Climate change is triggering a migrant crisis in Vietnam
The Vietnamese Mekong Delta is one of Earth’s most agriculturally productive regions and is of global importance for its exports of rice, shrimp, and fruit. The 18m inhabitants of this low-lying river delta are also some of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. Over the last ten years around 1.7m people have migrated out of its vast expanse of fields, rivers and canals while only 700,000 have arrived.
On a global level migration to urban areas remains as high as ever: one person in every 200 moves from rural areas to the city every year. Against this backdrop it is difficult to attribute migration to individual causes, not least because it can be challenging to find people who have left a region in order to ask why they went and because every local context is unique. But the high net rate of migration away from Mekong Delta provinces is more than double the national average, and even higher in its most climate-vulnerable areas. This implies that there is something else – probably climate-related – going on here.
In 2013 we visited An Thạnh Đông commune in Sóc Trăng Province aiming to collect survey data on agricultural yields. We soon realised that virtually no farmers of An Thạnh Đông had any yields to report. The commune had lost its entire sugarcane crop after unexpectedly high levels of salt water seeped into the soil and killed the plants. Those without a safety net were living in poverty. Over the following weeks hundreds of smallholders, many of whom had farmed the delta for generations, would tell us that things were changing and their livelihoods would soon be untenable.
In 2015-2016 disaster struck with the worst drought in a century. This caused salt water to intrude over 80km inland and destroyed at least 160,000ha of crops. In Kiên Giang (pop. 1.7m), one of the worst affected provinces, the local net migration rate jumped and in the year that followed around one resident in every 100 left.