Last night we briefly met our government guide, and this morning he is up before us, waiting downstairs in the dining room of our small hotel.
We order a baguette and omelet breakfast, washed down with strong oily coffee sweetened with condensed milk, (Health plan 101). Then we set off to our first meeting with Nguyen Quang Vinh, the Director of the Center for Managing Environment and Resources.
The weather is steamy and as much as we try to hide our bigness, the short walk across town to the offices has us properly hot and bothered. Waiting in the offices of the Center for the Director, we stand beneath the vents of every air conditioner we find, attempting to re-crisp ourselves like overheated lettuce leaves.
The Center manages the quality of environment of natural resources water, air, underground water, waste water, so we are hoping that this interview might be a wide ranging conversation about the Delta and its two pronged difficulties, from upstream and from the oceans. The Director does not disappoint. After taking as much care as us to arrange flowerpots and chairs to make his interview aesthetically appealing, the Director proves to be a warm and generous interviewee.
The issues facing the Delta are the same as those facing the deltas of most of the world’s major rivers: climate change and over engineering of the upstream river. Research by scientists to identify those coasts that are most vulnerable to rising seas has found that the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam is the third worst-case scenario in the world. A rise of more than a meter and the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City would be underwater, tens of millions of people would be displaced and the countries’ economy would be devastated.
At the other side of Vietnamese concerns over the future of the Delta are changes being wrought to the river upstream. Ironically many of the dams that are being built are projects with Vietnamese backing, for hydro-power plants that will supply Hanoi, and drive the nation’s economic growth. But it is the annual flooding of the river that creates, feeds and fertilizes the Delta. The disruption of these cycles would devastate the Delta’s agricultural and fishing industries. The sediment that is laid down on the fields has a fundamental purpose. Carried from as far away as Tibet, the Mekong is a conveyor belt of matter, clays, minerals and dirt, that spreads out over the flooded Deltaic plains, and is left there to shore up the shorelines every year. Dams stop the flow of sediment as it comes out of solution once the river’s flow slows and loses the energy necessary to carry the matter. It collects in dam reservoirs. This in turn changes the flow of water downstream, as it speeds faster than before, unburdened by heavy sediments. This makes the river a destroyer of riverbanks and lands, rather than a builder. Thus in both directions the Director’s comments appealed for wise minds to prevail.
Our interview completed we stopped at a café for a cool drink, and to try and feel slightly less greasy. The afternoon was free for exploring, and with our cameras in hand we wandered Can Tho, soon discovering that this small city was perhaps not so much a Vienna of the Orient, as a suburb next to the Mekong.