A Vietnamese farmer in water-logged fields at sunset. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
A Vietnamese farmer in water-logged fields at sunset. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Climate change refugees are streaming out of Vietnam’s vital Mekong Delta agricultural region amid warnings of deep economic losses unless the government steps up its commitment to environmental sustainability.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in an advisory this week that higher global temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events could trim the country’s economic growth by as much as 10% and adversely affect 12% of the population — more than 10 million people — by 2021.

At least 15% of Vietnam’s economic growth is derived from the southern delta, including 50% of staple food output, marine fisheries and aquaculture.

The IMF said Vietnam was particularly vulnerable to climate-related issues because of its exposed coastline of 2,150 miles (3,460 kilometers) and proximity to the tropics, and that the bulk of the nation’s economic assets are concentrated in coastal lowlands.

Natural disasters have killed an average of 500 people and cost 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) every year since 1990.

“Climate change will likely exacerbate pressure on the environment: more frequent and more intense storms could affect crop yields and production, impacting rural incomes, food security, and commodity exports,” the report warned.

“Risks will weigh disproportionally on the poor who could be forced to migrate inland or towards large cities.”

Migration is accelerating, with a net loss of one million people from the delta’s population of 18 million in the past decade, according to a study by Alex Chapman, research fellow in human geography at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and Van Pham Dang Tri, head of the department of water resources at Vietnam’s Can Tho University.

This is more than double the national migration average, pointing to climate change as the most likely culprit. A separate study by researchers at Ho Chi Minh City’s Van Lang University suggests that climate change is the key reason 14.5% of migrants moved, equivalent to 24,000 each year. The real figure is probably higher, as there is a close link with poverty, another reason cited.

Most have been driven out by lower agricultural yields, caused by more intense storms and the growing salinization of soil as rising seas allow saltwater to seep further inland. The situation has been aggravated by the over-building of dams upriver, mostly by China and Laos, that disrupts freshwater flows.

Saltwater intruded more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) inland when the worst drought in a century struck Vietnam in 2015-2016, destroying at least 395,368 acres (160,000 hectares) of crops.

A farmer drives a bull-led plough cart through a flooded field in southern An Giang, Vietnam. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

A government relocation strategy gives priority to poorer households and those most exposed, offering low-interest loans to cover the cost of moving and building a new home. However, a review of relocations from Long An and Dong Thap provinces by the US-based Brookings Institution found that the program lacked transparency and had doubtful benefits.

Most households reported reduced incomes following relocation due to a poor choice of sites, leaving them unable to meet repayments on their loans and burdened with long-term debts. The scheme favors households that are better off, as they have the option of buying a house outright.

Other studies suggest there is little coordination of policies between the central government and local authorities, which are pursuing stop-gap responses like the building of dykes while also reclaiming vulnerable land. Dykes have reportedly diverted water flows, aggravating storm impacts.

The central government’s broader environmental policies have also come under scrutiny, with the IMF calling for more sustainable use of resources, especially water and forests, and better control over agricultural practices such as the extensive utilization of fertilizers that pollute ground-water.

Moreover, Vietnam is one of the top 10 countries most affected by air pollution worldwide: levels of unsafe fine particulate matter are comparable to those of China in large cities and industrial zones. The IMF said that Vietnam’s greenhouse gas emissions were likely to double between 2010 and 2020 and triple by 2030, partly because of a reliance on fossil fuels for power.

A coal mine in northern Vietnam. Photo: AFP Forum/Biosphoto / Jean-François Mutzig

Coal accounts for 35% of the nation’s primary energy supply, up from 15% in 2000; with energy demand likely to rise nearly 2.5 times by 2035 and no obvious alternatives, the dependency on coal, which is mostly imported, will also climb, making it difficult to achieve a targeted 8% emissions cut by 2030.

Renewables now contribute 24% of energy, down from 53% in 2000, but the main portion is hydropower, which is losing its effectiveness because of the increased water stress. Water levels in Vietnam were at their lowest levels in almost 100 years during the devastating 2016 drought.

A National Committee on Climate Change chaired by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has been established to draw up policy guidelines, but it may be too late to rescue the country’s most important agricultural resource.

At least 55 million tons of sediment is being washed out from feeder rivers each year, creating an endless cycle of over-exploitation, erosion and economic decline. Environmentalists say Vietnam’s Mekong river delta is literally slipping into the sea.

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