Respecting water as ultimate resource

March 23, 2021 | 17:19
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Vietnam is seeking solutions to ensure better management over water resources for sustainable development. Laurent Umans, first secretary of Water Management and Climate at the Embassy of the Netherlands to Vietnam, talked with VIR’s Thanh Dat about these efforts, with a need to call for more private investment into the sector.

What is the current situation in terms of water management in Vietnam?

1536 p22 respecting water as ultimate resource
Laurent Umans, first secretary of Water Management and Climate at the Embassy of the Netherlands to Vietnam

Resolution No.120/2017/NQ-CP on sustainable development in the Mekong Delta argues that the government should stop fighting floods and salinity and should start embracing them. Of all ideas in Resolution 120, “embracing salinity” is least acted upon. The government continues to fight salinity by building sluices, closing canals, dredging, and allowing sand mining. These measures will only increase intrusion further inland.

The sustainable and profitable solution to salinity is land use transformation to a brackish aquaculture. To succeed, this requires better rural drinking water supply, more coordinated investment, and collective action from farmers. It also requires water management that does not use groundwater but surface water, and that would require less pollution of the surface water. The Netherlands is supporting this through its water projects and the Agricultural Transformation Programme.

What investments are needed for Vietnam’s water resources management, and particularly in the Mekong Delta, one of the key regions suffering from shortages?

The key point is to reduce the hard infrastructure bias. Nowadays, the bulk of the public investment goes into concrete and asphalt. Although there are strong, vested interests in these sectors, this is not the only investment which is needed. Hard infrastructure is often doing harm instead of doing good.

Other ‘soft’ options such as containerisation might be smarter investments that save more time than when broadening roads. Investing in nature-based solutions such as mangroves might be more sustainable and profitable than building dykes that sink into the soft coastal soil. Industry 4.0 technologies such as smart meters and sensors might also help living with nature rather than building rudely intrusive infrastructure. My recommendation to investors is to focus on transformations rather than individual sectors such as transportation.

As the prime minister recently said, private sector investment plays a key role. For both coastal protection and agricultural transformation huge investments are needed to keep the delta healthy. Land, capital, commodity, renewable energy, and insurance markets all have large potentials for private investment. We need to take care for the delta and that means investing in its long-term sustainability for which Resolution 120 provides the framework.

The Netherlands has a long track record of working in the Mekong Delta. What is your opinion of the recent developments that you see in the area?

Every day we read in the newspapers about the potential of the Mekong Delta as well as about its vulnerability. On the one hand, there are abundant resources (land, water, population, wind, and sunshine), impressive growth figures, and huge potential. On the other hand, the delta is vulnerable to climate change and has problems with land subsidence, erosion, salinity intrusion, droughts, floods, biodiversity losses, pollution, and outward migration.

Both stories co-exist and show two versions of how people see the delta and treat it. Many people view the delta as an abundant resource to be exploited and mined to make a profit or for the benefit of the country. Others see the delta as a victim of human exploitation, building the wrong infrastructure, formulating short-sighted policies and implementing uncoordinated plans. Those people see the delta as a scarce resource being overexploited and polluted. It therefore needs to be managed sustainably.

If we see the Mekong Delta as a living body we also see it is starving of sediment due to upstream dam building and sand mining. Therefore there is more erosion of the riverbank, the river bed, and the coast. We also see the delta is thirsty since the aquifers are overexploited. Due to these trends the body is sinking and shrinking. By 2050 already one-third of the delta is expected to be below sea level. The soils in the delta get exhausted. All these bodily symptoms of our human action makes it clear that we need to take care of the Mekong Delta’s health first.

With that in mind, what are your recommendations for action?

Let me draw the parallel between delta care and healthcare. Delta experts can learn from the COVID-19 response in Vietnam. The first lesson is that once the delta gets really sick, the cure is very expensive. Doing nothing is a bad strategy while early, decisive, and firm action has shown good results in countries like Vietnam – so timely measures are important.

Secondly, given all the uncertainties we face, we need to anticipate ‘just in case’ measures. Climate change and subsidence might be worse than projected or might be better. Flexibility and scientific knowledge have proven to be crucial to cope with unknown delta dynamics.

Thirdly, the response from the government should be matched with a response from citizens and businesses. Economic health is part of the overall health of the delta but should not be seen in GDP terms and should not follow a narrow financial rationality. The COVID-19 crisis showed that the economy can be stopped by a lockdown and restarted – yet, life cannot be stopped and restarted. Once a species is extinguished it will not reappear, and once a living delta is lost, it will not return.

By Thanh Dat

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