones along the river banks in the An Giang Province is commendable in its intent, but could have several adverse impacts.

The program targets the relocation of 20,000 landless and poor households to safer areas by 2020.

The families will be allowed to take up a five year interest free loan to purchase a housing plot and basic house frame.

However the report says such kind of relocation may lead to “cultural degradation and the residents to lose their livelihoods as well as employment networks.

The report anticipates that the scope and scale of people moving by mid-century due to impacts of climate change “could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before.”

It finds that climate change induced disasters “continue to be a major driver of shorter-term displacement and migration” after economic and political factors.

Domino effect

Glaciers are retreating and shrinking at alarming rates, and thus provide a one-time “dividend” of water release to downstream regions, affecting rural agriculture and urban areas located in river deltas.

Once the glaciers disappear and no longer release water during the summer months, it is likely that hundreds more of water retention dams will be constructed on major rivers worldwide including the Mekong, Ganges, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers.

These will have significant impacts on downstream regimes and deltas, resulting in the displacement of thousands to millions of people.

The Mekong River including its tributaries alone is carrying 80 hydropower dams that retain silt, causing erosion, and weaken the river flow to the downstream areas.

They will cause broader impacts on food security in this highly populous region.

Yet governments along the river are trying to exploit its hydropower generating capacity over the coming decades. The river flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before ending its journey in Vietnam.

A series of 11 dams being built by Thailand, Laos and Cambodia on the Mekong River are weakening the river flow through Vietnam and worsening salinization in the country’s main food growing region.

Then, due to the lack of freshwater, people are exploiting as much groundwater as they can, depleting the source and setting the stage for a large scale collapse.

Changes of tides as well as of flow will make the river no longer ideal for fish, which has so far been a rich source of income for many of the delta locals, the report says.

It notes that the recently completed Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, the world’s largest hydroelectric installation, has already displaced one to two million people.

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