Thứ Sáu, 3 tháng 10, 2014

FROM THE MULTI-PURPOSE SEA DYKE TO THE FRESH WATER RESERVOIRS IN THE MEKONG DELTA

“Water has become expensive, and it will be even more expensive in the future, which will make it the ‘blue gold’ of the 21st century”. Ricardo Petrella, 3/2000

“For every claim to virtue made by the proponents of big dams, there is a clear-cut, factual and demonstrable refutation”. Elmer Peterson, Big Dam Foolishness, 1954

“In my view, nature is awful and what you do is cure it”. Camille Dagenais, Canadian dam engineering firm SNC, 1985
To The Friends of The Mekong
and VN2020 Mekong Group 

FOREWORD: This is the last of a three-article series entitled “Mekong - A Look into the Next Half Century” dealing with the future of the Mekong Delta.

The first article sketched a general overview of the issue and offered these observations: hydroelectricity still remains the least costly source of power to meet the needs of economic development. Consequently, the exploitation of hydro-power on the Mekong is an irreversible process that will move ahead regardless of oppositions that may be raised along the way. What is needed now is a macroscopic plan to neutralize the cumulative impacts caused by climate change and the hydroelectric dams built upstream.


The second article entitled “The Multi-purpose Sea Dyke / MSD” proposed a bold project primarily geared to prevent seawater from intruding into the basin and save the Mekong Delta from being submerged should the sea level rise by 1 meter in the wake of global warming in a not-so-far future. Other added benefits to be derived from this project included: water reservoirs, land reclamation, improvement of the transportation networks, and higher standards of living for the basin’s inhabitants. (3)

This third article advocates the construction of fresh water reservoirs in the natural depressions of the Đồng Tháp Mười and Cà Mau swamplands in order to store the annual rainfall as well as the water coming down from upstream the rivers. By doing so, we will no longer watch all that water flow wastefully through the estuaries into the East Sea. On the other hand, we can use the water thus saved to meet the immediate drinking water, cultivation and industrial needs of the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. More importantly, we will be able to preserve the underground aquifers so that they can continue to wash away the alum that causes the acidification of the entire farm lands in the region.

All the three above articles in the trilogy named “Mekong- A Look into the Next Half Century” are conceptual in nature. They offer a tentative picture of a future several decades down the road and the readers are encouraged to look at them as a collection of open-ended information that will be complemented and updated by interested parties as Mother Nature and humankind evolve with time. At the moment of this writing, in 2011, it is beyond the ability of the writer to fully visualize what that future would hold for us.

A case in point: in the first article, it was mentioned that should the sea level rise by 1 meter, 90% of the Mekong Delta’s area would be covered by seawater (2). However, Mr. Trần Thức, the Director of Vietnam’s Institute of Climatology, Hydrology, and Environment predicted that “In the event the sea level registers a one-meter increase then the entire Mekong Delta – that is 100% of it – will be submerged”. On the other hand, based on their own research on the topography of the region, MM Ngô Minh Triết and Phạm Phan Long suggested a more conservative estimate: “Should the sea level rise by one meter, 50% of the Mekong Delta would go under the water and an additional 25% would turn into storm surge zone”.

To conserve the Mekong Delta requires that we embark on a protracted journey. The works done by this writer can be compared to a “drop of water” in the open sea, a small contribution to the intellectual wealth of our people. To survive on this land of destiny, our people have to constantly struggle against the threat of invasion from the North and the increasingly unforgiving elements from Mother Nature.

THE GEOGRAPHY AND DEMOGRAPHY OF THE MEKONG DELTA

Out of the seventeen estuaries of the Mekong, seven of them are tributaries of the Tiền and Hậu Rivers. It is through these very waterways that seawater intrudes into the basin. In 2010, it reached as far as 128 kilometers inland. According to an estimate by the Institute for Hydrological Planning in the South [Vietnam], the basin’s fields are covered by as much as 1.5 billion cubic meters of seawater during the dry season per day. This figure can grow to more than 25% higher during the rising tide (7).

After 1975, dikes were built around the estuaries to ward off salinization. Unfortunately, they proved to be only temporary measures because once the sea level starts on a sustained rise, both the areas bordering the river mouths and the entire basin will become inundated by seawater. Therefore, a mega project to construct a multi-purpose sea dyke must embody a strategic approach offering long-term solutions to the problems.

It is interesting to recall an anecdote that took place between Peter White, the reporter of the National Geographic, and the Vietnamese Minister of Information, Mr. Tôn Thất Thiện in 1968. Let us read what Mr. White had to say about it: “First I studied the maps. Then a U.S. Army plane carried me high and low over all the likely place, where muddy beaches and mangroves swamps meet the South China Sea. I did my best, but I could only find eight dragons. Yet how could that be, when the Vietnamese call the Mekong River the Cửu Long Giang – the River of the Nine Dragons?... I consulted my friend Tôn Thất Thiện, long a mentor on matters Vietnamese. Now he was Minister of Information in Saigon. He smiled. “There really are only eight,” he said. “But eight is not a lucky number. It has to be seven or nine. So we had to find another one, and we did. But it is very small, very narrow, and less than 10 miles long. I hope you are not too unhappy to have missed it.” (8)

THE TWO DEPRESSIONS IN THE ĐỒNG THÁP MƯỜI AND CÀ MAU PLAINS

In addition to the water reservoirs to be built along the future 600-kilometer long Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke (MSD) (3), there are two natural depressions in the Mekong Delta that are presently serving as natural reservoirs storing the rain water of the Rainy Season. The Tonle Sap is the only river in Cambodia that cyclically reverses its course depending on the Dry or Rainy Season. For that very reason, the Tonle Sap’s area can undergo drastic changes during the year: In the Dry Season, it measures about 2,500 km2. Nevertheless, when the Rainy Season comes (from May to September), the water level in the Mekong surges dramatically creating tremendous pressure forcing the Tonle Sap River to reverse its course and flow into the Tonle Sap Lake. As a result, the water in the lake rises from 8 to 10 meters and overflows its bank causing its area to grow fivefold to about 12,000 km2. The forests around the Tonle Sap Lake become flooded and are turned into a giant breeding ground for the fish population that accounts for approximately 60% of Cambodia’s fish supply. At the end of the Rainy Season, around November, the Tonle Sap reverts to its normal course and it is the time to celebrate the Water



Figure 1: Salinity intrusion 1996-2010

Festival or Bon Om Tuk. At the Quatre Bras, the meeting place of four river tributaries, the fish migrating down from the Tonle Sap Lake will either follow the Lower Mekong to go into in the Tiền River or stay their course on the Bassac River to enter the Hậu River. In both cases, those migratory fish end up into either the ĐồngTháp Mười or Cà Mau natural depressions. There, they multiply rapidly providing a plentiful supply of food source to the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta.

While the offshore construction of the MSD does not necessitate a costly outlay to pay for land acquisition, it is a different story with the building of the two fresh water reservoirs in the basin. The need to displace then relocate the local people would prove a challenging hurdle at first. Hopefully, if they are treated fairly and remunerated equitably for their losses, it would be possible to obtain their consent and cooperation. It is all for the good of the Mekong Delta and the future generations.
We need a policy marked with transparency and aimed to serve the common good. Once that condition is met, it would not be too hard to convince the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta who nurture a deep love for their land to make the needed sacrifice to ensure a stable future for all.

THE FIRST CONCRETE STEPS 

1/The Mekong River Committee of Vietnam is presently headquartered at 12 Hàng Tre Street, Hanoi within the Red River Basin. It is high time - though late – to move it to the Mekong Delta in the low land. It is practically unimaginable to have the captain of a sinking ship to stand safely on the shore and exhort his crew members to risk their lives to save it.


Figure 2: Vietnam Mekong National Committee, 12 Hàng Tre street, Hanoi 

2/ The University of Cần Thơ is known as the “intellectual lighthouse” of the Mekong Delta. The pressing question that haunts many quarters is: “Will this university be still around to celebrate its centennial when its campus is located in a land lying so low under the sea level?” Who will be the party that will come up with a solution to this life-and-death question if not the Department of the Mekong at the University of Cần Thơ? Those two institutions are now playing a most urgent and crucial role in the survival of the entire basin.
About eleven years ago, this author has proposed a plan of action that includes the following concrete steps:
  1. Establish a specialized library at the University of Cần Thơ containing important books and materials pertaining to the subject matter of the Mekong and its sister river, the Mississippi.

  2. Establish a teaching staff consisting of: the university’s regular academic body; experts from the Mekong River and the Mississippi River Commissions; international consultants from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Commission Dams (WCD), and the International Rivers Network (IRN). They should be invited to teach at the Mekong River Department as visiting professors. The materials used in their lectures will offer priceless information gathered from actual work experience.

  3. Candidates to the program should not be limited to a select group of Vietnamese students but should also be extended to those from the countries located in the Mekong’s basin like Thailand; Laos; Cambodia; Yunnan, China; and Myanmar. The academic program should be geared to train experts in ecology and the implementation of the Green Development plan with an eye to preserve and develop the eco-system of the Mekong. This young and dynamic group of experts will form a common core ushering in a new era of stable cooperation for the six countries along the Mekong current. (6)

  4. The Vietnamese government should do its part in setting up a network of “attachés for ecology” at its embassies and consulates in the countries of the region: the Vietnamese Consulate in Kunming, Yunnan and the four embassies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. They will act as eyes and ears, human observation posts, for the Mekong National Committee and the Ministry for the Protection of the Ecology.
All these actions should be regarded as far-reaching and essential contributions toward the upholding of the “Mekong Spirit” that must be regarded as the guiding light for all regional cooperation and development plans. Sure, the preservation of the Mekong will exact a hefty price tag but this river is precious.

3/ The Mangrove Forests to Contain the Waves: in the short-run, to avoid erosion that is taking place in many areas, like at the Cà Mau Peninsula, resulting in considerable land loss, we need to implement immediately a planting and reforestation program of the mangrove forests along the coastlines. This effort has a two-pronged approach: first to serve as a barrier against the incoming waves and second to retain the alluvia from flowing out into the sea. In the long-run, it is imperative for us to implement the Multi-purpose sea dyke and the two sweet water reservoirs projects in order to deal with the rising sea level resulting from climate change.

4/ The Pristine River: by our own doing, we are devastating the rivers of our land. It is inadmissible to think that we can have those rivers act both as lifelines bringing us food while transporting all kinds of waste at the same time. Anywhere you go in the Mekong Delta you see signs pointing to Cultural Villages. But, everyday, people continue to defecate and throw garbage into the rivers and canals. The concept of public hygiene and preservation of a healthy environment within a benevolent nature must be the product of a collective as well as individual consciousness. To change our present-day way of life fraught with shortcomings would require decades of education and disciplinary measures imposed by a civic-oriented society. Mere slogans will not cut the mustard.

THE PROS AND CONS – BUT ONLY ONE CHOICE

After 1975, Vietnam had completed a number of projects building coastal sea dykes in the vicinity of coastal cities like Sóc Trang, Bạc Liêu, and Cà Mau with dismal results: devastation of the ecology on the inland side of the dykes, land covered with alum, and salinization causing damages to the harvests. As a result, local inhabitants took matters into their own hands and tore those dykes down. Worse yet, on occasion, regional authorities had to blow up the dykes with dynamites to allow the farmers to cultivate their land. Dyke failures are not limited to the Mekong Delta. They are widespread throughout Vietnam like in the case of the sea dyke in Hải Hậu, Nam Định province in the North or the one at Mũi Né in Phan Thiết, Central Vietnam…

It could be assumed that thousands of miles of dykes had been built in Vietnam at astrological costs but with negligible results due to a lack of adequate research.

What about the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke Project? After the release of the first two articles, the author has received a number of comments from inside and outside of Vietnam. Regardless of their contents, they all share a deep concern for the future of our people.

A reader commented: “From the economic standpoint, the building of the sea dyke in the Mekong Delta makes less sense than the construction of the high-speed train. To fight against nature, one needs to be more cautious in one’s calculation. The Mekong Delta had gone through costly experiences with attempts to discharge water into the Gulf of Thailand.

Successes are easy to see but failures in the implementation of sea projects in the world are equally frequent”. In the author’s opinion, it would be more appropriate in this context to use the term “adaptation” to the changes in nature in order to survive than the term “fight”.

Another reader believes the MSD Project contains many unanswered unknowns including detrimental impacts or inadequately expounded issues that remain to be addressed. For instance, he believed it would be problematic to obtain the more than 200 million cubic meters or the equivalent of more than one billion tons of sand, pebbles, and cement as well as the huge dredgers required to complete the job. The answer? The project is not only feasible but the needed technology is already in existence and had been applied elsewhere in the world. A good example of this is the Palm Islands in Dubai that required 1.5 billion cubic meters of pebbles, sand, and cement. This is seven times larger than the figure mentioned above and all of it was obtained from the sea bed just like it would be the case with the MSD Project.

A more optimistic attitude contends that if somebody were unable to build a solid house or bridge, it does not permit us to conclude that those tasks cannot be done. We have to learn from the failures of others, make improvements and not become negative about it. For a large project to succeed, we need technical competence, conscientious workers and efficient institutions.


Figure 3: Water reservoirs or claimed land by the MSD

A common reaction comes from a group of people who read the MSD Project for the first time. Either they showed amazement at the magnitude of the project or voiced their reservation about its feasibility. In their view, considering the present conditions in Vietnam, it would be doubtful that the country can mobilize the necessary technological, financial, and human resources required by the project. When the author’s second article was released on the Mouth to Source website it was accompanied with this comment: “It’s what can only be described as a Mega project, the like of which I’ve never seen before. What do you think?http://mouthto source.org/rivers/Mekong/2011/05/29/Mekong-sea-dyke-concept-paper/
 
On the other hand, a group of engineers in California who is doing research on the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke Project contends that its cost will not exceed that of the high-speed train and its economic benefits will surpass by far the cost of the 20,000 km2 of fertile land in the Mekong Delta that would be submerged if the sea level rises due to climate change plus the accompanying expenses to relocate the 10 to 15 million local inhabitants. On top of that, the country would have to import annually a significant quantity of rice to feed its people. (3)

The experience and benefits gained from projects already in place in the world sufficiently prove that the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke and the Fresh Water Reservoirs in the Mekong Delta projects are feasible. What we need is to think in terms of centuries, of several generations ahead, in order to deal effectively with an increasingly severe and hostile environment. One in which instead of witnessing the sea customarily being transformed into farm lands through land reclamation programs we have a situation where the farm lands being submerged by the sea.

Having gone through the pains of setbacks and failures in the past, we are now confronted with two options: either we withdraw into our shell, throw up our hands in complete despair or attempt to learn from past mistakes, accept them as worthwhile lessons so that – to borrow an English idiom we can “think outside the box”. By trial and error we will acquire new knowledge and come to a better understanding of the issues. Failure by itself does not necessarily become the mother of success unless we show ourselves willing to absorb, improve on and put to work the lessons we learn from it. This is the method commonly used in the experimental sciences.

THE WORLD’S SUCCESS STORIES 
 
Large and lasting construction projects abound. The first thing they teach us is that we need to come up with “a great idea” and persist in its implementation in the face of difficulties posed by diverse geographical locations.

The Zuiderzee network of dykes was built several centuries ago in the Netherlands/Pays Bas to retain the soil and ward off intrusion of seawater from the North Sea. It also offers the added benefits of flood prevention and land reclamation. The American Society of Civil Engineers has applauded this Dutch system of dams as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The recently completed Saemangeum Seawall Project in South Korea (April, 2010) consists of a seawall that runs from the country’s east coast bordering the Yellow Sea and sits astride the mouths of the Dongjin and Manggyeong Rivers. It was started in 1991 and completed in 2010. This project is acclaimed as the world’s largest construction feat of tideland reclamation on a larger scale than Holland’s Zuiderzee Works.

The Palm Trilogy Islands Project consists of three groups of artificial archipelagos in the shape of palm trees named Jumeirah, Jebel Ali, and Deira. Located off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, the project was managed jointly by a consortium of two Belgian and Dutch companies employing the top experts in the world. With the use of 1.5 billion cubic meters of sand and pebbles, they put in place a land reclamation program adding 520 kilometers of coastlines to Dubai. This project of man-made islands is hailed as the eighth wonder of the world.

The Singapore’s Marina Barrage started as a brainchild of the former prime minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, more than two decades ago. Being an island nation with a high rainfall precipitation of 100 inches per year, the needs for flood control, salinization prevention, and fresh water conservation become a first priority for its leaders. This Marina Barrage was completed in August, 2008 and helps improve the quality of life as well as speed up the economic development of the island. Furthermore, thanks to the Marina Barrage, Singapore no longer has to rely on Malaysia to supply it with fresh water. In 2009, the project received a most prestigious award from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE).

MISSISSIPPI THE INTERACTIVE TRAVEL COMPANION

In July, 2009, the Mississippi River entered a sister river relationship with the Mekong River and its Delta. Since then they became interactive travel companions. The Mississippi River Commission has adopted an Intergenerational Commitment named “America’s Watershed – A 200-year Vision” which focuses in bringing about a happy existence to the inhabitants of the basin during the first decade of the 21st century: [1] Enjoy a quality of life unmatched in the world; [2] Lead secure lives along any river, tributary in the basin; [3] Enjoy fresh air and the surrounding fauna, flora and forests while hunting, fishing, and recreating along any river or tributary in the basin; [4] Travel easily, safely, affordably to any destinations in the watershed; [5] Drink from and use the abundant waters of any river, stream, or aquifer in the basin; [6] Choose from an abundance of basic goods and essential supplies that are grown, manufactured, and transported along the river to local and world markets. (Mississippi River Commission August 20, 2009)

Looking from another perspective, those six commitments are geared to achieve the following five primary objectives: [a] National security and comprehensive flood reduction; [b] Infrastructure and energy; [c] Environmental sustainability and recreation; [d] Water supply and water quality; [e] Movement of goods: Agriculture and manufacturing.

It is in this author’s opinion that this vision is commendable as well as applicable to the six countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) which also includes the Mekong Delta. The most admirable and outstanding feature in the Mississippi River Commission’s “America’s Watershed – A 200-year Vision” is its focus on the happiness of the inhabitants of the basin and the mutual commitment between the generations.

THE MULTI-PURPOSE SEA DYKE AND THE LIFE-AND-DEATH THREATS IT FACES

Realistically speaking, there are more than one Sword of Damoclès hanging over the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke Project and threatening it with an untimely death: [1] a hasty implementation and complete disregard to the internationally accepted standards applicable to such a project would see to it that the dyke will not be able to withstand the first tropical storms that come from the East Sea every year; [2] in the absence of the fresh water reservoirs to feed the underground aquifers, their ground water table levels will further sink at an accelerated rate causing the farmlands to become covered with alum and the entire basin threatened with widespread acidification; [3] if we cannot put an end to the dumping of all kind of garbage, industrial waste and defecation into the rivers; the reservoirs will be turned into giant receptacles heavily polluted by waste and garbage; [4] in the worst case scenario, an earthquake powerful enough to collapse a dam upstream can generate a tsunami on the Mekong destroying everything on its path including the multi-purpose sea dyke. (3)

Our people are faced with serious threats: rise of sea level resulting from climate change, reduced current flow caused by the dams built upstream the rivers, and dropping ground water table levels in the underground aquifers causing the Mekong Delta to sink even lower relative to the sea level. Confronted with such a stark picture, we are left with two alternatives: either we submit passively to our fate and watch the Mekong Delta slowly disappear under the water along with the Civilization of Orchards or leave no stone unturned looking for a way to save our sacred land which is also the home of our future generations.

In conclusion, the three articles in the trilogy entitled “Mekong – A Look into the Next Half Century” should be taken as proposals still in their conceptual stages. They are written with the express intention to present open-ended information and solicit new ideas or additional data from the readers. The next step should be reserved for exhaustive scientific studies that will pave the way to bring the projects to fruition just as the Latin idiom says: “A Posse Ad Esse” - From possibility to reality.

NGÔ THẾ VINH, M.D.
California 07/ 2011
[Source: www.vietecology.org]


REFERENCES:

  1. Thế Vinh, 01/2011, Viet Ecology Foundation; http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/61

  2. Mekong-Cửu Long 2011 – A Look Forward into the Next Half Century [2] – A Summary the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke; Ngô Thế Vinh, 05/2011, Viet Ecology Foundation; http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/67

  3. Mekong Sea Dyke Concept Paper, Ngô Minh Triết, S.E., Phạm Phan Long, P.E. Viet Ecology Foundation 06/2011; http://www.vietecology.org

  4. Vùng Đất Ngập Đồng Tháp Mười, Trần Ngươn Phiêu, Thế Kỷ 21 số 219, tháng 7, 2007

  5. Bức Tranh Ảm Đạm của Nông Dân Miền Tây, Nguyễn Văn Tuấn 02/2011, http://nguyenvantuan.net/misc/9-misc/1181-ghi-chep-cuoi-nam-8-buc-tranh-am-dam-cua-nong-thon-mien-tay

  6. Đại Học Cần Thơ, Ngọn Hải Đăng Miền Tây; Diễn Văn Ra Trường của Viện Đại Học Cần Thơ; Gs Đỗ Bá Khê (19/12/1970); Đặc San Tiền Giang Hậu Giang, 2000

  7. Sống Chung Với Nước Biển Dâng; Tuổi Trẻ Online 28/08/2010; http://m.tuoitre.vn/tin-tuc/Chinh-tri-Xa-hoi/Khoa-hoc-Moi-truong/310,Song-chung-voi-nuoc-bien-dang.ttm

  8. The Mekong, River of Terror and Hope, Peter White, National Geographic 134, No.6, December 1968

  9. Possible Impacts of Saltwater Intrusion Floodgates in Vietnam’s Lower Mekong Delta; Ian White, Australian National University_Seminar on Environment and Development in Vietnam, Dec 6-7, 1996 http://coombs.anu.edu.au/~vern/env_dev/papers/pap07.html

  10. Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern; Edward Wong – North China is Dying. The New York Times, June 1, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/world/asia/02water.html?_r=1&hp

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