Category Archives: Vietnam

Erosion, Pollution, and Millions of Shrimp

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

Lottery ticket vendors mobbed us immediately after we boarded the ferry to the island of Phu Thanh, thrusting fistfuls of shiny cards at us and excitedly pointed out auspicious numbers they deemed might be of interest to us. When it became clear that we weren’t likely to play, most shuffled away, mumbling bitterly. A persistent few hovered at the periphery of our group, staring with a mixture of curiosity and entrepreneurial ambition. In a nation where gambling has been illegal since the 1970’s, the Vietnamese appetite for the state lottery seemed insatiable. I counted no less than five ticket sellers compared to only one car – ours.

Phu Thanh’s roads were not meant for cars. Narrow and often uneven, our Toyota (the only four wheeled vehicle we would see on the island in two days) bounced angrily and unpredictably as we navigated through the island’s interior towards its southern edge.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

Despite the rough ride, we were all well aware that having a personal vehicle was a luxury. We knew that while Vietnam’s relatively developed infrastructure and road network made it more practical to travel by car than by boat, the further we got into our trip the rougher the travel would be. Bouncing around in Stephen’s car that morning, had we known just how exhausting things would get in the coming months we would have savoured every moment.

The River Giveth…

We had been told earlier by Ngyuen Than, a shrimp boat captain, that this area the Mekong no longer supported a wild fish population large enough to sustain the people plying its waters, necessitating the construction of inland farms for people too far from the ocean. It was these farms we were searching for on Phu Thanh.

After an hour of driving we had seen many such farms, comprised of a series of wide ponds with earthen banks; all seemed devoid of activity. Roughly one in five ponds was drained completely, their mud bottoms cracked and hardened by the tropical sun. Long axles lined with fan blades spun hypnotically in those ponds still containing water, but the people (the most essential component for documentary storytelling) were illusively absent.

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon we feared we would lose the ideal golden light for photography, so we decided to stop at the closest farm, empty as it looked, to try and make the best of the situation. No sooner had we done so when a lone motorcycle approached and turned into the farm.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm’s productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Tan Van Vu (whose name we decided to change for his protection after learning Phu Thanh was a military controlled island, subjected to heavy media scrutiny), was a 51-year-old whose friendliness was evident from the first time he waved us towards his house. He seemed eager to speak with us, and quickly poured out cups of cooled tea as we sat down around a wooden table behind his house.

Unlike the ocean-going fishermen we had spoken to a few days earlier, we learned that away from the coast as we were, the river played a far more important role in people’s lives. “We live on the banks of this river, and we care a lot about its health,” Vu told us.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds.

According to him, the Mekong’s health was not good. Checking the level of our tea cups and pouring more when necessary, Vu went on to explain the series of misfortunes that had drastically impacted Phu Thanh’s shrimp farmers. The dual forces of erosion and pollution, he said, had dropped his farm’s productivity by 40% since 2011 – surely an unsustainable rate of decline.

Washed Away and Poisoned

Leaving the shady comfort of his outdoor sitting area, Vu, joined by his neighbour Nguyen Van Boi, took us on a tour of his property to show us what he had been talking about. At the southern extremity of his farm, the part closest to the river, we immediately saw what he meant about erosion. A scant 5 meters separated his shrimp ponds from the river, and judging by the crumbling banks it looked like that buffer was lessening by the day.

“In 2009 a storm destroyed the mangroves [on the river bank] and now nothing holds the land,” Vu said, as he surveyed the damage. “These days the ocean tide comes much farther up the river, especially in the dry season, and washes the land away.”

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm.

The upriver encroachment of the sea, while necessary to provide the salty water he needs to pump into his shrimp ponds, had, in recent years, increased to unprecedented levels. Vu went on to tell us that the current of the river was not nearly as strong as it had been in the past – which from our research into the state of the Mekong we could almost certainly attribute to the multitude of hydro power dams upriver. The combination of a weakened river flow, combined with the rising sea levels caused by global climate change, meant that the ocean was overpowering the river and inching deeper inland – devouring the farmers’ land as it did so.

Not the type of man to sit passively as his livelihood was washed out to sea, Vu spent thousands of borrowed dollars driving cement pillars into the river bank in an attempt to artificially recreate the decimated mangrove root systems. It didn’t work.

Ultimately he decided to hire day labourers to plant new mangroves, a process he knows will be effective against erosion in the long run, but as the trees needed more than ten years to mature, it was likely too little, too late. “I lost a lot of money trying to fix this problem,” Vu said, admirably stoic given his dire circumstances. “If these banks break, my shrimp will be lost to the river.”

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds.

A less clear cut problem, Vu told us, was water pollution. Lacking scientific testing kits to accurately identify specific pollutants, he can do little but guess what invisible chemicals were assaulting his farm. “In recent years the shrimp have been sick,” he said. After closing more than 10 of his ponds in less than five years – nearly half of his total – his situation was becoming desperate. “Farmers here need help and capital so we can check the pollution levels. Now, now, now,” he added, stressing the urgency.

As is the case with all ecosystems, whether natural or man-made, problems in one link of the chain are not self contained. The unidentified poisons afflicting Vu’s shrimp is being ingested by all farms in the area as they pump water both in and out of the Mekong. If his farm’s eroded banks burst completely, spilling 250-300 000 sick shrimp into the river, the results would be catastrophic for downstream neighbours  who would unavoidably draw tens of thousands of infected crustaceans into their own ponds.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh.

After a final round of tea and small talk, we left Vu’s home. Over dinner that night we reflected on the impossible unfairness of his situation. The river, the primary source of livelihood for farmers like Vu, was steadily becoming a destroyer instead of a life-giver.

Later in our journey, as we moved deeper into the heart of the Mekong delta, we would see firsthand just how many pollutants were floating downstream towards Phu Thanh’s farmers, but at that moment we were still blissfully ignorant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXkgQvghd1M

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.

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A River’s Tail: The Dominance of the Sea | Vietnam

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

“If I had to give this boat a name, I would call it Happiness,” Nguyen Than told us at four o’clock in the morning as he prepared his shrimp boat for sea. But the family owned boat, staffed entirely by an extensive network of brothers and brothers in law, had no formal name and instead went by the less evocative handle of TG1920.

We met his brother in law and co-captain, with the confusingly similar name of Thane, the previous afternoon in the town of Den Do, a small community of around 600 families that sits on the banks of the Mekong with a clear line of sight to the sea beyond. A short, swarthy man with a voice like a sand blaster, he seemed amused by our request to join his crew for a morning’s work, but granted permission nevertheless.

As we watched the members of the Nguyen family stumble bleary-eyed across the ship’s worn wooden deck to set about their morning tasks – coiling ropes, preparing tea, chain smoking Hero cigarettes – it became clear that TG1920 was one of the only boats still tied up to the shore. “I really didn’t expect you to be on time,” Than revealed, “so I told everyone to sleep in.” Barking instructions to his crew, he settled onto his haunches to watch us eat our breakfast of bland store-bought cakes.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years.

Twenty minutes later, the sun still well below the horizon, the ship’s engine rumbled to life and we began reversing away from the dock into the darkness of the river. “This exit of the Mekong is the best in the area,” Thane, the driver of the day, told us with an air of pride as he swung the bow around to point towards the sea. “There are many exits like this, but they are dangerous and full of criminals.” With no frame of reference, we had to take this statement at face value, though we suspected that hometown pride – he and his brother had been shrimping out of Den Do for 40 years – may have biased his pronouncement, and that the rest of coastal Vietnam might not be, in fact, a haven for pirates and thieves.

Motoring out of the river mouth and onto the South China Sea (or the Eastern Sea as the Vietnamese call it, disliking the implication of Chinese ownership for obvious reasons), a pot of hot tea was passed through a hatch in the cockpit roof where we sat with Than and Thane. “Fishermen drink their tea from bowls, not cups,” Thane stated, an ever-present Hero dangling from the corner of his mouth. When we asked why this was so, he shrugged impassively in the dark. “Tradition.”

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat.

We were headed to the Nguyen’s shrimp nets 30 km offshore, and with nothing to do but wait we tried to steer the dialogue to questions of the Mekong’s importance in their daily life. But our idealized notions of a people deeply connected to the river were quickly put down: “The river doesn’t matter to people here. It is only the sea,” repeated Thane in various ways each time I tried to rephrase the question in the hopes of drawing him out. Eventually he admitted that the river allowed them to transport their catch to the inland processing facilities in Den Do, but he was clearly determined to downplay the Mekong in favour of the ocean.

“I love the sea,” Than said between sips of tea, in support of his brother in law’s statements. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

At Home on the Water

After an hour of motoring, the rows of shrimp nets appeared on the horizon and the hitherto lethargic crew scrambled into action. Parallel rows of evenly spaced coconut logs had been somehow hammered into the seafloor and secured with guy-wires, jutting into the sky to resemble a series of telephone poles in the middle of the ocean. Intermittently punctuating the repetition were a few small thatched shacks, perched precariously above the gently rolling waves.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets.

Since none of our team had much in the way of shrimping experience, we were somewhat surprised to see shadowy heads popping out of the structures, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As Thane drew the ship closer, more men emerged to watch us approach. Whoops of humoured curiosity sounded out as they realized their resupply included a visit from three foreigners.

While Gareth, Pablo, and I moved into more advantageous shooting positions, Thane elaborated from his pilot’s seat. There were about twenty male members of the Nguyen family, with half allotted to boat duties and the remaining stationed in the remote fishing shacks for 8 or 9 days at time. Every morning the boats delivered fresh water and food to the isolated men, whose responsibility it was to maintain and bait the nets submerged in the sea below. At the end of their shift, the boat and net crews would switch duties and the men could return to shore to rest and visit with their families. Thane had pointed out earlier that this was one of the calmest days on the water in the last month; I couldn’t imagine the terror of weathering a storm in a two meter square wooden box in what might have well as been the middle of the ocean.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land.

For the next two hours the boat crew threw grappling hooks into the grey-brown water, snagging  the lines of sunken nets and dragging them out of the depths, hand over hand. Once out of the water, the nets were emptied into plastic baskets that lined the ship’s hold and given a cursory inspection; any particularly large or valuable fish were dropped in buckets filled with salt water to keep them alive, and plastic bags were separated from the tiny shrimp and thrown back overboard, likely to be hauled in again the next day.

When all the nets had been checked we turned back towards the coast, the men who would stay behind disappearing back into the safety of their stilted sanctuaries. And though the hold seemed reasonably full (again, none of us having any past experiences to draw on), Than revealed that all was not well on the sea. “Now there are less than half the shrimp we used to catch,” he said between puffs of his cigarette. “If the sea was good we could catch up to one tonne, but now it is much less.” When asked about the abundance of plastic, Than seemed as indifferent as he was towards the Mekong. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but all the fishermen and communities throw it into the river, so it probably comes from there.”

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam.

As we left the sea and churned against the Mekong’s current towards Den Do, I tried a final time to turn the conversation to the Mekong. Sighing, Than elaborated on his previous answers: “There aren’t many shrimp or fish in the river. The people who live there need to farm their fish, there are not enough wild fish left to live on. The river is not important here, we go to the sea.”

Whether because of overfishing, the presence of agricultural chemicals, or increased salinity, the Mekong, at it’s end, was no longer fishable.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of "fisherman's soup" - a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of “fisherman’s soup” – a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Shore Party

Many of Den Do’s shrimp boats seemed to return to land at roughly the same time, and we entered into a queue of vessels, each waiting to offload their catch. Groups of women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hats stood along the seawall, on the lookout for whichever boat they were employed by. When it was eventually TG1920’s turn to tie up, the transfer of seafood was swift. In less than 5 minutes around 400kg of shrimp was loaded onto waiting flatbed motorcycle-drawn carts and driven off to a family owned processing facility where the shrimp would be sorted, dried in the sun and sold, or made into Ruoc – a salty paste and national delicacy.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Though we were exhausted, unaccustomed as yet to waking up at 3:30 a.m., Than was adamant that we follow him to his home for a meal. Over a suppressed hotpot of boiled squid (I was called out as “weak” for only eating 10 full squid), he explained that despite the challenges of living from an increasingly unproductive waterscape his family has no plans to change. “When I am an old man, my sons will take over this boat. There is nothing about this work that we don’t like, other than the storms. But we are used to them.”

After a round of boisterous handshakes we left the Nguyen’s, the first of encounter in what we hoped would form the basis of many fast friendships. To the southwest lay our next destination – the island of Phu Tanh, a 30km long mass of land pointed, dagger-like, into the Mekong delta.

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