Den Do, Vietnam

Erosion, Pollution, and Millions of Shrimp

August 3rd, 2015

On the island of Phu Thanh, we speak to local shrimp farmers about the environmental challenges facing their piece of the Mekong delta.

Inland from the South China Sea, shrimp farmers are being assaulted by the combined threats of erosion and water pollution which have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the productivity of their farms.

"Wrong way!"

“Wrong way!” Stephen, our driver, shouted at Pablo through the rolled up window of his 4x4. We had jumped out of the car to take a ferry across the Mekong to the toothbrush-shaped island of Phu Thanh, and apparently Stephen was unimpressed with our door closing technique. Heedless of the swarms of motorcycles flowing around the vehicle, he engaged the handbrake and got out himself to demonstrate the proper method. Opening the door and quickly slamming it with exaggerated force, he pointed accusingly at Pablo. “Wrong Way.” Once more he pulled the door open, smiling as he gently closed it with a barely audible click. “Right Way.”

Satisfied with his tutorial, Stephen re-entered the vehicle and released the brake to roll down the steep concrete pitch leading to the ferry. Within ten minutes, the ferry captain maneuvered his vessel away from the shore and aimed it at Phu Thanh, which lay on the other side of the river a little less than a kilometre away.

Lottery ticket vendors mobbed us immediately, thrusting fistfuls of shiny cards at us and excitedly pointed out auspicious numbers they deemed might be of interest to us. When it became clear that we weren't likely to play, most shuffled away, mumbling bitterly. A persistent few hovered at the periphery of our group, staring with a mixture of curiosity and entrepreneurial ambition. In a nation where gambling has been illegal since the 1970’s, the Vietnamese appetite for the state lottery seemed insatiable.

Phu Thanh’s roads were not meant for cars. Narrow and often uneven, our Toyota (the only four wheeled vehicle we would see on the island in two days) bounced angrily and unpredictably as we navigated through the island’s interior towards its southern edge. At one point our translator, Mi, issued a burst of what I can only guess were profanities from the back seat when her head was smashed unceremoniously into the roof by an invisible depression in the asphalt. Stephen glanced briefly into the rear view mirror, but seemed mostly unconcerned.

"The highlight of our entire journey was seeing a northern girl cry."

He was from Can Tho, one of southern Vietnam’s major cities, while Mi was from the Hanoi, far to the north. Though the two got along extremely well, a definite rivalry was apparent between the northern and southern cultures. Later in the trip, after what would be hands down the roughest and most trying day, Stephen would remark victoriously that the highlight of our entire journey was seeing a northern girl cry.

Vietnam’s relatively developed infrastructure and road network made it more practical to travel by car than by boat, and despite the rough ride we were all well aware that having a personal vehicle was a luxury. Bouncing around in Stephen’s car that morning, had we known just how exhausting things would get in the coming months we would have savoured every moment.

The River Giveth...

We had been told earlier by Ngyuen Than, a shrimp boat captain, that this area of the Mekong no longer supported a wild fish population large enough to sustain the people plying its waters, necessitating the construction of inland farms for people too far from the ocean. It was these farms we were searching for on Phu Thanh.

After an hour of driving we had seen many such farms, comprised of a series of wide ponds with earthen banks; all seemed devoid of activity. Roughly one in five ponds was drained completely, their mud bottoms cracked and hardened by the tropical sun. Long axles lined with fan blades spun hypnotically in those ponds still containing water, but the people were illusively absent.

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon we feared we would lose the ideal golden light for photography, so we decided to stop at the closest farm, empty as it looked, to try and make the best of the situation. No sooner had we done so when a lone motorcycle pulled into the farm.

“We live on the banks of this river, and we care a lot about its health”

Tan Van Vu (whose name we decided to change for his protection after learning Phu Thanh was a military controlled island, subjected to heavy media scrutiny), was a 51-year-old whose friendliness was evident from the first time he waved us towards his house. He seemed eager to speak with us, and poured out cups of cooled tea as we sat down around a wooden table behind his house.

Unlike the ocean-going fishermen we had spoken to a few days earlier, we learned that away from the coast as we were, the river played a far more important role in people’s lives. “We live on the banks of this river, and we care a lot about its health,” Vu told us.

According to him, the Mekong’s health was not good. Checking the level of our tea cups and pouring more when necessary, Vu went on to explain the series of misfortunes that had drastically impacted Phu Thanh’s shrimp farmers. The dual forces of erosion and pollution, he said, had dropped his farm’s productivity by 40% since 2011 - surely an unsustainable rate of decline.

Washed Away and Poisoned

“In 2009 a storm destroyed the mangroves on the river bank and now nothing holds the land”

Leaving the shady comfort of his outdoor sitting area, Vu, joined by his neighbour Nguyen Van Boi, took us on a tour of his property to show us what he had been talking about. At the southern extremity of his farm, the part closest to the river, we immediately saw what he meant about erosion. A scant 5 meters separated his shrimp ponds from the river, and judging by the crumbling banks it looked like that buffer was lessening by the day.

“In 2009 a storm destroyed the mangroves [on the river bank] and now nothing holds the land,” Vu said, as he surveyed the damage. “These days the ocean tide comes much farther up the river, especially in the dry season, and washes the land away.”

The upriver encroachment of the sea, while necessary to provide the salty water he needs to pump into his shrimp ponds, had, in recent years, increased to unprecedented levels. Vu went on to tell us that the current of the river was not nearly as strong as it had been in the past - which from our research into the state of the Mekong we could almost certainly attribute to the multitude of hydro power dams upriver. The combination of a weakened river flow, combined with the rising sea levels caused by global climate change, meant that the ocean was overpowering the river and inching deeper inland - devouring the farmers’ land as it did so.

“I lost a lot of money trying to fix this problem,”

Not the type of man to sit passively as his livelihood was washed out to sea, Vu spent thousands of borrowed dollars driving cement pillars into the river bank in an attempt to artificially recreate the decimated mangrove root systems. It didn’t work.

Ultimately he decided to hire day labourers to plant new mangroves, a process he knows will be effective against erosion in the long run, but as the trees needed more than ten years to mature, it was likely too little, too late. “I lost a lot of money trying to fix this problem,” Vu said, admirably stoic given his dire circumstances. “If these banks break, my shrimp will be lost to the river.”

A less clear cut problem, Vu told us, was water pollution. Lacking scientific testing kits to accurately identify specific pollutants, he can do little but guess what invisible chemicals were assaulting his farm. “In recent years the shrimp have been sick,” he said. After closing more than 10 of his ponds in less than five years - nearly half of his total - his situation was becoming desperate. “Farmers here need help and capital so we can check the pollution levels. Now, now, now,” he added, stressing the urgency.

As is the case with all ecosystems, whether natural or man-made, problems in one link of the chain are not self contained. The unidentified poisons afflicting Vu’s shrimp is being ingested by all farms in the area as they pump water both in and out of the Mekong. If his farm’s eroded banks burst completely, spilling 250-300 000 sick shrimp into the river, the results would be catastrophic for downstream neighbours who would unavoidably draw tens of thousands of infected crustaceans into their own ponds.

After a final round of tea and small talk, we left Vu’s home. Over dinner that night we reflected on the impossible unfairness of his situation. The river, the primary source of livelihood for farmers like Vu, was steadily becoming a destroyer instead of a life-giver.

Later in our journey, as we moved deeper into the heart of the Mekong delta, we would see firsthand just how many pollutants were floating downstream towards Phu Thanh’s farms, but at that moment we were still blissfully ignorant.

The next morning, closing the doors gently to avoid Stephen’s ire, we bundled back into the car and set out for My Tho to get our first glimpse of urban life along the river.

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