As the Secretary of State’s boat eased onto the river for the first time in 44 years, he said it was “weird” to be back.
“And it’s going to get weirder.”
More than four decades ago, the greatest threat to the Mekong Delta was the war that raged throughout Vietnam. Secretary of State John Kerry commanded a gunboat on that delta, “one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history,” in his words.
Now, though war is an ever more distant distant memory, Kerry said during a visit to Vietnam on Sunday that the region is “one of the two or three most potentially impacted areas in the world with respect to the effects of climate change.”
Though he had returned to Vietnam 13 times since the war, this was Kerry’s first visit to the delta since 1969.
In remarks to a group of young professionals near the Kien Vang Market Pier on the Mekong Delta, Kerry warned of the wider consequences of sea level rise in the region on the wider world:
…scientists predict that by the end of this century, the sea will have risen by almost a full meter on average. To some people, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot. But here, in Ca Mau, it’s easy to understand the damage that just one meter of sea-level rise would do. It would literally displace millions upon millions of people around the world. It would destroy infrastructure. It would threaten billions of dollars in global economic activity. And this hits home. The reason we’re here today is to emphasize that a large part of the world’s shrimp farming and catfish farming takes place within the delta. And there are some 70 million people who rely on the Mekong River for economic stability.
Though he has a personal history in the remote Mekong Delta, he said “I came here not to go into the past, but to look at this challenge that we’re facing with respect to the future.” He went on to describe how unabated carbon pollution would bring “longer and more unpredictable monsoon seasons.”
As the sea level rises, Vietnam’s rice producers, shrimp and crab farmers, and fisherman have to deal with a river that becomes more salty and more flooded. Salt water, Kerry said, is “no friend to rice paddies,” which is a problem when such a vulnerable area is the “rice breadbasket of Vietnam.” He even linked acclaimed Boston-based Legal Seafoods to the threats facing seafood farmers in Vietnam, as the company comes there to source some of its menu.
Last year, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security researchers said that in the next three decades, the drought and flooding due to climate change could make agricultural yields drop by up to 50 percent.
To help with this, Kerry announced a starting investment of $17 million to “reverse environmental degradation and adapt to climate change” through USAID’s Vietnam Forest and Deltas Program.
There is also some activity to reduce the carbon emissions that are driving the greenhouse effect causing much of the changes in the first place. On Saturday when he visited Ho Chi Minh City, Kerry was present for the signing of a $94 million contract between General Electric and Vietnamese construction firm Cong Ly to build 52 wind turbines in nearby Bac Lieu Province.
The trip to Vietnam and the Philippines is part of a larger swing through the Middle East and Asia — it is Kerry’s fourth trip to Asia since he became Secretary of State. Later this week, he will visit the city of Tacloban in the Philippines, which suffered some of the worst damage from Super Typhoon Haiyan.