Protecting What Remains
By Shannon James
I have been staring out the window for a couple of weeks, cruising all around the Southern Mekong River Delta. Coming from Montana, it was striking to be covering so much ground and mainly be looking out on busy streets full of people, shops, and motorbikes. It wasn’t until I reached some of the protected areas of Vietnam that I was able to catch a glimpse of the diverse, natural environment that has been left undeveloped.
The National Parks in Vietnam run under a management scope that differs from the United States. Here, the parks require active management. Forests need restoration due to the American destruction from Agent Orange. Climate change impacts present an immediate need for adaptation planning. And water management is a crucial focus.
Throughout our travels we had the opportunity to visit various National Parks within the Mekong Delta region. U Minh Thuong and Tram Chim are two protected wetland areas that support tremendous biodiversity. We toured through both parks via boat; witnessing expansive grasslands and various bird species. Such diversity, it turns out, depends on intensive water management. Both of the parks were recently established following massive fires. Preventing future fires, as well conserving the rich biodiversity in these areas, requires active management to pump water into the parks during the dry season.
The conservation of these remnant wetlands is not an easy task, one made more difficult by the unraveling consequences of climate change. The seasons are becoming more extreme, resulting in more drought during the dry season and more floods during the wet season. Efforts to deal with the challenges of the changing climate include building dykes and pumping water into the parks from the Mekong Basin. This, however, brings its own challenges as highly polluted water is then pumped into the parks. Unfortunately, while both national parks we visited are monitored for water quality, there are no current practices of cleaning the water of pollutants.
While visiting U Minh Thuong Park we learned about the rare peat swamps that reside in the area. Much of the carbon rich wetlands across the globe have been lost due to land use change for agriculture. Peat swamps are carbon sinks, making them vulnerable to intense burning if they are exposed and dried out. The peat gives the overlying waters a dark black color, creating quite a contrast with the vibrant green foliage. It was really quite beautiful to witness, making it slightly easier to overlook the insane expansion of invasive species crowding the dark waters.
It is striking to me how essential water management is to sustain what remains of Vietnam’s natural environment. Those working on preservation face many challenges: financial support for the necessary science, global climate change impacts, invasive plants, overpopulation, and the high dependence of the surrounding communities on resources within parks. On top of all this is the most pressing concern facing the Mekong today, new large-scale dam. Upstream from Vietnam, eleven large dams have been proposed, which would fundamentally alter the flow of water and sustainability of these parks. Breathing in the fresh Maleleuca forest air in Tram Chim is not a luxury of leisure. A large amount of work is put in to protect the parks and continuously manage the valuable wet lands that sustain Vietnam’s natural gems.