KON TUM, Vietnam: Life has become harder for Ta Dinh Hao since the rains stopped earlier than usual last September.
The once teeming fish pond in front of his concrete house in Vietnam’s Central Highlands is now parched earth. His rice field has been dead for months and the cassava is struggling, but the 47-year-old farmer’s biggest worry is the dangerously low water level in his household well.
If the well dries up, he could afford to buy drinking water for another two or three months. “But after that, we won’t last,” he said with a sad smile.
Hao’s cassava is surviving but doing badly. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
A record drought across central and southern Vietnam is affecting the water supply and livelihoods of nearly 1.8 million people, 80 per cent of them in urgent need of drinking water, a United Nations situation report says. Twelve out of Vietnam’s 63 provinces have so far declared a state of emergency.
The drought is forecast to peak in April and persist through May, which means relief may not come until June, a late start for the rainy season. “The thing is even in the wet season now, people, especially farmers, can feel the drought,” said Nguyen Dang Quang, head of division at the National Hydrometeorological Forecasting Centre (NHFC). NHFC's records show the Central Highlands has experienced drought for the past two years at least.
Parched fish ponds and reservoirs, a common sight in Hao's village. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
Drought is a slow onset disaster, making it a less visible and more forgettable crisis than typhoons and earthquakes that strike Vietnam’s neighbours, but it is as much a crisis, said the UN’s Vietnam Resident Coordinator Pratibha Mehta.
“People are not dying today, people have not been forced to leave belongings, so all those things have not happened,” she said, “But that does not mean they are not suffering.”
BLAME EL NINO
Experts blame the drought on climate change, citing the prolonged El Nino phenomenon affecting all of Southeast Asia. Chinese hydro-power dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River have also been linked to severe saltwater intrusion exacerbating the drought in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
Aid workers said there is little doubt local factors such as intensive farming and deforestation in the drought-hit areas themselves are also at work. An official report released in 2015 shows the Central Highlands lost 14 per cent of its forest cover in seven years, equivalent to more than 50,000 hectares a year.
Fewer trees means less capacity to trap and hold groundwater, said Trinh Trong Nghia of Plan International Vietnam. “That is scientifically proven, (and) it links to drought in that area.”
Farmers in Vietnam are suffering from drought. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
Hanoi has committed US$23 million to emergency drought relief, intended for drilling wells and transporting water and rice to stricken localities.
Vietnam’s long-term strategy to address the drought’s root causes is less clear. The government has invested in reforestation and forest protection in the Central Highlands in recent years, but experts agree it is not enough.
Concerted effort is needed to help local communities switch to more sustainable cultivation, adapt to long-term drought, and raise environmental awareness, Nghia said. The task list is long and Vietnam is starting from a low base.
In Kon Tum city, Channel NewsAsia drove past residents hosing down their porches and house plants in the afternoon heat, oblivious to the thirst in Hao’s drought-stricken village less than two hours’ drive away.
The impact of drought is starting to show on Vietnam’s growth figures. Minister of investment and planning Bui Quang Vinh has warned that damage to agricultural output could drag growth down to 5.45 per cent this year, under the 6.7 per cent target for 2016.
The real cost of Vietnam’s record drought, however, may not be known for years. The effect on nutrition, children’s school attendance, and healthcare services is not immediate, said Mehta.
“All of these implications will be slower to see but there will be implications.”
NOTHING TO DO
Normally, Hao is busy sowing crops or tending to his fields at this time of year. “But without water, there is nothing to do” he said.
Tham's household well is almost empty. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
A short walk away, Tham’s household well has hit rock bottom. The water they can pump up is unusable, muddy with sediment and rocks. Her family is relying on bottled water and what is left in their rainwater tank. Like Hao, she offered the Channel NewsAsia team a drink nonetheless.
Their province of Kon Tum declared a state of emergency in mid-March but the village is remote and has yet to receive government help.
"We just stay and wait for the rain," Tham told Channel NewsAsia. “It’s misery, but we have nowhere else to go.”