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Mekong Delta, Vietnam
  Ha Hei Oanh


Ha Hei Oanh, fish farmer

Not far from the Cambodian border, Ha Hei Oanh sells shrimp in a local fish market. She does well, earning about $100 a month for her labors. At noon Oanh leaves her stall, buys a few provisions and returns home to prepare lunch for her family. The shrimp business is merely a sideline. For her, prosperity literally begins at home, as it does for the other 600 houseboats moored along the river. These are the fish farmers of Chau Doc.

In large cages, beneath Ha Hei Oanh's home, are ten thousand catfish. Her husband, Tran, and their children must feed the fish once a day for eight months until they are big enough to harvest. The process of preparing fish food takes hours. When it's ready, they open a trap door in the middle of their living room, and initiate a feeding frenzy. A few minutes later the trap door is closed, and it's the family's turn to eat.

A television set and VCR advertise their newly-acquired wealth. In a country where the average yearly wage is under five hundred dollars per person, last year Oanh and her husband earned four thousand dollars.

Guided by first light, each morning, Dao Hanh carries commuters across the Mekong River. Like all rivers the Mekong has many moods. Today's crossing goes smoothly. Hanh knows the cloudless sky signals a break in the seasonal rains that have visited these lowlands since time began.

Dao Hanh rows commuters across the Mekong

Dao Hanh rows commuters across the Mekong

Along the river's edge are artifacts of an ancient history shrouded in myth and legend — the sanctuaries of religious meditation. To cope with the mysteries of nature, the Vietnamese have always prayed to their ancestors for guidance. Who knows what their prayers might be today if they knew that change is threatening their precious way of life and their beloved river.

Fifteen million Vietnamese live in the tropical wetlands of the Mekong Delta. Theirs is a world of water. The canals are their avenues; the irrigation channels, their back alleys. Nourished by the snows of the Himalayas, the Mekong is among the least developed of Asia's great rivers, yet it sustains people from six nations.

Since ancient times, the wetlands of the Mekong Delta have acted like sponges, storing and slowly releasing high water during the monsoons, making it ideal for cultivating rice. The river not only irrigates, it refreshes the land with rich alluvial soil.

Each morning, thousands of people gather along the river to buy and sell the readily available goods that were once so scarce.

The work is hard; the days long and steamy. But the land is so naturally fertile that Vietnam has become one of the world's leading exporters of rice. Clearly, the delta is in the early stages of an economic boom, and Can Tho, the provincial capital, is bursting with a new vitality.

Each morning, thousands of people gather along the river to buy and sell the readily available goods that were once so scarce. New trade pacts between Mekong River nations, each with a different economic and political agenda, have made this possible.

Video Excerpt: Nourished by the snows of the Himalayas, the Mekong River is among the least developed of Asia's great waterways. Since ancient times, the wetlands fed by the Mekong have made this area ideal for growing rice. Today, Vietnam is the world's third largest exporter of rice.
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But recent upstream river engineering has also resulted in deforestation. Like the Mississippi and Amazon basins, the floodplains that helped regulate the ebb and flow of the Mekong are being cleared, making the annual monsoon floods more severe and life more difficult.

For the fish farmers living near the ocean, the dry months present an even more serious problem. Upstream demands have reduced the river's flow, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to invade the land.

Nuyen Van Dung recently filled his small fishpond with river water. When it's time to harvest his crop, he and his children drive the fish into gill nets. But the quality of the water is poor, its salt content too high. The family's harvest is meager.

Nuyen Van Dung tends his fishpond

Nuyen Van Dung tends his fishpond

To ease the growing problem, fresh water is now pumped from upstream locations into the farms of the lower delta. This has brought an uneasy truce with upstream development, giving the six Mekong River nations desperately needed time to develop strategies for coping with the environmental threats that always accompany an increase in population.

The silt brown river also nourishes one of the largest river fisheries in the world. For the people of the delta, fish is the primary source of protein.

Ironically, prosperity has brought a series of environmental threats to the fish farmers of Chau Doc. Sewage systems struggle to keep pace with development. Run-off waters, tainted by fertilizers and pesticides drain into the river. If these waters become polluted, a newly-found prosperity could disappear. But for now, at least, the river is clean.

Clearly the Mekong has a major role to play in Vietnam's economic growth. But, as with all great river systems, whenever there is a change, the lives of the people along its shores are also transformed. Here in Vietnam, it is still too early to determine whether their lives will be better or worse.



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