A web documentary that portrays five citizens who work towards a better future for the Mekong Delta
Each year, increasingly intense weather events and floods cause fatalities and damage to infrastructure. The livelihoods of poor communities are especially affected by these natural disasters. Their schools get flooded, bamboo houses are washed away, and agricultural land becomes infertile. Me and Mekong is a solution-driven film made with and for the local people in the Mekong Delta. It portrays five citizens who act now to strengthen their resilience to climate change. They take you on a virtual journey through their delta while showing you a wide range of issues, from salinization and subsidence to flooded streets and mangrove restoration. You’ll discover unique local perspectives on climate change adaptation.
Joep Janssen, the director of Me and Mekong, speaks to Oi Vietnam about the project.
You previously worked in architecture, what made you shift your focus to the Mekong Delta and Vietnam?
I worked for an architectural firm and my main focus was on urban design and that was interesting because I learnt about the history of Dutch water cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam. These cities are based on the integration of spatial planning and water management. During my work as an architect I used water as a design tool to make these typical Dutch cities more attractive. In 2006 I watched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore and was touched by this film. Why? It became clear to me that water is not about attraction, water is a matter of life or death. So I decided to use my profession to contribute to a solution to this pressing climate change issue. Together with my wife, I went to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, which is at the frontline of climate change. I wrote the journalistic book Living with the Mekong about how local people deal with urban developments and climate change. The main conclusion of my book was that we—researchers, locals, NGOs and investors—need to make a new narrative in order for the Mekong Delta to improve people’s lives.
What specific areas of the Mekong Delta will be affected by climate change?
The Mekong Delta will be affected by both urbanization and climate change. Upstream dams are being built for hydropower and electricity because of growing demand caused by urbanization and also for irrigation for the purpose of agricultural production. A positive impact of these dams is that there are less peak water in the river during rainy season. There are also negative impacts: These dams are blocking the sediments and fish. If there are less sediments then in the future the delta will sink, rice fields will become less fertile, and fishermen from the Mekong Delta will catch less fish. Both rice and fish are very important for food security in Vietnam. Land subsidence due to less sediments and ground water extraction (impacts by urbanization) is a big issue in the Mekong Delta. Land subsidence is around 20-40mm per year, which is much more than 5 mm/year sea level rise. The Mekong Delta will also be affected by much more heavy rainfall. Rising temperatures and floods will lead to an increase in diseases both from mosquitoes and other water-borne illnesses.
When the Mekong River Delta experiences longer and dryer summers because of climate change, how will that affect the rest of the world?
Vietnam needs an approach in which water safety and food security are protected. The Mekong Delta has an important role to play here because its 20 million citizens produce rice and fish for nearly 200 million people. The better the water management is regulated, the more mouths can be fed in Vietnam, Southeast Asia and even the world.
For those who rely on the Mekong Delta for their livelihood, what can they do to shift their reliance away from it? What alternative options do they have besides migrating to big cities for work?
If they live near the coast, they could, for example, change from being a rice farmer to a sustainable shrimp farmer as a response to salinization. In the upper region, the government could propose breaching high dykes. These dykes enable farmers to arrange three rice crops instead of two. However, this third rice harvest is bringing down prices and thus farmers are not earning more money. The other downside is that these high dykes are blocking the deposition of sediments which will lead to less fertile fields. These high dykes are also causing floods and erosion elsewhere.
How did Henk Ovink, the Dutch Envoy for International Water Affairs, become involved? What role does he play in the documentary? What solutions can he give to fight climate change in The Delta?
Henk Ovink went to the Mekong Delta last year and was impressed by the resilience of the people and how they cope with these challenges. He is endorsing our Me and Mekong web documentary project. We did an interview with him for Nextblue (next.blue/en/2018/06/20/interview-henk-ovink-about-wateropportunities-in-asia/). He is promoting a process where coalitions are built out of the local communities, coalitions where local talent is matched with the talent of the world. The key is to come up with inclusive, comprehensive urban water solutions, while strengthening governance at the same time. Local communities, NGOs, policy makers, scientists and designers need to partner and work together with businesses investors and foreign agencies like the World Bank. “Storytelling,” he says, “helps us to picture things, to make complex things understandable and to take a wide range of factors into account. We need storytelling and design to embrace complexity, while at the same time making things tangible and insightful for all.”
Tell us about the five Vietnamese families in the documentary? Why were they chosen?
We have defined five characters: boat people, businesswoman, a family with kids, rice and shrimp farmers. It’s a cross section of the Mekong Delta: locations (from the upper delta to the coast), gender, young and old people, and people with different socioeconomic backgrounds. They all experience water and climate challenges in different ways because of their different backgrounds. How do they cope with floods, salinization, land subsidence and what are their adaptation strategies?
You wrote a book called Living with the Mekong, what will the web documentary cover that the book didn’t?
The most important difference is the interaction with the people. We want to make a web documentary in a way that you feel that you are there, on the ground, in the mud fields listening to and learning from the local people. The unique character of Me and Mekong includes stories from both professionals and home videos made by the locals because they know their environment best. We share the stories of local citizens told through their phones.
What happens after the documentary is produced?
The Me and Mekong web documentary project is supported by the Netherlands Embassy in Vietnam, Wageningen University and other sponsors from the Netherlands, such as HaskoningDHV. Our goal is to exchange local knowledge from locals about water and climate and food with professionals through stories. The web documentary will be launched at the Amsterdam International Water Week AIWW in November 2019 (www.internationalwaterweek.com). It’s an excellent programming for a broad audience, for professionals and people interested in the environmental and social consequences of climate change and everyone who has the ambition to change the world. We are thinking about screening events in Vietnam and other countries. We think this Me and Mekong film project is just the beginning of a series on the challenges to the river deltas worldwide. We will train local youths in the Mekong Delta on how to make videos about water, climate and environmental issues. This workshop will be held in An Giang Province from August 1-4. Their videos will be part of our final web documentary.
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Images by Thomas van den Berg