Monthly Archives: December 2015

How A River Builds Houses

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec's brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec’s brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

With less than a week left on the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project, we left the Mekong delta’s urban heart of Can Tho for the much smaller town of Sa Dec to the northwest. We had no real idea of what we would find there, but decided that its reputation as an industrial and agricultural trading centre made it an ideal choice for further exploring the relationship between the river and its people. We were on the lookout for unexpected ways that people were able to support themselves from water, and Sa Dec did not disappoint.

As we drove into the city, brick factories defined the landscape. Stretching one after the other along the river banks, their orange kilns perpetually venting smoke, they were impossible to miss. Both Gareth and I had photographed brick factories in the past and we knew them to be highly visual places to shoot, but what we found in Sa Dec was an industry more deeply connected to the river than we could have imagined.

Houses Made from Water

Walking into the factory grounds just after sunrise, it was clear that we were too early. This had been a constant problem throughout our travels in Vietnam. Our photo-centric world view caused us to constantly chase the best light (early morning and late afternoon), but it meant that we often arrived in locations before the majority of locals were out of bed. The brick factory was no exception; other than a family of dogs who barked suspiciously at our presence, sensing that we were somehow strange or different than the people they were accustomed to seeing, there was no sign of movement.

We walked slowly among the neatly stacked rows of drying clay bricks, moving with exaggerated quietness as one might do when sneaking around a creaky house, all the while listening for the angry shout of a security guard or wary factory owner. When we did manage to find people inside the gloomy structure, however, we were met with kindly smiles and warm handshakes from an elderly man and his wife. Sa Dec’s brick making techniques, it seemed, were not top secret.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory.

The man, who did not volunteer his name, confirmed our suspicions that we were were in fact too early by over an hour. He and his wife, who slept on a bare wooden bed frame inside the factory, were preparing to stoke the kilns – but we would have to wait if we wanted to see the actual manufacturing process. As we watched him pour basket after basket of rice husks into an elevated hopper that fed the kiln fires, we took the opportunity to glean some background information from him. What we discovered was a manufacturing process that quite literally turned the Mekong’s water into houses.

It all began with water and rice, he said, hoisting a 25kg basket onto his shoulder with a strength that belied his age and slight frame. First came the rice, grown throughout the delta in some of the highest quantities in the world, all of which owed its survival to diverted river water that was diverted to farmland via Vietnam’s staggeringly complex network of manmade canals.

Once the crops were harvested, the rice grains were separated from their nutritionally useless husks before being transported to large wholesalers, who then sold it throughout the country and to the world beyond. The discarded husks were then loaded onto transport ships and delivered to Sa Dec’s brick factories which burned up to six tonnes of the material every day. With each kiln roughly 30 000 square metres in size and holding roughly 150 000 bricks each, it was easy to see how fuel was needed on such a large scale.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory's birkc kilns. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time and consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory’s birkc kilns.

Once the husks had given all their remaining energy to the hungry flames of the massive kilns, the charred remnants were shovelled into wooden carts and dumped in great black mounds behind the factory. I had already noticed the piles earlier that morning, but had wrongly assumed (perhaps because I hailed from a western country with where materialism and disposability reigned supreme, everything discarded once it ceased to be bright and shiny) that the material was useless. As it turned out, the burnt husks were destined for gardens and farmland throughout the delta where they were used enrich the soil that would give birth to the next crop of rice.

As ingenious as this organic recycling process seemed, the kiln’s fires would have been meaningless without bricks to fill them. Though there are many complex methods for creating bricks, the simplest and most economical process requires just two ingredients – water and clay, both of which were sourced from the Mekong. The soft mixture was hydraulically pressed and cut into the appropriate shape and length before being sent to the furnaces.

After a month of hardening inside the immense kilns, the fired bricks were stacked into interlocking towers before once more returning to the river in the holds of transport ships that carried them to regional construction sites. From raw materials to fuel to transportation, everything in the brick factories of Sa Dec was tied to water. In an alchemically roundabout way, we learned, it was possible to build a house out of water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory's brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory’s brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time.

 

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites.

 

 

 

 

Rice Pockets

An hour later, our foundational knowledge of brick making greatly expanded, the rice arrived. Predictably, it came by boat. Two sagging barges, their holds impossibly full of rice husks, pulled up to the factory’s concrete pier and extended wooden gangplanks to the shore. Teams of men then set about the Atlas-like task of offloading three tonnes of rice husks using nothing but woven baskets and a yoke stick. From their boats to the factory’s cavernous room that served as the fuel storage area was less than 200 metres, but within a few minutes they were all sweating profusely.

With a touch of hubris, Gareth and I decided to try and impress upon the labourers that, photographers though we were, we could still do a hard day’s work. Almost immediately after hefting the 50kg load onto my shoulder I knew that I had dramatically overestimated my physical abilities. The suspended baskets swung wildly as I took the first few steps causing me to stagger drunkenly, much to the satisfaction of the watching workers. Determined to save as much face as possible under the circumstances I tried (badly) to affect a look of relaxed confidence, when in reality my shoulder was screaming for respite and I was powerless to stop my own forward momentum. Pride, however, proved to be a powerful motivator and somehow I made it to the top of the husk pile where I gratefully dropped my load.

Vietnam - Brick Factories on the Mekong

Pretending not to notice the smirks from rest of the workers, whose faces showed none of the signs of extreme strain I was sure mine had, I walked back towards the dock to retrieve my camera. Gareth had just hefted his own baskets for the first and looked to have realized, as I had, how weak we were compared to these men despite our substantial height and weight advantages. “Did you carry yours all the way?” he asked. As I nodded my head I empathized with the look of dread that settled over his face.

By the end of the morning, the rice husks had worked there way into every possible area of our clothing. Had there been actual rice grains rather than the empty husks, I would have been able to feed a very hungry man from the quantity gathered in my shoes alone.

Though the day may have deflated our manly egos, we left the factory with a newfound respect for the ingenious ways delta residents were able to harness the Mekong’s resources.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , |

Fisherman’s Village

Residents of Fisherman's Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

Residents of Fisherman’s Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

“Sure, you get to play the hero,” Gareth said as he watched me try to persuade a group of passing children to accept the rainbow coloured ice cream cone. The afternoon sun had been sapping our energy for the last few hours and the ice cream had seemed like a wonderful idea until the moment we discovered it was durian flavoured. Gareth, who loathed the spiky fruit with all his heart after having it regurgitated unceremoniously into his lap by an intoxicated man on a Thai train several years ago, looked crestfallen at the discovery and had handed it off to me to with the resigned sadness of a child forced to give away a favourite toy.

We were in Can Tho, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the de facto capital of the Mekong delta. We had based ourselves out of Can Tho for nearly a week, driving into the surrounding countryside each morning and afternoon, but had spent very little time exploring the city. With a population of nearly 1.5 million people straddling the Song Hau river (one of the main Mekong distributaries running through the delta), Can Tho was a logical place to investigate the stories of the river in an urban context.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

The most obvious place to start had been the Cai Rang floating market, a fixture of the city and one of the main tourist draws. We had chartered a small boat to drive us through the floating maze of fruit and vegetable wholesalers, hoping to hear some first hand stories about the role the river played in daily life, but after an hour on the water we were thoroughly exasperated. In contrast to the friendly openness of nearly everyone we had encountered on our journey thus far, the vendors in Cai Rang seemed weary of foreign cameras – and for good reason.

There were more tourists in the market than legitimate customers, it seemed, and everywhere extendable selfie sticks thrust Go Pro cameras into the faces of the marketeers. Ranging from single-passenger boats no bigger than a canoe to ten metre barges packed to the limit with zoom-lens toting photography enthusiasts, the tourists seemed like digital vultures picking over an exotic animal. Since most of these people had not been interested in buying any of the proffered produce, an antipathetical mask was settled over the faces of the majority of vendors: Take your pictures and leave so there is room for real shoppers. 

Considering that the entire purpose of our trip was to visually document the lives of people living along the Mekong, we were in no position to criticize anyone over a passion for photography. But in terms of a place to tell authentic stories about the interaction between people and waterway, Cai Rang was a disaster. We cut the tour short, much to the delight of the boat driver who had been guaranteed a fixed price, and made for the opposite bank of the river to a community known as Fisherman’s Village.

When the ferry dropped us off an hour later, Gareth had pointed excitedly to a small cart near the jetty: “Some ice cream would be amazing right now.”

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta.

Fisherman Without Fish

“When the electric nets arrived, the whole village went down together,” a 70-year-old man (whose name has been lost to a wet notebook) told us. Fisherman’s village had been named (somewhat ironically as it would turn out) because of its location next to a prime fishing ground, but the introduction of electrified fishing nets in the 1990’s had ravaged stocks to their breaking point. Though the government had long since made the nets illegal, the retired fisherman told us, more than twenty years later the wild fish population still hadn’t come close to rebounding.

“We used to be able to catch fish with our bare hands,” he continued, “but now they have to be farmed. [Though] wild fish are worth more and taste better, there are not enough of them to make a living from.”

Later we met Phuong, a 52-year-old former businessman who had left his job for the simpler lifestyle of fish farming, and he reiterated much the same thing; there were no fish left to catch. By contrast, under the damp floor planks of the wooden structure that floated above his fish pens were around 20 000 silver pompanos. To keep them healthy in such large numbers (he said there were roughly 200 of the fish for each cubic metre of space), Phuong had to regularly dose them with antibiotics. But as the prospects of river fishing were all but non-existent, this was a small price for him to pay for a dependable source of income.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam’s Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

With the absence of fish, Fisherman’s Village had evolved into something akin to a retirement community rather than a haven for hardworking fishermen. Though we came across several small engine repair shops and boat repair facilities, the vast majority of the area was residential. In an attempt to rebrand itself as a quieter alternative to Can Tho’s main tourist district, those residents of the village whose properties faced the river had constructed flower gardens in the space that was once occupied by fishmongers. And people flew kites.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commerical hub of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong's banks in FIsherman's Village, Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong’s banks in FIsherman’s Village, Can Tho.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho.

Kite flying, a popular pastime throughout Southeast Asia, was particularly prevalent in Vietnam. In Fisherman’s Village, they were everywhere. Young children and grandparents alike lined the riverfront in the afternoons, squinting into the setting sun as they tugged at the lines, fighting for height. From cartoon likenesses of sharks to incomprehensibly complex splashes of colour, there was no shortage of variety among the fluttering shapes.

Children gather along the riverfront promenande in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Children gather along the riverfront promenade in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Ultimately Can Tho was a city very much connected to water, but when more than a million people draw on a river’s resources without oversight or planning, things cannot end well for the river. In Fisherman’s Village we had seen that there was only so much a waterway could give before it faltered, leaving the people who once depended on it with little to do but fly kites.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , |

The Price of Productivity

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

When it became clear the boat was going to crash into us, it was too late to do anything but grip the ferry’s guardrails tightly and exchange a few fleeting looks of disbelief with Gareth. Had there been more time, our translator Mi, who could not swim, may have had the chance to look suitably terrified, but as it was she was barely able to fix her face with a look of mild surprise. Pablo, who held the dubious distinction of being the only member of our team to have been involved in the sinking of a boat, had already returned to Phnom Penh to start editing the footage he had shot. With him gone, Gareth and I assumed we would be safe from nautical disasters. But as the much larger vessel bore down on us, we knew we had been mistaken.

Ten metres, five metres, one metre; the closer the ships came to each other, the more unreal the situation seemed. From the bow of the approaching vessel, a sturdy looking woman shrieked curses at the pilot of our ferry – until the moment she was drowned out by the concussive thud of hull-to-hull contact and the ensuing groans as the ferry’s metal canopy twisted and warped. As the woman continued to hurl obscenities, working frantically to separate the ships, I glanced back at the driver of our ferry to see a mask of absolute calm on his face. He hadn’t even stood up from the hammock he used as a captain’s chair, a half-smoked cigarette still dangling from the corner of his mouth.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

Safely on the shore ten minutes later, we pieced together the sequence of events. The ferry captain, who successfully navigated the five minute river crossing at least a hundred times a day, had been so distracted by the presence of two foreigners in his sleepy community that he’d taken his eyes off the waterway to watch us. Not paying attention to the river traffic, he had taken us straight into the path of an oncoming boat.

I would have felt badly for the man had he not looked so utterly unconcerned. Considering the incident had been completely his fault, he managed to maintain an air of the upmost dignity as he received new passengers. Without another glance in our direction, he spun his boat around and set off again for the opposite bank, head held high.

“What just happened?” Gareth asked no one in particular.

We had come to the village of Tan Thanh on the outskirts of Can Tho to try and gain insight into the relationship between the Mekong and Vietnam’s rural poor; a boat crash had not been part of the day’s agenda.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Looking for Light

Huynh Thi Ba was 81-years-old and completely blind. Though her left eye retained some of its original dark brown colour, the right was completely clouded by an eerily vibrant blue cataract. When we entered her bedroom she seemed to sense our presence, reaching a skeletal hand towards the shadows we cast over the room. Taking her hands in turn, Gareth and I attempted to greet her, but it was obvious she was almost totally deaf as well. Yet she seemed pleased by the human touch and spent several minutes tracing her leathered fingers over our hands and forearms, confused in equal measure by both our digital watches and foreign arm hair. When she reached our faces, heavily bearded after two weeks of travel, she drew back and barked a question that needed no translation: What is this?

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years.

Ba’s younger brother Dan had brought us to the home when we’d asked him if he knew of any people in the area who struggled to find reliable access to clean water. A follower of the monotheistic Cao Dai religion who had returned to live in the faith’s nearby temple so he could be close to his ailing sister, Dan’s kindly face belied the strong emotions he must have felt at the sight of Ba’s feebleness. Through his family, we learned just how precarious water security could be, even in the heart of the Mekong delta where it seemed most abundant.

“Before the water was better. I don’t remember when exactly, when they started harvesting rice three time a year [instead of once] they had to use a lot of chemicals and fertilizers, which made the water unfit to use,” Ba’s 49-year-old daughter, Mung, told us. We had spent the last few days in rural communities and had already learned that the widespread use of agrochemicals was seriously affecting the quality of the river water, but this particular situation was more dire than anything we had previously encountered.

Fifteen years ago, the family – Ba, Mung, and Mung’s 25-year-old daughter, Mit – had been labourers for hire, living in a tent and drifting from farm to farm in search of piece work. With the introduction of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, however, rice cultivation required far fewer workers per hectare. As a result, Mung had not found regular employment for fifteen years. At roughly the same time, Ba, who had gathered taro leaves that Vietnamese traditionally used as food packaging, had been made obsolete by the introduction of plastic bags: “Before the era of plastic, we used leaves for bags,” Mung told us, “but when plastic came, [my mother] lost this job.” Shortly afterwards, she went blind.

Ba, 84, lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised.

 

Though the Cao Dai temple that Dan belonged to had recognized the family’s plight and donated enough money to replace their tent with a small cement structure, the situation remained desperate. With all three members of the household unable to earn income, Mung and Mit turned to scavenging for tin cans which they could sell to local recycling facilities for a small profit. This required both women to be out of the house for long stretches of time, leaving Ba to fend for herself in her own personal darkness.

Levels of Purity

Despite their extreme poverty, food was not the most serious problem for Ba’s family. The Cao Dai temple donated rice periodically and neighbours pitched in vegetables when they couldn’t afford to buy enough. Ultimately it was clean water – or the lack thereof – that presented the biggest challenge to their health.

“We’re not afraid of the dirt,” Mung said of the Mekong tributary that flowed past their house, “the dirt is natural. It is the chemicals [that are a problem]. A few months ago I tried to take a bath in the river and I got a rash.” When we asked her why she thought the water affected her skin so badly, she again referred to the increased use of agricultural chemicals over the last two decades.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung ranked water quality by sorting them into four categories. The highest quality (bottled and treated) was exclusively for drinking – but the prohibitively high price meant that they could not afford to buy it regularly. One level down was piped water, which, while not as pure as bottled water, was of a quality high enough for drinking and cooking. Unfortunately, the pipes required for access to such water were not connected to their house, and the $100 price tag for installation was well beyond their means. Next was well water, which was technically deemed fit for drinking and cooking, but still contained too many pollutants to be considered healthy. In theory the family had access to such a well as the government had installed a pump and tap on their property a year before, but Mung said it was often broken and that it often took weeks for a repairman to make it to their house. Lastly was the river water – judged unfit for anything other than washing clothes and dishes.

Yet though Mung knew water from the river was dangerously laden with chemicals, for most of the year she had no choice but to use it. Judging by the rashes, headaches, and stomach problems Mung told us her family often suffered from, their domestic use of the river’s water was taking a toll. And, she said, it was not just humans that were being impacted.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

“There used to be so many fish that you could catch them with your bare hands,” Mung said. “Now, even with modern equipment, you can’t find any fish.” Though she was perhaps exaggerating slightly, the conspicuous lack of fishing related activity in such a rural area suggested that she was right: the river was profoundly unhealthy.

How many other families in the area were using contaminated water for their daily needs, we wondered? If this was happening here, it stood to reason that it was happening elsewhere as well. How many people along the Mekong were being poisoned by the very river that had sustained life in Southeast Asia for millennia?

With these heavy questions looming large in our thoughts, we said goodbye to Mung and her family to board the ferry that would shuttle us back towards Can Tho. Thankfully, this time, the captain kept his eyes on the water.

———

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Toxicity of Agriculture

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

“It’s not going to be worth it,” Gareth shouted at me as I crouched unsteadily on a three inch wide bamboo pole stretched across a mud-brown irrigation canal. With barely suppressed happiness, he added “I’m going to walk just down there, where there are actually people doing stuff.” And then as a parting afterthought: “I bet your legs are getting pretty tired.”

Sarcasm aside, he was right; I had been balanced on the rickety bridge for nearly twenty minutes and had lost all sensation in my right foot as I stubbornly waited for someone to cross a similar bridge further up the canal. It was another ten minutes before anyone cooperated, and as I pushed the shutter I was pretty sure it would be an average shot – probably not worth it, though I would never admit it to Gareth.

We had driven into the countryside surrounding the Mekong delta’s economic capital of Can Tho  with the intention of exploring the relation between agriculture and the river in an area known as “the rice bowl of Vietnam.” And considering that Vietnam was the world’s second largest exporter of rice, that was quite a bowl. Arriving in the deep blue gloom of the early morning, we’d had to wait for half an hour next to a roadside vendor selling cobs of boiled corn (though who was shopping for corn at 5 a.m. we’d never know) before there were any signs of life from the surrounding fields.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

The ducks came first. At least a hundred of them poured over the earthen embankment of a rice paddy and began waddling frantically over the field’s uneven contours, their ultimate destination unknown. Behind them came a farmer, the obvious cause of their flight, unrolling long sections of plastic fencing which he assumedly planned to use to coral the birds. The indigo sky of an hour before had given way to a soft grey mist which obscured the horizon and muffled the sound from the nearby highway. Watching the farmer weave through fog, doggedly pursuing the flock as they shape-shifted amorphously like a school of sardines to avoid him, the scene was a postcard for an idealized vision of quaint agrarian life. As we shot pictures and tried to keep our feet out of the swampiest sections of the paddy, it seemed like we had found the perfect place to witness the natural and healthy connection between water and people. As we were to find out, however, this association was anything but.

“Ummm, sorry guys,” Mi, our translator, said from a few metres away where she had been talking to the farmer. “You are actually preventing them from herding the ducks. He asks if you will please stop taking pictures now.”

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

The Roundup Effect

Though this was the first time during the trip that we had actively spent time on a farm, the landscape had been almost entirely rural since we entered the country. Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, the fields of Vietnam were a vivid green instead of the dead brown of the dry season. We had attributed much of the fertility to the immense system of irrigation canals that spread the Mekong’s waters throughout the delta, but even so the harvests looked exceptionally verdant. The periodic sightings of advertisements for Monsanto’s Roundup, one of the world’s most widely used agricultural herbicides, should have given us some insight, but until we had spoken to farmers on the ground we weren’t even close to understanding the scope of the issue.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave.

“We have separate crops. One for selling, and one for eating,” said Lung, the owner of the farm we had wandered into. “The water from river is extremely important, because without it we could not farm here. But for anything else, we can’t use it – there are too many chemicals.”

Manh, a youthful looking 40-year-old man who worked in a neighbouring field despite sporting a broken arm, said exactly the same thing. The delta’s farmers, who grow nearly half of Vietnam’s rice, would not eat the crops they sold. And though it is perhaps unfair to single out Monsanto (we found a wide spectrum of brand names printed on the herbicide and pesticide packets), the widespread use of agricultural chemicals was clearly a public health issue.

At a nearby watermelon plantation we stopped to speak to another farmer, Huynh, who candidly explained the necessity of chemicals. Since Vietnam’s economic reforms of 1986 – which abandoned the communist collective farming system of past in favour of a free market that incentivized farmers to increase crop production by allowing them to keep their profits – Huynh said that farmers were routinely harvesting three rice cycles a year.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam’s irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

“Before we could use this water for cooking and drinking,” Huynh told us, gesturing to a nearby creek, “but since we have started producing so much, we cannot. We have to use chemicals to keep the crops healthy. It is necessary, but it means we can’t use the water.” All the while we were speaking to him, workers in fields behind carried 40 litre backpacks filled with pesticide which they applied liberally to the young watermelons at their feet. Each time their packs were drained, they would return to the canal to dump out the remnants before mixing a fresh batch using the same water – which was connected directly to the Mekong and all it’s associated downstream tributaries.

Necessities and Consequences

It would have been unfair for three outsiders, as we were, to sit in judgement of farmers who struggled daily to keep their heads above the poverty line. We were simply passing through and would eventually return to our reasonably comfortable lives in Phnom Penh, while they would remain to support extended families on the revenue generated by their farms. We were in no position to deliver advice or reprimand, and made no attempts to do so. Yet as third-party observers who were committed to following the course of the Mekong for most of a year, it was difficult for us to see the practice of steadily poisoning the water supply that nurtured their crops and kept their livestock alive as anything but a mistake that would have disastrous ramifications in the future.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land.

Thinking of Tan Van Vu, a shrimp farmer living far downstream who reported a 40% decrease in his productivity due to a mysterious sickness that had spread through this ponds, we left the workers to their spraying. Though we had no scientific proof that there was a connection between Vu’s poisoned shrimp and the chemical residue that floated in the water in these farms, we knew that whatever was put into the water here would inevitably make its way downriver to him.

Back on the side of the highway we sat down at a roadside cafe for a quick shot of morning coffee. When we told the curious cafe owner that we were following the Mekong from Vietnam to its source in China, she smiled reminiscently: “I used to love swimming in that river. But now it makes my skin itchy.”

——–

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Building the River’s Monsters

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

After the boat problems we’d had a few days earlier, we decided to take another shot at locating a large shipyard we had heard build and repaired some of the largest vessels around Ben Tre. Fearing another engine malfunction that would leave us stranded on one of the delta’s myriad canals, we called captain the night before to ask if he truly believed his boat was up to the task. Rising to the challenge, he responded with confidence and a touch of indignation: “I’d bet my life on it.”

Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness for what felt like the hundredth day in a row (despite having been on the road for only a week), conversation was at a minimum as we made our way towards the riverside jetty where our boat waited for us. The boat yard was more than an hour’s drive, said the captain, and if we stood a chance at arriving in time to catch the best of the morning light we had little time to spare.

True to the captain’s word, the boat’s engine battled steadily against the Mekong’s current without even a trace of smoke.

River Monsters, Reborn

“Do what you want, just let us have some tea first,” said the manager of the shipyard, Muoi. His was translated as the number Ten, literally referring to the order in which he was born in relation to his siblings. If there was any underlying resentment from his nine older brothers and sisters about his position authority over them, Muoi chose not to share it with us. We had arrived at the facility just a few minutes after sunrise, surprising the dozen or so bleary-eyed workers who were congregating around a small wooden table to take in a few doses of morning caffeine; they seemed neither pleased, nor annoyed to see us.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day's work begins. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day’s work begins.

As no one in our team had been able to adequately satisfy our respective coffee addictions, we empathized with their groggy indifference and kept our cameras low until they seemed sufficiently awake to tolerate the intrusion. Even after photographing the intimate details of people’s lives full time for nearly five years, I was still aware of how violated I would feel if three strangers had arrived at my place of work and shoved a camera in my face. And so we drank tea.

It was nearly an hour before the first signs of movement started. Rising from sagging wooden benches, the workers, now numbering around twenty, moved a few metres away and squatted in a rough semi-circle under the shadow of a large and decrepit looking ship. Muoi stood in front of assembled men and women, standing rather than haunched in the dirt, and delivered the day’s instructions. Though we didn’t bother asking our translator, Mi, to relate the exact words being spoken, the message was clear enough: Today we will build and fix boats. 

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day's tasks in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day’s tasks in the early morning.

The crew listened to Muoi’s speech in silence punctuated only by the flinty sound of flicking lighters as they smoked cigarettes. When he was finished, the workers rose and spread throughout the shipyard, presumably starting where they’d left off the day before. The once quiet air was almost immediately filled with the screeching of poorly oiled power tools, and the morning stillness transformed into a frenzy of activity.

Most of the work seemed to involve patching holes on the hulls of ships that looked to have seen at least twenty years of hard service on the Mekong. First, workers attacked the rotten areas with iron pickaxes, gouging out soggy splinters to expose the metal ribs underneath. Electric grinders were then used to completely excise the abscesses, creating jagged holes that looked straight into the cavernous cargo holds. These were covered by sheets of barbed wire which were secured with nails.

Nearby, another man was tasked with the unfortunate duty of hand mixing fibreglass paste in a repurposed plastic petrol can, his face periodically obscured by clouds of yellowish powder – no doubt wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. When the substance was blended to his satisfaction, he carried the container to the patching teams and slathered the mixture over the mesh, theoretically sealing the holes. With next to no knowledge of marine engineering, we assumed the ad hoc technique was effective, otherwise the ten or so ships in the dry dock would surely have taken their business elsewhere.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship's hull before a patch can be applied. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship’s hull before a patch can be applied.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship's hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship’s hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship's hull using handmade glue and pitch. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship’s hull using handmade glue and pitch.

Everywhere there was movement. Those who weren’t patching holes applied copious amounts of glutinous resin between hull planks or used handheld saws to fashion replacement beams for wood that was too far gone to be salvaged. A group of what looked like the strongest men in the yard waded into the river to retrieve sunken logs, attaching them to a steel cable and heaving them ashore. All the while an extended family of dogs was circling the area, looking for shady places where they wouldn’t be stepped on and skittering nervously whenever a human drew too near.

With two photographers and a videographer combing the area for interesting visuals, it required constant situational awareness to ensure that I didn’t accidentally include Pablo’s shaved head or Gareth’s tattooed arms in my frames. I’m sure they were both having similar difficulties, and without a doubt more than one curse was directed my way as I stumbled unwittingly into their frames.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Engines of Commerce

“Water is water,” Muoi said blandly, clearly not thinking much of my question. The sun had risen nearly to its apex, and the with light far too harsh for aesthetically pleasing colour photography, I had attempted to draw him into a conversation about the Mekong’s importance. “Everyone needs it for different reasons, but we all need it,” he concluded.

Though Muoi’s answer was not the emotional statement of love for the Mekong we had hoped for, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. While people in this part of Vietnam used the river in different ways – such as the coconut farming or shrimp ponds we had seen visited earlier – everyone relied on it in one way or the other.

Workers repair the floor of a ship's cargo hold. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers repair the floor of a ship’s cargo hold.

Ben Tre lacked a major port facility and so river boats, such as the ones being refitted at Muoi’s shipyard, were the only economically viable way for people in the area to send their products into the markets beyond. These lumbering ships were so important that at least seven other facilities of comparable size operated year-round to keep the flow of commerce moving. For Muoi and the twenty other family members employed in the yard, their livelihoods were no less tied to the Mekong than the delta’s rice farmers.

Different reasons, needed by all. Without meaning to, Muoi had summed up our entire journeys on the Mekong to date.

As we shook hands with Muoi, who was doubtlessly happy to see us leave and get out of his workers’ way, an Indian Myna bird (a species known for their ability to mimic spoken language) squawked at us from his hanging cage.

Cam On, Cam On. Thank you, Thank you.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , , |