Salinity intrusion is leading to freshwater troubles in coastal Vietnam

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In recent years, increased salinity intrusion in the Mekong Delta, due to changing climate and fluctuations in river water levels especially during the dry season in coastal regions, has affected agriculture especially rice farming livelihoods. Salinity intrusion has also severely affected domestic water supplies. Saltwater intrusion can contaminate freshwater aquifers with saline water and affect drinking water supply.

Some of the worst affected are the coastal areas of Vietnam. In Rach Gia City, the capital city of Kien Giang province, located about 250 kms from Ho Chi Minh City, salinity intrusion has had severe impacts on domestic water supplies. The impacts are more severe for the economically less well-off communities in particular, who have fewer options for freshwater supply other than groundwater sources.

In Rach Gia, saline water intrusion was found almost 20 kms inland contaminating the freshwater aquifers and affecting wells and ponds used for drinking water supply. One farmer in Rach Gia [1] said: “Every year, local people have to deal with water shortages during the dry season. However, for the past two years, drinking water shortages have worsened. For example, we did not have freshwater for almost a month last year [2017]”.

Rach Gia City is one of the four biggest cities in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and provides a significant economic contribution to the national and provincial economy. The city’s water supply comes from a private company that maintains two ponds of about 1 ha in total. But in recent years, this has proved insufficient to provide for the city’s drinking water demand. Meanwhile, the freshwater in the wells has slowly deteriorated in quality. Many residents travel up to 2 kms. to get drinking water provided by government tankers. However, these tankers do not operate on fixed or regular delivery schedules so people often did not know when the water would be delivered to their localities. Some people whose houses were not near the tanker delivery areas are usually deprived of water supplies.

During the freshwater shortages, local people in Rach Gia city are forced to wait in long queues at public wells and taps every day to get drinking water. (Photo by Phuong Pham).

The freshwater shortages are also a bigger burden for the poorer communities since they not only live farther away from city areas where the water is delivered but also cannot afford to buy bottled water for their use.

Another farmer in Rach Gia said: “My house is located about 2 km away from the city. But I did not get any tap water for about a month. In the morning, I would go to a relative’s house to get two bottles of drinking water. We cannot also store water tanks inside the house, there is already not enough space even for sleeping. I cannot purchase bottled water which is very expensive”.

A woman resident in the city said: “There was no water coming from the taps for about a month. I had to request from my neighbors and others to give me some water. The local government provided water tankers, but I often missed it since the delivery schedules were not known in advance. Also, I cannot afford to buy any water storage cans. I have to get water every day from my neighbor’s house. This also made me feel bad to be a burden on my neighbor”.

Many residents in Rach Gia city travel long distances to get water from the water ponds of the water supply company. (Photo by Phuong Pham).

The poorer residents of the city are located farther away from the city centre; their homes are also in locations that are not easy to access by tankers. The streets are very small and the connecting bridges across canals are not strong for water tankers to drive across to reach these homes.

Apart from their economic difficulties, they are also feel marginalized. Although the Vietnam’s Youth Union and Women’s Union said they have been supporting the less well-off communities during water shortages, the local communities to whom this author spoke to said they have not received any help from these groups, not even a hotline number.

One female farmer said: “I had no tap water for a month. My nephew had to take a bath in the nearby river and developed skin allergies. Our rice fields were also totally destroyed by the lack of fresh water. There was no support from the government for health care”.

The women and children in the poor communities are often the worst affected by water shortages. They are exposed to stomach problems and other sicknesses from drinking unclean water.

The freshwater shortages in Rach Gia have become a chronic problem over the last two years but no long-term solution seems in sight. Local communities are demanding more of a voice in discussing and resolving the water shortage issue. For instance, more decentralized urban water management can help so that water ponds are constructed on the city outskirts to ensure the less well-off communities have equitable access to drinking water. “At present, it is not even clear which agency is responsible for providing public water supplies”, said one woman farmer.


[1] The identities of all interviewees in this article are kept anonymous for their safety.

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