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China's dam to help Vietnam's drought, revive arid farming life

Xinhua, March 28, 2016 Adjust font size:

Wearing a crumpled cap and no shoes or sandals, Vietnamese farmer Vo Van Chien with a weather-beaten face is sitting barefoot on his bone-dry rice paddy, cutting waning rice plants, and saying, "If only water released from China's Jinghong dam could arrive here soon."

Rice plants on Chien's paddy fields have failed to flower due to the water shortage caused by the ongoing severe drought and saltwater encroachment, meaning, he has also failed to collect a sufficient amount of grass and rice straw to feed his cattle.

"Our rice paddy plants are dying. One kg of straw costs up to 2,500 Vietnamese dong (more than 0.1 U.S. dollars). Therefore, I cut the rice plants to feed our cows and oxen," Chien, 45, from the southern province of Ben Tre, told Xinhua on Sunday.

Putting a sickle down on the waterless strip of land to take a short break, the farmer said canals which irrigate vast paddy fields are becoming as dry as a bone.

"I have had to spend millions of Vietnamese dong (hundreds of U.S. dollars) buying a powerful pump and long pipes, but still failed to save our field because what little water left in the canals is too salty due to aggressive saltwater encroachment," he bemoaned.

According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the ongoing drought and saltwater encroachment in the Mekong Delta have made some one million people suffer from shortage of water for domestic use and caused losses of around 700,000 tons of rice.

Among 13 localities in the Mekong Delta, Ben Tre is being the hardest-hit by the drought and saltwater encroachment.

In addition to destroying many paddy fields and orchards, the natural disasters have made many water plants operate sporadically because fresh water is becoming saltier and saltier.

The shortage of running water has forced many residents in Ben Tre to buy water transported by big boats and barges from rivers in neighboring provinces which are facing less severe saltwater encroachment.

Everyday in March, Luong Van Trung from Ben Tre's Mo Cay Bac District, drives his barge, which was previously hired to transport sand, to Cai Be District, Tien Giang Province, then pump river water into the big barge, come back to Ben Tre and sell the water at a price of 100,000 Vietnamese dong (4.4 U.S. dollars) per cubic meter.

"Besides the exorbitant price, I have to spend another 100,000 Vietnamese dong hiring a tricycle to transport river water to my house. This is the first time in my life, I have had to buy river water for domestic use," a 70-year-old woman named Nguyen Thi Lua told Xinhua, adding that her extended family lives in Ben Tre City in Ben Tre Province.

In Ben Tre's rural coastal areas, residents have had to buy freshwater from deep wells at prices of between 150,000-200,000 Vietnamese dong (6.7-8.9 U.S. dollars) per cubic meter.

Meanwhile, one cubic meter of running water costs only 7,000-8,000 Vietnamese dong (around 0.3 U.S. dollars).

At a seminar on coping with drought and saltwater encroachment in Vietnam's southern region held in mid-March in Hanoi, Vietnamese Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Cao Duc Phat said, "Now, people don't have to go to the sea to feel the saltiness as before. Now, they can taste it right from their homes, because ponds, lakes and canals in Ben Tre have already faced serious saltwater encroachment."

At the seminar, Chairman of the Ben Tre People's Committee, Cao Van Trong, said nearly 14,800 hectares of rice paddies in the province had been damaged by the drought and saltwater encroachment, most of which had been completely destroyed.

Moreover, local farmers have had to buy rice straw from the neighboring province of Dong Thap to feed their cattle, Trong said.

On Sunday, still clutching his sickle to cut dying paddy rice plants to feed his cattle, and standing in the middle of his bone-dry rice paddy, Vo Van Chien said , "If only water released from China's Jinghong dam could arrive here soon."

The farmer said, "Television said water released from the Jinghong dam to the Mekong River will flow to Vietnam's border on April 4. I hope that at that time, I can save part of my paddy field."

At a government meeting on March 26 in Hanoi, agriculture minister Cao Duc Phat said water released from Jinghong dam had already arrived in Laos and was some 800 km away from Vietnam's border.

When the water arrives in Vietnam, expected on April 4, it will drive the saltwater encroachment some 20 km back to the sea, said the minister.

Vietnamese provinces along Tien and Hau rivers will benefit directly from the water released from the Jinghong dam.

In order to help alleviate drought in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, China has decided to release emergency water supply from Jinghong Hydropower Station in southwestern China's Yunnan province, to downstream Mekong River from March 15 to April 10.

According to calculations by the Mekong River Committee, Vietnam's Mekong Delta will receive some 27 percent to 54 percent of water discharged from Jinghong dam.

Sitting in her air-conditioned room in Ben Tre City, Nguyen Thi Lua said, "It will not rain soon. So, if water released from China's dam comes here, even if there is no rain, the water will help ordinary people like us to save rice fields, and cut costs on water for domestic use and on animal feeds, making our daily life better."