Climate change and dams force older residents to leave Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Drought, falling river levels and seawater intrusion are eroding livelihoods on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, forcing many older residents to the city, where they face unique problems and a thin safety net.

The Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho, Vietnam. Image: guido da rozze, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

At 63, Nguyen Thi Ngoc got her first full-time ‘company’ job as a security guard in Ho Chi Minh City. She’d never been to a city before taking the job in early 2021, but the former farmer, originally from the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, is indifferent to the urban bustle of the country’s second-largest city.

“I come here to work, make some money, not to play around,” she says, sitting outside the semi-abandoned housing complex that she guards. “In the past six months, the only place I have visited is the market.”

Around six years ago, Nguyen and her husband gave up their farm in Tien Giang province, on the Mekong Delta. Faced with increasing saltwater intrusion, they had switched from growing rice to cultivating more salt-tolerant pineapples.

But even this was not enough. Yields had been falling for a few seasons, then in 2016 the water in their local canals – which connect with the Mekong River – became so salty that even the pineapple plants couldn’t cope, and they stopped bearing fruit.

That year, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region was hit by drought, leaving 600,000 people without access to fresh water. Below-average rainfall, driven by that year’s El Niño, and upstream hydropower dams on the Mekong trapping the river’s water were identified as the main causes of the drought.

Reduced flow meant the river was less able to push back seawater, allowing salt water to penetrate deep inland, paralysing the coastal agriculture hub and causing direct economic losses of USD 319.5 million.

Disheartened, Nguyen’s husband sold the land to cover their losses and moved to Ho Chi Minh City to take up a job as a security guard. Five years later, in early 2021, she followed. “I don’t want to burden my son and daughter. Both are already poor and have their own families,” she says.

Climate and dam impacts in the Mekong Delta

With its storm-free weather and fertile soil, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is traditionally known as a region of bounty: only 17 million people live in the region, but it feeds much of Vietnam’s population of 100 million, producing more than half of all rice produced in the country.

However, since 2009, the delta has become one of the few places in the country where the population has shrunk. Deteriorating agricultural land, water shortages, landslides and pollution have led to nearly 1.1 million – equivalent to the population of an entire province – to migrate out of the region.

The historic drought of 2016 was just part of an emerging pattern in the Mekong Delta. Its annual flood pulse, which the region’s agriculture and aquaculture have traditionally relied on, has become increasingly unpredictable.

In the past two decades, El Niño and La Niña have swung the delta between unusual dry and wet extremes, causing multiple droughts and floods. And with an estimated average elevation of only 80cm, the Mekong Delta is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels, which could include inundation of large areas, more severe salinity intrusion and coastal erosion to the low-lying land.

It is like looking at the future. The problems this group are dealing with today will be the problems many others have to deal with in the coming years. Building protection policies for them is, in fact, working towards a better future for all of us.

Phung Duc Tung, director, Mekong Development Research Institute

On top of climate change, other human activities have irreversibly transformed the region. Over the last two and a half decades, dams have been constructed on the Mekong’s mainstream, with 11 dams on China’s section of the Mekong (known as the Lancang) and two in Laos, with seven more in various stages of planning along the mainstream. Many dams have also been built on the Mekong’s tributaries. This has caused the river to lose much-needed water and sediment, driving severe erosion, which has been exacerbated by sand mining. Meanwhile, subsidence driven by groundwater extraction is expected to worsen flooding, saltwater intrusion and erosion.

“[These problems] have made farming a very risky business in the delta,” says Phung Duc Tung, director of the Mekong Development Research Institute, a leading independent research institute in Vietnam.

Migration as a coping strategy

“Seniors being driven out of villages to make a living in cities is a concerning issue that needs more study,” Phung says. The most recent national survey on internal migration, from 2015, noted a marked increase in the proportion of migrants in the 50-59 age group between 2004 and 2015, rising from 2.9 per cent to 5.7 per cent. The 2011 Vietnam Aging Survey found that nearly 40 per cent of people over 60 were still working, predominantly those from rural areas with little access to financial support from social benefit systems. The fewer children they had to receive support from, the more likely they were to continue working.

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, by the end of 2020, only 35 per cent of people above the retirement age (60 for men and 55 for women) were entitled to pensions and monthly social insurance allowances. Entitlement depends on having worked in the formal sector and paid national insurance contributions.

Migration is traditionally not a common choice for older rural Vietnamese people, Phung says. They generally do not want to go to the city, with its fiercely competitive workforce and busy lifestyle, which they are ill-prepared for. But when their livelihood in their homeland can no longer guarantee their minimum subsistence, and without the support of children, they would have to migrate, he says. For them, migration is a coping strategy.

In the Mekong Delta, where non-farm jobs are rare, any severe blow to agricultural production results in landlessness and joblessness, Phung explains. “The fact that Vietnam’s social safety net and pension barely cover the population definitely plays a part here.”

The occupational transition can be especially hard for older migrants, including older farmers, who may possess few transferrable skills and low education levels, Phung says. Older people who migrate to the city tend to be employed in the informal sector, as construction workers, vendors, cleaners, housekeepers and security staff.

Troubles upstream

This was the experience of Tu Day and her husband. Moving to Ho Chi Minh City six years ago from the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap was the “last resort”, says the 58-year-old, who cuts grass and sweeps leaves in a park. Her husband, who is five years older, works in construction.

Back home in Dong Thap, upstream of Tien Giang, Tu Day and her family had to deal with a different set of problems from the Nguyens. For years, their fish farm had been under constant threat from increasingly polluted river water and recent “crazy” heavy rain, she says.

The river water became full of garbage, fish-pond sewage and pesticides, she says, making it risky to pump onto their farm. “The fish [would] get sick and die just days before we can sell them.” In 2016, the year her family finally gave up, a mass fish death hit their district. Local authorities blamed climate change for having lowered river levels, causing “adverse affects” on aquaculture.

Day’s family was plunged into debt. The couple sold the land on which they farmed rice, but that only covered part of it. While their son and daughter stayed behind to work what remained of their fish farm, Tu Day and her husband headed to Ho Chi Minh City.

Yet six years later, the debts linger. Day says she has got sick more often since moving, leading to costly hospital bills. Her husband complains of feeling “suffocated” in the narrow room they rent in a building that that they say is “full of country old folks like us”.

‘It is like looking at the future’

“In a sense, they [older working migrants] are forced labourers who are extremely vulnerable,” says Giang Thanh Long, director of the Institute of Public Policy and Management at the National Economics University in Hanoi. Manual work exposes older migrants to occupational injuries and accidents, but unlike the young, they are more likely to have chronic illnesses, which are worsened by poor diets and accommodation. With no health insurance and no labour protection, “they are caught in a vicious circle”, says Giang.

According to Hang Ngo, a public health research scientist whose recent work focuses on migration from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City, migration rarely reduces vulnerabilities related to socio-economic and climate stressors, but is “more like a shift from one set of climate risks and health-related vulnerabilities to another.”

The phenomenon is likely to grow in years to come. Vietnam is one of the fastest-ageing countries in the world. With 25 per cent of its population projected to be over 60 by 2049, it is “getting old before getting rich”, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the conditions which led Tu Day and the Nguyens to migrate in 2016 were just the start. The Mekong Delta has since been struck by even more severe droughts and saline intrusion events in 2020 and 2021.

But a more inclusive climate response strategy could help address many of the problems that push older migrants away in the first place, say Phung and Ngo. For instance, agriculture livelihood diversification programs could do more than focusing on resilient crops or farming techniques for farmers, and start channelling more support to those who are landless and lack access to financial resources, Ngo explains. And if people decide to go to the cities, she adds, development and climate adaptation policies should cover their needs and protection to reduce urban precarity.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the thin social protections for migrants in Vietnam. Many migrants were reportedly stuck in crowded rentals, facing increased risk of infection.

“While everyone was at risk, vulnerable people like migrants were most affected,” says Ngo. Having a better safety net and more social protections could help these groups to recover from crises, she added. “And if either a pandemic hits or climate change amplifies, people will be able to adapt better.”

“It is like looking at the future,” Phung says. “The problems this group are dealing with today will be the problems many others have to deal with in the coming years. Building protection policies for them is, in fact, working towards a better future for all of us.”

Even as many migrants left Ho Chi Minh City in late 2021, Tu Day and her husband decided to stay to pay their remaining debts. “There is nothing for us back home, no money to spend, no rice to eat – we’d die of hunger,” she says. “Plus, home is sad now; my village has become deserted. Our neighbours have also left for the city.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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