El Niño in Vietnam

Worst drought in 90 years leaves millions in need

The rains have started in Vietnam, but they have brought little relief to the millions of people hit by the country's worst drought in nearly a century.

Drinking water and food are in short supply. Crops have failed and livelihoods have suffered.

In March, Vietnamese officials reported that the water level of the Mekong River was at its lowest since 1926.

Up to half of the 2.2 million hectares of arable land in the Mekong Delta region have been hit by salinisation.

Salinisation takes place when the water in the soil evaporates during hot weather. This draws salts to the surface, which make the land unusable for crops.

Around a third of Vietnam's provinces have been affected by drought and salinisation.

This lake in Thuan Bac, in Ninh Thuan province, is at a record low level due to the drought

The El Niño weather phenomenon, which has disrupted weather patterns across the world, has been partially blamed for the drought.

An El Niño forms every two to seven years.

It occurs when the surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become much warmer than average.

This ocean warming lasts about one year and sets in motion a complex cycle of events linking atmosphere and ocean.

As sea temperatures rise, a huge amount of heat is released into the atmosphere, disrupting weather patterns across the world.

The numbers affected by the drought in Vietnam are staggering.

An estimated two million people have no access to safe drinking water

A further 1.1 million are in need of food

 27,500 children and 39,000 women are malnourished

Farmers are suffering the most. When crops fail, they have nothing to sell at market. Many have had to leave their homes in search of other job opportunities.

"One hundred per cent of the land in the commune is no longer arable," said Pham Van Luyen, from Ninh Thuan.

"Last year, we managed to grow crops in some areas, but we were unable to harvest.

"Since the beginning of this year, it has been so dry that we haven't planted anything."

The rainy season has started in the Southern Central, Central Highlands and Mekong Delta regions.

However, more time is needed before rainwater turns into ground water.

"There wasn’t enough grass for the cows because there was too little water," said 43-year-old Pham Van Thao, from Ninh Thuan.

"We had to buy straw for them, instead of food for ourselves. 

"And all the streams were empty. We dug wells, but they also became empty."

"We cannot grow anything here, the sun is too harsh. Even harvesting yams is impossible," said Tien, from Ninh Thuan.

"Some yams were dead, some were eaten by pigs. There are not many left for us. We haven't been able to earn any profit for years."

A Red Cross water delivery in Ninh Thuan

The Viet Nam Red Cross Society has launched an emergency response to help 17,600 people affected by the drought across four provinces.

Red Cross volunteers are providing safe water, cash grants, and are promoting good hygiene practices to stem the threat of disease.

Locals in Ninh Thuan await their turn to receive money from the Red Cross

Nearly 2,800 households have received cash grants from the Red Cross. 

Cash grants enable people to buy food or goods according to their own needs, while stimulating the local economy.

"I will use this money to buy rice, salt and fish sauce," said Chamale Thi Mem, from Ninh Thuan province.

Kator Van, from the Viet Nam Red Cross, said: "Since the drought operation started, we have focused on communication with communities. 

"Our volunteers, staff and experts first discussed the damage caused by the drought with communities and local authorities. 

"They also provided information on clean water, hygiene and safely handling food during the drought.

"When it came to the cash distributions, we explained to people how to use the cash effectively so that it could meet their immediate food and water needs."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is supporting the work of the Viet Nam Red Cross Society.

Words by Ly Nguyen. Photos by Giang Pham

Find out more about Red Cross work in Vietnam

Timor-Leste drought: What happens when the water runs out? 

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