Vietnam Feels the Heat of a 100-Year Drought

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Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters

The dried-up bed of the Red River, near Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi on Dec. 1, 2009

Every year, even at the peak of Vietnam's dry season, when the Red River is at its lowest, Hanoi's skilled captains manage to negotiate their flat-bottomed boats through its shallow waters. But this year, with a drought gripping the entire country and water levels at record lows, the river is eerily quiet. What is normally a bustling waterway is becoming a winding river of sand, and farmers who depend upon the river for irrigation are watching the expanding sandbars as nervously as the boat captains. "If there is no water in the coming days," says 59-year-old farmer Vu Thi La, who just put in her spring rice seedlings, "it will all die."

Across Vietnam, high temperatures and parched rivers are setting off alarm bells as the nation grapples with what's shaping up to be its worst drought in more than 100 years. At 0.68 meters high, the Red River is at its lowest level since records started being kept in 1902. With virtually no rainfall since September, timber fires are burning in the north and tinder-dry conditions threaten forests in the south. Soaring temperatures in the central part of Vietnam have unleashed a plague of rice-eating insects, damaging thousands of hectares of paddies. "It's the beginning of everything," Nguyen Lan Chau, vice director of the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, says gloomily.

The region most affected — and the one that affects the most — is the Mekong River Delta in the south. Water levels in the nation's rice bowl have fallen to their lowest points in nearly 20 years, threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people who depend on the river basin for farming, fishing and transportation. The biggest problem, however, is not the water. It's the salt. During the dry season, when channels and tributaries run dry, seawater can creep more than 18 miles (30 km) inland. Vietnam has installed a series of sluice gates to hold back high tides as well as control annual monsoon flooding. This has allowed farmers to switch between growing rice in the wet season and raising shrimp in the brackish waters in the dry. The result has been more-effective land use and higher crop yields, and a doubling of farmers' incomes in the Delta since 1999.

Those high-yield days may be over. As the drought intensifies, in some places seawater has crept nearly 40 miles (60 km) inland, says Dam Hoa Binh, deputy director of the Irrigation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Hanoi. Most of the winter-spring crop has already been harvested, but saltwater is reaching where it has never gone before, putting the summer-fall crop in jeopardy, says Binh. "We are trying to strengthen our irrigation systems to prevent further salinization," he adds, but the extreme conditions are making it "one of the most difficult situations in 100 years."

Because of the hydropower projects on its side of the border, China frequently gets the blame for water shortages downstream. Indeed, Vietnam's neighbor has been on an aggressive campaign to damn the Mekong River, which begins on the Tibetan plateau and travels through five other countries before it empties into the South China Sea. According to the Mekong River Commission, a regional advisory agency, China has built or is planning to build eight dams along the Mekong. But while dams raise huge concerns about interfering with sediment flow and fish migration, they can also have a positive impact, says Jeremy Bird, the commission's chief executive officer. "They will redistribute the flow of water, therefore there will be more water available in the dry season," he says. But at the moment, with China also experiencing extreme drought, there appears to be little dammed water to release.

Up north, Vietnam has been busy building hydropower dams as well. The government recently released enough water from those projects to help farmers in the Red River Delta with spring planting. Now with reservoir levels in the north at critical lows, the state-owned electricity company says it can't let go of much more; power demand is expected to break records as temperatures soar this month. Even with the small amount released, Nguyen Van Thang, director of the agriculture department in Vinh Phuc province, is not hopeful. High temperatures and evaporation are the enemy. "Even if farmers bail every single drop of water to nurture the rice," he says, he fears that a third of the rice crop in his province could be lost.

The crisis has been a "wakeup call" for Vietnam, says Ian Wilderspin, senior technical adviser for disaster risk management at the U.N. Development Program in Hanoi. The drought was predicted, he says, referring to last year's projections that El Niño would bring an unusually warm and dry winter. Yet Vietnam traditionally prepares for floods and typhoons, which are more dramatic and devastating when they hit. "Drought is a slow, silent disaster, which in the long run will have a more profound impact on peoples' livelihoods," he says.

And when are the rains due to finally bring some relief? Meteorologists forecast that in the north, rain will arrive later this month. But other parts of the country might not see any precipitation until August, which for many will be too late.