The Mekong, environmental concerns, and its future

Tra Su Bird Sanctuary

Tra Su was a forested area badly damaged during the war.  Since then the government has replanted and created a protection area around the 850 hectare wetland.  It has become a mecca for over 70 species of birds.  We traveled in sanctuary boats paddled or motored by a guide.  Thousands of birds roost every night.  I identified herons, swamp hens, egrets, coucals, and grebes; however I also saw a variety of other birds that I could not identify or capture with my camera.

Drifting through the duckweed, swamp cabbage, lotus, and water hyacinth provided amazing views and was tremendously relaxing.

As most of the delta is either housing or farmland, this area provided an important sanctuary for many of the birds that call the Mekong Delta home.  It is a hidden gem that not many people visit, and I found the preservation of the area an inspiring environmental move by the Vietnamese government.

I wanted to spend more time here.  It was an idyllic and scenic contrast to the population density and its consequence we had seen in the last two days.  However, I didn’t know how to tell the boat drivers to stop.  We also arrived late in the day so the park was closing for the evening.


We had a little time before we left for Cambodia so we visited the fishing village of Chau Doc.  Fish have been and continue to be a major export for Vietnam.  Many fish farmers live right on the river.  Their houses rested on top of a 20 meter deep containment facility where they kept nearly five tons of live fish.  The houses of these fish farmers line the water way in Chau Doc. (Link)


These barn like house had giant netted aquariums below them. The inside was mostly spartan, with bags of fish food, machinery, a table, hammock, and place for cooking in the back.

As we motored along the waterway, everyone mediated in their own way about their experiences in the past two days.

Looming Disaster

I asked our guide Ms Tram about climate change and how people in the area are being affected.  “Yes I have been to the university, I know about climate change but my parents’ generation does not know.  But this is not the problem.  Life is so hard in the Mekong Delta.  Who has time to worry about this, when they are worrying about their next meal and next month.  Everyone uses gas.  There are no options.  Why don’t tour companies include an environmental surcharge?”

I could not answer her question, but I surmise that tourists want cheap things.  If the price of tours went up, there would be less tourists to enter the Mekong and leave money behind at hotels, restaurants, and shops.  As it was, half of the people on our tour were Vietnamese from other parts of the country.  If prices went up, their access to their own country’s beauty might also be limited.  Life is very difficult on the Mekong.  Supplies are low and a lack financial capital to improve their situation is the number one reason why poverty persists in this region.(Source)

However, larger problems than poverty loom over this region.  Garbage is everywhere.  While the pristine waterways of Tra Su looked wonderful, people throw their garbage right into the water in other places.  Bypassing local ordinances because they are costly to comply with, many residents and nearby factories let wastewater flow directly into the Mekong (Source).  The effect of this pollution and garbage on the health of the ecosystem or those who rely on it can’t be good.

Every morning for the last 30 days I saw households and businesses alike sweep up garbage and leaves and dirt in front of their homes and shops.  In rural locations, they would burn it, in city locations, they put them in a pile for a garbage truck to take away.  However here, there seemed to be a collective sense that the river would just “take care of it.”  Moreover, I saw person after person just toss plastic cups or paper on the ground by a tree or in a bush, seeming to say: “It’s not in my front stoop, something else will take care of it.”  Vietnam is not alone in this mindset, we have plenty of people who think this in the United States as well.

Sharleen and I watched this meat vendor walk to the river with plastic bags on a large flat piece of metal.  She cleaned metal in the river and allowed the plastic to float off.
A garbage dump river side.  What will happen to this garbage during floods or when sea level rises?

Many of the 14 million people in this region live just 0.8 meters above sea level.  With more and more dams being built upstream in Cambodia and Laos and less and less sediment flows down river (Source), there is less land replenishment.  This makes this region especially vulnerable to sea level rise.  With massive amounts of food products coming from this region for internal consumption and export, sea level rise would make much of the region unsuitable for growing (Source).  Add in the effects of increased storms due to climate change making a trifecta of problems for the region.  In fact, Ms. Tram noted that just last month they had a flood with waters reaching higher than most people had ever seen in 40 years..

Is there a plan for these millions of people if the sea level rises?  I wondered who is developing a plan to deal with all this waste?

I mulled these issues over as we sped upstream towards Cambodia.  Two hours into our boat ride, we passed through passport control at Vinh Xuong and customs.  We then rode another three hours into Cambodia’s capital city Phenom Penh for our Cambodian adventure.


  1. Such a powerful post raising our most pertinent questions…I think what’s frustrating to me is here in USA is we have the knowledge, money & ability to do better by the earth. Thanks for your thoughtful post/share.


    • Hi Vickie. Thank you for your comment. We do have some knowledge and expertise in the United States; however the USA is a land of privilege and wealth. In Vietnam’s 2000 year history, it has been at war or involved in war for at least 1500 years of that history. That takes a huge toll in terms of development. With regards to the Mekong, it’s fortunes are directly impacted by the five countries above it that the Mekong runs through, and to the efforts of a world community to stem global warming and sea level rise. In terms of the items it does have power over, waste management, that too is tricky. Take a look around the next U.S. Urban environment you are in: How much trash is on the street? How many industrial polluters are pipping their waste in to waterways or swamps to avoid chemicals. In short, the problems that Vietnam faces are a microcosm of problems we face as humanity. The solutions rich countries come up with require a lot of capital and reliance on poorer countries. Look at the US solution for recycling plastic: Collect it all and ship it to Asia for “processing” because it is not ‘cost effective’ for the USA to process. It isn’t really cost effective for countries like Vietnam either because the processing requires a ton of capital investment, capital most Vietnamese don’t have. It is indeed a sticky wicket. I don’t have the answer, but I sure hope people smarter than me are working on it.

      Liked by 1 person

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