LAND, GEOGRAPHY, WEATHER AND CLIMATE OF VIETNAM

GEOGRAPHY OF VIETNAM

Located in Southeast Asia on the east side of Indochina Peninsula, and bordered by Laos and Cambodia to west, China to the north, the Gulf of Thailand to the south. the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea to the east, Vietnam is long and thin, with an area of 331,210 square kilometers (310,070 square kilometers land; 21,140 square kilometers water; 127,330 square miles), which is slightly larger than New Mexico. Vietnam shares land boundaries with Cambodia (1,228 kilometers), China (1,281 kilometers), and Laos (2,130 kilometers) for a total of 4,639 kilometers. Vietnam’s coastline along the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea, and the Gulf of Thailand measures 3,444 kilometers (excluding islands). The Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea as the East Sea.

Vietnam is the 66th largest country in the world. Geographic coordinates: 16 10 N, 107 50 E. There are low, flat deltas in south and north, central highlands and hilly, mountainous areas in the far north and northwest. Elevation extremes: lowest point: The South China Sea 0 meters highest point: Fan Si Pan 3,144 meters.

Vietnam is a country of tropical lowlands, hills, and densely forested highlands, with level land covering no more than 20 percent of the area. The country is divided into the highlands and the Red River Delta in the north, and the Giai Truong Son (Central mountains, or the Chaîne Annamitique, sometimes referred to simply as the Chaîne), the coastal lowlands, and the Mekong River Delta in the south. The highest point in Vietnam is Fan Si Pan, at 3,143 meters above sea level, in the northwest.

Vietnam is a long narrow country—a sort of Southeast Asian Chile—with a coastal plain and 1,400 mile coastline on the east side of the country along the South China Sea. The south is wider than the north. The S-shaped country has a north-to-south distance of 1,650 kilometers and is about 50 kilometers wide at the narrowest point.With exception of the area around Hanoi and the Red River, northern Vietnam is dominated by beautiful, green, misty mountains. Although three quarters of Vietnam is mountainous or hilly, the vast majority of people live in the lowland plains. About 28 percent of Vietnam is covered by tropical forests and woodlands, and 21 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the United States). Most of this arable land is along the Red River and other river valleys in the north, in the Mekong Delta in the south, and along the coastal plains in the center of the country. Much of Vietnam's agricultural land produces two or three crops of rice a year, and Vietnam is the world's third largest exporter of rice.

Major Regions of Vietnam

Northern Vietnam is divided into three parts: 1) the Tonkin Lowland around the lower Red River; 2) the coastal lowlands; and 3) the northwest highlands. Most people live n the Tonkin lowland. Southern Vietnam is divided into two roughly equal parts: 1) the form province of Cochin China, occupied mostly by the Mekong Delta; and 2) southern Annam, a region of volcanic plateau sand small coastal mountains.

Western Vietnam, near the Laos and Cambodian borders, is heavily forested and mountainous; the southern part of the country is dominated by the Mekong Delta and mangrove swamps; and the interior contains valleys and plains interspersed with forested hills, semi-arid plateaus and barren mountains. The most densely populated areas are around the Red River, the Mekong Delta and Vietnam's other agricultural regions.

The highlands and mountain plateaus in the north and northwest are inhabited mainly by tribal minority groups. The Mekong River (Giai Truong Son) originates in the Tibet and Yunnan regions of southwest China and forms Vietnam's border with Laos and Cambodia. It terminates in the Mekong River Delta north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The central mountains, which have several high plateaus, are irregular in elevation and form. The northern section is narrow and very rugged; the country's highest peak, Fan Si Pan, rises to 3,142 meters in the extreme northwest. The southern portion has numerous spurs that divide the narrow coastal strip into a series of compartments. For centuries these topographical features not only rendered north-south communication difficult but also formed an effective natural barrier for the containment of the people living in the Mekong basin.

Within the southern portion of Vietnam is a plateau known as the Central Highlands (Tay Nguyen), approximately 51,800 square kilometers of rugged mountain peaks, extensive forests, and rich soil. Comprising five relatively flat plateaus of basalt soil spread over the provinces of Dac Lac and Gia Lai-Kon Tom, the highlands accounts for 16 percent of the country's arable land and 22 percent of its total forested land. Before 1975 North Vietnam had maintained that the Central Highlands and the Giai Truong Son were strategic areas of paramount importance, essential to the domination not only of South Vietnam but also of the southern part of Indochina. Since 1975 the highlands have provided an area in which to relocate people from the densely populated lowlands.

The narrow, flat coastal lowlands extend from south of the Red River Delta to the Mekong River basin. On the landward side, the Giai Truong Son rises precipitously above the coast, its spurs jutting into the sea at several places. Generally the coastal strip is fertile and rice is cultivated intensively. Vietnam claims: A) 12 nautical miles as the limit of its territorial waters, B) an additional 12 nautical miles (24 nautical miles total) as a contiguous customs and security zone, and C) 200 nautical miles or to the edge of the continental margin as it continental shelf exclusive economic zone.

Major Rivers in Vietnam

The Red River and Mekong River are the main rivers in Vietnam. A relatively dense network of rivers traverses Vietnam. The principal rivers are as follows: in the north, the Red and Thai Binh; in the center, the Ca, Ma, Han, Thach Han, and Thu Bon; and in the south, the Mekong and Dong Nai.

The Red River Delta, a flat, triangular region of 3,000 square kilometers, is smaller but more intensely developed and more densely populated than the Mekong River Delta. Once an inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin, it has been filled in by the enormous alluvial deposits of the rivers, over a period of millennia, and it advances one hundred meters into the gulf annually. The ancestral home of the ethnic Vietnamese, the delta accounted for almost 70 percent of the agriculture and 80 percent of the industry of North Vietnam before 1975. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Red River (Song Hong in Vietnamese), rising in China's Yunnan Province, is about 1,200 kilometers long. Its two main tributaries, the Song Lo (also called the Lo River, the Riviere Claire, or the Clear River) and the Song Da (also called the Black River or Riviere Noire), contribute to its high water volume, which averages 500 million cubic meters per second, but may increase by more than 60 times at the peak of the rainy season. The entire delta region, backed by the steep rises of the forested highlands, is no more than three meters above sea level, and much of it is one meter or less. The area is subject to frequent flooding; at some places the high-water mark of floods is fourteen meters above the surrounding countryside. For centuries flood control has been an integral part of the delta's culture and economy. An extensive system of dikes and canals has been built to contain the Red River and to irrigate the rich rice-growing delta. Modeled on that of China, this ancient system has sustained a highly concentrated population and has made double-cropping wet-rice cultivation possible throughout about half the region. *

The Mekong, which is 4,220 kilometers long, is one of the 12 great rivers of the world. From its source in the Tibetan plateau, it flows through the Tibet and Yunnan regions of China, forms the boundary between Laos and Burma as well as between Laos and Thailand, divides into two branches--the Song Han Giang and Song Tien Giang--below Phnom Penh, and continues through Cambodia and the Mekong basin before draining into the South China Sea through nine mouths or cuu long (nine dragons). The river is heavily silted and is navigable by seagoing craft of shallow draft as far as Kompong Cham in Cambodia. A tributary entering the river at Phnom Penh drains the Tonle Sap, a shallow fresh- water lake that acts as a natural reservoir to stabilize the flow of water through the lower Mekong. When the river is in flood stage, its silted delta outlets are unable to carry off the high volume of water. Floodwaters back up into the Tonle Sap, causing the lake to inundate as much as 10,000 square kilometers. As the flood subsides, the flow of water reverses and proceeds from the lake to the sea. The effect is to reduce significantly the danger of devastating floods in the Mekong Delta, where the river floods the surrounding fields each year to a level of one to two meters. *

The Mekong Delta, covering about 40,000 square kilometers, is a low-level plain not more than three meters above sea level at any point and criss-crossed by a maze of canals and rivers. So much sediment is carried by the Mekong's various branches and tributaries that the delta advances sixty to eighty meters into the sea every year. An official Vietnamese source estimates the amount of sediment deposited annually to be about 1 billion cubic meters, or nearly 13 times the amount deposited by the Red River. About 10,000 square kilometers of the delta are under rice cultivation, making the area one of the major rice-growing regions of the world. The southern tip, known as the Ca Mau Peninsula (Mui Bai Bung), is covered by dense jungle and mangrove swamps. *

History of Land Borders and Border Disputes in Vietnam

The boundary with Laos, settled, on an ethnic basis, between the rulers of Vietnam and Laos in the mid-seventeenth century, was formally defined by a delimitation treaty signed in 1977 and ratified in 1986. The frontier with Cambodia, defined at the time of French annexation of the western part of the Mekong River Delta in 1867, remained essentially unchanged, according to Hanoi, until some unresolved border issues were finally settled in the 1982-85 period. The land and sea boundary with China, delineated under the France-China treaties of 1887 and 1895, is "the frontier line" accepted by Hanoi that China agreed in 1957- 58 to respect. However, in February 1979, following China's limited invasion of Vietnam, Hanoi complained that from 1957 onward China had provoked numerous border incidents as part of its anti-Vietnam policy and expansionist designs in Southeast Asia. Among the territorial infringements cited was the Chinese occupation in January 1974 of the Paracel Islands, claimed by both countries in a dispute left unresolved in the 1980s. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Disputed Territory: On December 30, 1999, China and Vietnam signed a treaty that settled disputes over the two nations’ common border. However, the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are still regarded as disputed territory. Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan also claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves. In May 2004, the government authorized 50 tourists and 40 officials to visit the Spratly Islands by boat. The other nations staking a claim to the islands protested what they interpreted as an assertion of sovereignty by Vietnam. In October 2004, Vietnam invited bids for oil exploration in the Spratlys, triggering a complaint from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In November 2004, China retaliated by moving an oil-drilling platform into position to explore for oil in the Paracels. *

Maritime Claims: In June 2004, Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified an agreement originally reached with China in December 2000 that established an internationally valid maritime border in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ratification delay was attributable to concerns that the government had made too many concessions during negotiations. In addition, in April 2004 China and Vietnam agreed to a common fishing zone in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, the approximate beginning of the continental shelf. *

Caves and Karst Scenery in Vietnam

There are a lot of caves and areas with karst scenery in Vietnam. Halong Bay is probably the most famous place. Some mammoth caverns have jungle inside and spaces large enough for a skyscraper.

Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: “Two decades ago, the leaders of this expedition, Howard Limbert and his wife, Deb, became the first cavers to visit Vietnam since the 1970s. Back then, the country’s caves were legendary but unexplored. In 1941 Ho Chi Minh had planned his revolution against the Japanese and French in Pac Bo Cave north of Hanoi, and during the Vietnam War thousands of Vietnamese hid from American bombing raids inside caves. The Limberts, experienced cavers from the Yorkshire dales of northern England, made contact with the University of Science in Hanoi and, after obtaining sheaves of permits, mounted an expedition in 1990. They’ve made 13 trips since, not only discovering one of the longest river caves in the world—12-mile Hang Khe Ry, not far from Son Doong—but also helping the Vietnamese create 330-square-mile Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which now attracts a quarter million Vietnamese and foreign visitors a year. Tourists, who dramatically increase the income of local villagers, come to see the park’s namesake show cave, Hang Phong Nha, which workers light up like a psychedelic rock concert [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, October 2011]

See Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Halong Bay

Weather and Climate in Vietnam

Vietnam’s climate is tropical in the south and monsoonal in the north with a hot, rainy season (May to September) and warm, dry season (October to March). Humidity averages 84 percent throughout the year. Annual rainfall ranges from 1,200 to 3,000 millimeters, and annual temperatures vary between 5 degrees C and 37 degrees C. Temperatures range from a low of 5 degrees C in December and January, the coolest months, to more than 37 degrees C in April, the hottest month. Seasonal divisions are more clearly marked in the northern half than in the southern half of the country, where, except in some of the highlands, seasonal temperatures vary only a few degrees, usually in the 21 degrees C-28 degrees C range.

Vietnam is south of Tropic of Cancer. Because of the great range of latitudes and elevations, the climate in Vietnam is remarkably diverse for a tropical country and the climate tends to vary considerably from place to place. The south is hot and humid throughout the year and has a wet season from May to October and a dry season from November to March. The north is mostly hot and humid and has a cool, dry winter from November to March and a wet summer between April and October.

In the winter a cold high pressure zone over Tibet clashes with a low pressure zone over Australia, bringing cold, dry winds to Vietnam. In the north the highs are in the upper 60s or low 70s and the lows at night are in the 50s. Beginning in November, people in Hanoi begin doning sweaters and leaves fall from trees. When the weather is dry road travel is easier but the countryside is often brown and dusty.

During the winter or dry season, extending roughly from November to April, the monsoon winds usually blow from the northeast along the China coast and across the Gulf of Tonkin, picking up considerable moisture; consequently the winter season in most parts of the country is dry only by comparison with the rainy or summer season. During the southwesterly summer monsoon, occurring from May to October, the heated air of the Gobi Desert rises, far to the north, inducing moist air to flow inland from the sea and deposit heavy rainfall.

In the summer air masses from the Indian Ocean pass over Vietnam, releasing moisture they have picked along the way’ Rains tend to fall in short afternoon downpours during the rainy season, when the countryside is lush and green and beautiful but many of Vietnam's roads (only 10 percent of which are paved) become difficult to negotiate or impassable. The rain shadow effect effects the large mountain ranges in Vietnam with windward slopes facing the South China Sea receiving the most rain.

Annual rainfall is substantial in all regions and torrential in some, ranging from 120 centimeters to 300 centimeters. Nearly 90 percent of the precipitation occurs during the summer. The average annual temperature is generally higher in the plains than in the mountains and plateaus. In central Vietnam, significantly more rain falls during the April-to-October rainy season in the mountains than along the coast. This area also gets rain in the winter when northeast winds blow in moisture form the South China Sea. In the north drizzly rains called crachin occur in the early spring.

In the northern summer and throughout the year in the south the highs are in the 90s and upper 80s and the lows at night are the 60s and 70s. The coastal areas are cooled somewhat by ocean breezes and the mountains are generally cooler than the rest of the country. In the northern mountains, and even in Hanoi, it can get cold when cold weather fronts move in from the north in the winter.

The typhoon season is from May to January and Vietnam sometimes gets hammered by these tropical storms. The rainy season in Vietnam coincides more or less with the rainy seasons in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma (from June to October). But is different from the rainy season on the west coast of Malaysia (from September to November) and from the one in Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia and the east coast of Malaysia (November to January). The rainy season in southern China is generally most intense in June and July.

See Separate Articles on Typhoons and Floods

Heavy Rains Help Crops in Southern Vietnam, But Flood the North

In 1998, Reuters reported: “Farmers in southern Vietnam were blessed with good rains in June although heavy downpours in the country's north led to some flooding, officials and local media said. A meteorological official in the key coffee growing province of Daklak said average rainfall last month was slightly lower than previous years but this was just what farmers wanted."Daklak's rainfall in June is lower but it is fairly good for the coffee trees which suffered from the severe drought before the end of May,'' the official told Reuters."Too much water would hurt the trees,'' he said. [Source: Reuters, July 2, 1998 ////]

“Coffee from Daklak, which lies in the south but is officially a central highland province, accounted for more than 60 percent of Vietnam's 1997/98 crop of between 320,000-340,000 tonnes. A state coffee grower and exporter in Daklak said the rains had helped calm farmers' fears after the drought. The drought ended late last May, after causing crop losses across the country estimated at more than $385 million, official media have reported. Tens of thousands of hectares of rice and agricultural trees were destroyed.The rains have not only cheered coffee growers but also created favorable conditions for rice cultivation in the southern Mekong Delta, the country's rice bowl. ////

“Vietnam is one of the world's top exporters of rice and robusta coffee, commodities which make important contributions to government foreign exchange earnings. "Harvesting of the summer-autumn crop will be completed by August 5 and now is the time rice trees need water to grow,'' a meteorologist in southern An Giang province said. "This has been good rain for us and for the Mekong Delta.''He said average rainfall measured in An Giang, a key rice producing province, was 180 mm in June, 136 mm higher than the corresponding figure the previous year. ////

“The U.S. Weather Services Corporation said on Thursday that showers covering up to 65 percent of Vietnam and Thailand had created generally favorable conditions for crops. Farmers in southern provinces have almost completed transplanting young rice trees from the summer-autumn crop on 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres), an increase of nine percent over the same crop last year, the official Vietnam News Agency (VNA) reported on Thursday. But while farmers in the south smile, heavy rains in some northern provinces have raised water levels in some rivers to so-called "alarm'' levels. Heavy rains in late June caused a flood which destroyed infrastructure and food reserves in northern Yen Bai province, VNA said. ////

“An official from the Natural Disaster Control Center said authorities had been mobilised to work around-the-clock to monitor water levels along the giant Red River, which skirts the capital Hanoi. "...Our people are working 24 hours in shifts to keep a close check on dykes,'' he said. Vietnam has a series of river dykes to protect against flooding. One official said dyke breaches along the Red River were inevitable as water levels in northern tributaries rose. In addition, the Hoa Binh hydropower plant's reservoir, the country's biggest and which lies 70 kilometers (44 miles) from Hanoi, had opened several gates to release excess water. This contrasts with the critically low water levels recorded at the Hoa Binh reservoir at the end of May, showing just how plentiful the rains have been.” ////

Storm Disrupts Vietnam Coffee and Oil Production

In November 2007, Reuters reported: A tropical storm dumped rain on several south-central Vietnam provinces, disrupting coffee and oil production and endangering fishermen, officials said. The streets of the coastal resort of Nha Trang were quiet after a night of rain, wind and waves from Tropical Storm Hagibis, downgraded from a typhoon on Friday as it changed direction in the South China Sea after hitting the Philippines. The government's flood and storm committee said nearly 31,000 people had been moved away from the coast in four provinces. [Source: Ho Binh Minh and Nguyen Huy Kham, Reuters, November 23, 2007 *>*]

“Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to China about four vessels with 36 fishermen requesting shelter in Chinese territory. Authorities alerted 245,000 fishermen and most sailed out of the danger zone, government reports said. Officials in the main coffee-growing province of Daklak said light rain had kept farmers from resuming the harvest. The disruption since Thursday at the peak of the harvest threatens to delay deliveries from the world's top robusta producer. "The rains have been light but enough to keep farmers from their harvest because even when they can pick cherries they are not able to dry them outdoors," Van Thanh Huy, chairman of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, told Reuters. *>*

“Vietsovpetro, operator of Vietnam's biggest oil field Bach Ho, said the storm was causing a production decline of 10,000 tons of crude oil, Saturday's Tien Phong (Vanguard) newspaper reported. The Vietnam-Russia oil and gas venture has taken 245 Russian and Vietnamese experts and workers from offshore facilities and temporarily shut crude production at Rong (Dragon) oilfield. Vietnam is Southeast Asia's third-largest crude producer. Since August, some central provinces have been hit by a series of storms, raising floodwater to the highest levels in decades. So far this year, storms and floods have killed 368, injured 515 and left 30 unaccounted for, according to government reports. Total property damage was 7.2 trillion dong ($441 million). *>*

Snow and Dead Water Buffalo During the Coldest Spell in Vietnam in 40 Years

In February 2008, Reuters reported: “Ice and snow cover the Hoang Lien Son Mountain and even Sa Pa town in northern Lao Cai province of Vietnam, with outdoor temperatures around 3 degrees below zero (Celsius), local media reported. News agencies said it was the most severe frost on Hoang Lien Son Mountain in at least 40 years — and the longest cold snap ever recorded in Vietnam. The reports are complete with photos of snow-covered trees and brush in the northern province. The severe and chilling cold spell has killed nearly 1,000 cows and buffalo in the province, reports said. [Source: Ho Binh Minh, Reuters, February 15, 2008 |~|]

“The record month-long cold has killed several thousand cattle across the northern provinces near southern China, particularly in highland areas, with 2,000 animals frozen in Ha Giang, nearly 1,500 in Son La and 1,000 in Lang Son, said Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Cao Duc Phat. The ministry’s cultivaion department director Nguyen Tri Ngoc reported that the cold had devastated more than 53,000 ha of rice and 5,000 ha of grain in 16 provinces, including Hai Duong, Thai Binh, Phu Tho, Hung Yen, Ha Nam and Haiphong City. Mr Ngoc attributed much of the heavy losses to farmers’ negligence of the cold and the ministry’s warnings. The record 30-day cold spell started on January 14. The previous longest cold spells lasted for 26 days in 1968 and 28 days in 1989.” |~|

Xinhua reported: “An ongoing record-long spell of cold weather in Vietnam's northern region, which started on January 14, has killed nearly 60,000 cattle, mainly bull and buffalo calves, local press reported. By February 17, the spell had killed a total of 59,962 cattle in the region, including 7,349 in Ha Giang province, 6,400 in Lao Cai and 5,571 in Bac Can province, Pioneer newspaper quoted Hoang Kim Giao, director of the Animal Husbandry Department under the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, as saying. [Source: Xinhua - February 18, 2008 <+>]

“The cold weather also killed 104 hectares out of 260,000 hectares of the Winter-Spring crop in the Northern region, mainly in Thanh Hoa province, Nghe An province and Hai Phong city. The Vietnamese government has agreed in principle with the ministry's proposal on providing local farmers with a total financial assistance of nearly 149 billion Vietnamese dong (9.3 million US dollars), Vietnam Agriculture newspaper reported. By February 17, the ongoing spell has lasted for 35 days, breaking the 31-day record in 1989, Youth newspaper quoted Bui Minh Tang, director of the National Center for Hydrometeorology Forecast, as saying. During the spell, forecast to end in the next few days, the temperature has sometimes decreased to below 10 Celsius degrees in many northern localities. And temperature of minus two degrees Celsius has been recorded in some areas in the two border provinces of Lao Cai and Lang Son.” <+>

Vietnam Suffers From 100-Year Drought in 2010

In March 2010, IRIN reported: “As temperatures rise in Vietnam, a nationwide drought has dried up riverbeds, sparked forest fires and now threatens one of the world's richest agricultural regions, upon which millions depend for their livelihoods. "The Mekong Delta is facing a serious drought," Nguyen Minh Giam, deputy director of the National Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting Center for the southern region, told IRIN. Water levels on the Mekong River are at an almost 20-year low, largely as a result of the rainy season ending early and a precipitous drop in water flow upstream, he said. [Source: IRIN, March 5, 2010 >*<]

“With virtually no rainfall in the north since September, fires have burned through the northern provinces of Lao Cai and Lai Chau. In central Vietnam, sustained temperatures of about 38 degrees Celsius have sent hundreds to local hospitals. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the heat and humidity have sparked a plague of insects and worms, which have eaten through thousands of hectares of rice paddies. The drought conditions in the delta are also being felt in other Mekong countries because of the early end to the 2009 wet season, as well as low monsoon rainfall. The Mekong River Commission, a regional monitoring body, on 26 February warned of significantly lower than average water levels on the Mekong River in Laos and Thailand, which it says will affect the economic development of already impoverished people there. >*<

Martha Ann Overland wrote in Time, “Every year, even at the peak of Vietnam's dry season, when the Red River is at its lowest, Hanoi's skilled captains manage to negotiate their flat-bottomed boats through its shallow waters. But this year, with a drought gripping the entire country and water levels at record lows, the river is eerily quiet. What is normally a bustling waterway is becoming a winding river of sand, and farmers who depend upon the river for irrigation are watching the expanding sandbars as nervously as the boat captains. "If there is no water in the coming days," says 59-year-old farmer Vu Thi La, who just put in her spring rice seedlings, "it will all die." [Source: Martha Ann Overland, Time, March 4, 2010]

“Across Vietnam, high temperatures and parched rivers are setting off alarm bells as the nation grapples with what's shaping up to be its worst drought in more than 100 years. At 0.68 meters high, the Red River is at its lowest level since records started being kept in 1902. With virtually no rainfall since September, timber fires are burning in the north and tinder-dry conditions threaten forests in the south. Soaring temperatures in the central part of Vietnam have unleashed a plague of rice-eating insects, damaging thousands of hectares of paddies. "It's the beginning of everything," Nguyen Lan Chau, vice director of the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, says gloomily. /^\

Impact of 100-Year Drought in 2010

In March 2010, IRIN reported: “The Red River, upon which millions of Vietnamese in the north depend for fishing and irrigation, is at its lowest in more than 100 years, according to records beginning in 1902. The drought has turned sections of the normally bustling river into sand dunes, bringing river traffic to a halt. "Never before has the water been so low that most ships cannot move," said Nguyen Manh Khoa, from Phu Tho province, whose debts are piling up as his new boat sits idle. [Source: IRIN, March 5, 2010 >*<]

“Each day Khoa does not work hauling cargo on the Red River he loses about US$80. But after getting his boat stuck on the sandbars several times, it has become too risky to venture out. With the spring rice crops already in, frantic farmers living along the Red River have had no choice but to pay out large sums to private entrepreneurs armed with pumps to extract dwindling amounts of water for their fields. As an emergency measure, the government has released water from its reservoirs, which are at critical lows. But the seedlings are competing with the state-owned hydroelectric firm, which says it will need the water to meet record-breaking power demands as temperatures are set to soar this summer. >*<

Martha Ann Overland wrote in Time, “ Now with reservoir levels in the north at critical lows, the state-owned electricity company says it can't let go of much more; power demand is expected to break records as temperatures soar this month. Even with the small amount released, Nguyen Van Thang, director of the agriculture department in Vinh Phuc province, is not hopeful. High temperatures and evaporation are the enemy. "Even if farmers bail every single drop of water to nurture the rice," he says, he fears that a third of the rice crop in his province could be lost. [Source: Martha Ann Overland, Time, March 4, 2010 /^\]

“The crisis has been a "wakeup call" for Vietnam, says Ian Wilderspin, senior technical adviser for disaster risk management at the U.N. Development Program in Hanoi. The drought was predicted, he says, referring to last year's projections that El Niño would bring an unusually warm and dry winter. Yet Vietnam traditionally prepares for floods and typhoons, which are more dramatic and devastating when they hit. "Drought is a slow, silent disaster, which in the long run will have a more profound impact on peoples' livelihoods," he says. And when are the rains due to finally bring some relief? Meteorologists forecast that in the north, rain will arrive later this month. But other parts of the country might not see any precipitation until August, which for many will be too late.” /^\

Impact of 100-Year Drought in 2010 on the Mekong Delta

Martha Ann Overland wrote in Time, ““The region most affected — and the one that affects the most — is the Mekong River Delta in the south. Water levels in the nation's rice bowl have fallen to their lowest points in nearly 20 years, threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people who depend on the river basin for farming, fishing and transportation. The biggest problem, however, is not the water. It's the salt. During the dry season, when channels and tributaries run dry, seawater can creep more than 18 miles (30 km) inland. Vietnam has installed a series of sluice gates to hold back high tides as well as control annual monsoon flooding. This has allowed farmers to switch between growing rice in the wet season and raising shrimp in the brackish waters in the dry. The result has been more-effective land use and higher crop yields, and a doubling of farmers' incomes in the Delta since 1999. /^\ [Source: Martha Ann Overland, Time, March 4, 2010]

“Those high-yield days may be over. As the drought intensifies, in some places seawater has crept nearly 40 miles (60 km) inland, says Dam Hoa Binh, deputy director of the Irrigation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Hanoi. Most of the winter-spring crop has already been harvested, but saltwater is reaching where it has never gone before, putting the summer-fall crop in jeopardy, says Binh. "We are trying to strengthen our irrigation systems to prevent further salinization," he adds, but the extreme conditions are making it "one of the most difficult situations in 100 years." /^\

In March 2010, IRIN reported: “During the dry season, salt water from the South China Sea can push 30km inland. This year, communities as far as 60km up-river are reporting salt contamination. "Salinization has been a pattern in the Mekong Delta the last 30 to 50 years, but things are getting worse every year due to climate change," said Pham Van Du, deputy director at the Department of Planting in the agricultural ministry. He estimates that 100,000ha of rice in the Mekong Delta are under threat. [Source: IRIN, March 5, 2010 >*<]

“Because of the hydropower projects on its side of the border, China frequently gets the blame for water shortages downstream. Indeed, Vietnam's neighbor has been on an aggressive campaign to damn the Mekong River, which begins on the Tibetan plateau and travels through five other countries before it empties into the South China Sea. According to the Mekong River Commission, a regional advisory agency, China has built or is planning to build eight dams along the Mekong. But while dams raise huge concerns about interfering with sediment flow and fish migration, they can also have a positive impact, says Jeremy Bird, the commission's chief executive officer. "They will redistribute the flow of water, therefore there will be more water available in the dry season," he says. But at the moment, with China also experiencing extreme drought, there appears to be little dammed water to release. /^\

“Meteorologists say the return of El Niño, a cyclical warming pattern, is the real culprit. Ian Wilderspin, senior technical adviser for disaster risk management at the UN Development Programme in Hanoi, said climate change meant Vietnam would experience droughts that arrived sooner and lasted longer. The government has moved to assist farmers by releasing water from the reservoirs and installing pumps. But considering the magnitude of the problem, "more needs to be done", he said. "We have to look at the ways and means to build resilience of local communities," said Wilderspin, whether by providing drought-resistant seeds, planting different crops or protecting fresh water sources. "Climate change is only going to make these cycles worse."

Farmers Suffer in Vietnam Record Heat and Drought in 2013

In April 2013, Thahn Nien News reported: “A drought in central and southern Vietnam is likely to continue for several more months, a development that spells more poverty for local farmers. "We are sitting on fire," said Nguyen Van Duyen, a farmer from Binh Phuoc Province to the west of Ho Chi Minh City. "We have been making use of all streams, digging our ponds and wells deeper but there’s still not enough water to drink, let alone to feed plants," Duyen said. [Source: Thahn Nien News, April 7, 2013 |=|]

“The province agriculture authorities said it has been hot and dry in the area since late December, and 10,644 hectares of cultivation land, including 7,224 hectares of rice, have died, causing losses of around VND75 billion (US$3.58 million) in total, a record for damage caused by drought in the province. Unofficial statistics showed that 10,585 families, or 9.3 percent of the province’s population, are in need of clean water. Several rivers in Da Nang, the hub of the central region, have been salinized while water levels at irrigation dams have dropped to 30 to 50 percent of their capacity. Local authorities said around 2,500 hectares of rice fields are likely to die. |=|

“Weather forecasts estimated low rainfall until August and water levels in many rivers from Thua Thien-Hue Province in the mid-central region to Ninh Thuan in the south central will drop to 40 or 50 percent of that in the same periods previously. A report from agricultural authorities in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang meanwhile said major rivers have been salinized by 15 or 30 kilometers, and the salinity was measured at 4 grams per liter. |=|

“Kien Giang water company had reduced its supply by 30 percent starting this month after its reservoirs collected less water that usual. People in the coastal An Minh district said all their water sources are salinized. Many families in Dong Hung Commune, after using up rainwater from their many jars and unable to use salty water in their wells, have to buy water delivered by boats from other places at VND45,000 ($2.15) a cubic meter, nine times more than the normal price. "Such a bitter price, but water is not always available. As it sells like hot cakes, the boats are reluctant to travel to houses along small canals, they only do when we beg them a lot," said local man Huynh Van Bach. |=|

“Some drought victims on the island district of Kien Hai have turned the disaster into their own windfall by sailing their fishing boat to buy water from other places and resell it to locals at VND200,000 ($9.56) a cubic meter. Authorities in the neighboring Bac Lieu Province, known for shrimp breeding, said shrimps have died in large numbers at more than 5,000 hectares of farms in the province. Nguyen Thanh Phong, an agriculture official, said water at the farms has been reduced while the heat alone has been too much for the creatures. Phong said the province dares not open pipes to bring sea water into the shrimp farms for fear that it will worsen the salinization problem. |=|

“Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has signed a decision to use VND457.4 billion ($21.86 million) from the state budget to help 32 cities and provinces overcome the drought. The agriculture ministry also said it managed to reach an agreement with the state-owned power monopoly Electricity of Vietnam to have hydropopwer dams discharge water sometime between the middle of this month and early June. |=|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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