Making a water society

Khaleej Times
12 April 2015

Vietnam’s treatment of Mekong delta has to do with taming water.

There is in Vietnam a dense and complex network of hydraulic works comprising man-made canals, dykes and sluices. These were designed (and continue to be) to provide protection against floods, to prevent the intrusion of salinity, and to control irrigation for agriculture and aquaculture in the sprawling delta of the great Mekong.

This transformation into what has been for Vietnam described as a ‘hydraulic society’ started to take place just after the end of the Second Indochinese War in 1975, after South Vietnam came under centralised socialist rule. Like old regimes whether indigenous or colonial, the new Vietnam based its economic policy for the development of the Mekong delta on rapid agricultural extension based on technological progress in agricultural production and intensive hydraulic management. This process has had significant impacts on the delta’s environment and ecology, and has inevitably led to social transformations in ways that were unforeseen — these are in today’s Vietnam new social groups that negotiate and struggle for increased access to water resources and economic power.

Some of that negotiation and struggle has been responsible for the progress in human development in Vietnam, with nominal poverty decreasing and current incomes rising. The country’s economy is by all conventional measures considered to be one of the fastest growing in the world (indeed, between 2000 and 2010, gross domestic product grew at an average rate of 7.4 per cent). Economic growth alone, however, does not a country make, and many a culture does it unmake. And so the limits of natural systems became evident already a decade ago.

Home to about 60 million people, the basin of the lower Mekong has experienced rapid ‘development’ (expressed in purely conventional terms), rapid urbanisation and quick population growth. These factors have had adverse effects on the resources of the Mekong, plentiful as they are, and naturally on the populations that depend on them. Climate change has increasingly placed burdens on the environment and the people – rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall are bringing drought to some areas and flooding to others. Moreover, the gigantic deltaic region is also experiencing sea level rise and increasing saltwater intrusion to its ecosystems and farmland.

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