In April I joined a group of HSBC staff to visit WWF projects supported by the HSBC Water Programme. We travelled to the Mekong Delta, where the river ends its journey from source to sea across a dizzying landscape of waterways, streams and canals.
Day one was spent meeting communities that were improving their livelihoods alongside environmental action. We heard inspiring stories of success however, as we were to find out on day two, this progress is under threat. There’s a huge storm brewing as the natural sediment flow needed to maintain the delta is being severely interrupted.
Day 1 – success stories
Our greater Mekong Programme is huge, covering parts of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Maintaining and improving the health of the river and its surroundings is an important task – after all, the basin is the world’s largest inland fishery which nourishes 80% of protein consumed by its 60 million inhabitants. Working with communities is an integral to our approach as we seek to demonstrate how good natural resource management that can benefit both people and nature.
We visited Mui Ca Mau National Park, which is a maze of mangroves and mudflats that spreads out across the most southerly tip of Vietnam. In 2012, near the start of the Water Programme, the park was awarded Ramsar status in recognition of the importance of this wetland and the ecosystem services it provides. However until recently, local tourists rarely stopped to enjoy its surroundings, moving swiftly to the end of the country for a photo opportunity, before whizzing back to the nearest town by boat.
In an effort to boost the preservation of the park and the livelihoods of communities living within it, we’ve been working with the Park’s authority on an eco-tourism pilot project. Local families have received financial backing and training to establish home stays that allow thousands of tourists to stop overnight in the park. We met two families who shared their experiences with us.
Previously, like most people in the area, they relied on small scale aquaculture, but now they’re benefitting from visitors who linger for longer to experience the rich fishing culture. A big part of this is mealtime and we were treated to a spread of food that had been locally sourced – a mouth-watering delight for seafood lovers! In return for the support they have received, both families have committed to looking after their surroundings, by fishing sustainably and maintaining the mangroves that provide for local wildlife and help prevent erosion. Their enthusiasm for their new ventures is featured in this eco-tourism pilot case study.
Day 2 – sand storms
Our second day in and around the Mekong Delta was equally informative, although what we saw and heard was a less positive story. Despite the community gains that have been made in the area there’s an inescapable fact that the delta is shrinking and sinking. For centuries sediment has been flowing down the river to shape this unique and special landscape. However the boom of the construction industry in Asia has led to monumental amounts of sand being unsustainably extracted upstream for building purposes. This is compounded by the effects of dams on the upper main stem in China and tributary dams, which also trap sediment further up, preventing it from flowing naturally to where it is needed in the delta. The impact is coastal erosion on a massive scale.
WWF-Vietnam’s team took us to a Buddhist temple on the coast, where we learnt that 7km (yes 7km!) of land had been lost to the sea over 20 years. The community members we met have been shifting backwards into a densely populated area, believing that the erosion was a natural part of life. To tackle the issue they’d been working with provincial authorities to erect a dyke to try and control the loss of land. It’s an unsightly and costly addition to the landscape (in fact it appeared the funding was running out) and the effectiveness is still to be seen – dykes simply don’t operate in the same way as a naturally functioning delta which shifts dynamically to allow for natural sea changes.
The threat of poorly planned dams is sadly only on the increase. The Mekong is one of the world’s only major rivers not to be dammed across its lower main-stem, yet this looks set to change as a major new dam is being constructed in Laos. We’ve worked tirelessly to raise concerns about Xayuburi and other main-stem projects and why these could be disastrous for the delta, livelihoods and food security, not to mention the wildlife.
Whilst the story here is worrying, our approach remains constructive and solutions focused. The local team continues to highlight the issues and investigate new ways of bringing together people, academics, business and government to plan for the river system as a whole. The communities of the Mekong Delta may unknowingly be in the eye of an almighty underwater sand storm, but hopefully by sharing our stories of success and the need for further action we’ll be able to galvanise people around our vision of a healthy Mekong for all.