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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vietnam Floods

Air Date: Week of

Deforestation is said to be the major cause of the floods that have devastated a number of Southeast Asian nations. Owen Bennett Jones reports from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam where the monsoon rains are expected to continue, at least, through the end of November.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. More than one million people in Southeast Asia have been forced to flee their homes due to severe flooding during the past few months. People are used to seasonal monsoon floods, but this year the high water flowing through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam is the worst in nearly four decades. In Vietnam's Mekong River Delta alone nearly three hundred people have drowned. Owen Bennett Jones traveled to the region and has our report.

(Water running)

BENNETT JONES: Dong Thap, Southern Vietnam and there's water everywhere. The mighty Mekong River is fifteen feet deeper than usual and 90 percent of the province is under water. Tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes are living on top of muddy dykes in cramped, unhealthy conditions. They face a long wait - the water won't recede until late November at best. The flood started back in July and the rain is still coming down. Craig Lesher, the UN's environment adviser in Hanoi, believes extreme weather conditions like these are increasingly common.

LESHER: There's a lot more rain falling in less time. Overall the amount of rainfall I don't think is changing on average but it's coming down in very intense short bursts. On the other side of this equation: what happens to this rain once it hits the earth I think there are several factors. The primary one, undoubtedly, is deforestation.

BENNETT JONES: The Mekong River starts in China and passes through Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. All along the way, forests are being cut down·and that undermines the land's natural capacity to retain water upstream. Nguyen Tuy Nien is the Director of Flood Control and Dyke Management in Hanoi.

TUY NIEN: (speaks in native language)

TRANSLATOR: The Mekong River goes through several countries so it is very difficult to control deforestation. In Vietnam, we have a very strict policy on forest control. Some cases have already been sent to court. Even so, deforestation has still happened. Some poor people cut down trees. They need the money to make a living.

BENNETT JONES: Although the last fifty years have seen drastically reduced forest cover in Vietnam, there are signs that the situation is now improving. Further upstream, though, especially in Laos, the logging is almost totally uncontrolled. As a whole, the Mekong River basin is becoming ever less capable of retaining water.

(splashing and children laughing)

BENNETT JONES: A group of children splash and play in the flood water near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. All too often their games turn to catastrophe: over two hundred children like these have drowned in the last few weeks. Their home area is undergoing radical change. In the past, extensive mangrove plantations helped control the ebb and flow of the tides. But many have now been cut down. Oxfam's Koos Neefjes believes that part of the problem is the sheer numbers now trying to make a living in the Mekong Delta.

NEEFJES: More and more people live in the delta. Extremely poor people are living closer to the banks of the river. The banks of the rivers are less protected by mangrove forests because of increased shrimp farming. These very poor people, they need to fish, they need to live on the banks and use the little bits of land on the flood plains for rice cultivation. And these people will not be organized enough to make their way to safe areas quick enough. High floods are always causing trouble for them.

(Spluttering engine)

BENNETT JONES: Aid agencies like Oxfam are trying to provide some villagers with boats and outboard engines so they can escape to higher ground. The Red Cross is distributing water purifying equipment and basic food supplies to those affected by the flood. The government is also taking some action - in recent years, for example, loans have been given to families so they put their houses on stilts. But unless some long term measures are taken to address issues such as deforestation, many in the Mekong Delta fear there could be worse to come in the years ahead. For Living On Earth this is Owen Bennett Jones in Hanoi



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