Jun 11, 2022 5 min read

Tuning to the heartbeat of delta

Hey there.

This week, we’ll talk about Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. We have the Q&A with and a story by Ryszard A. Daniel, who worked as an engineer in Ho Chi Minh City.

Enjoy reading!

Floating market, Can Tho. Photo: Thomas van den Berg

Save the Mekong Delta from drowning

On May 6 I read an article in Science Daily about the current state of the Mekong Delta, Southeast Asia's most productive agricultural region and home to 17 million people.

The message from the international team of researchers was clear: saving the Mekong from drowning requires urgent and concerted action among countries in the region. The immediate need is to lessen the impact of upstream dams and better manage water and sediments within the delta.

The urgent need for collaboration among the countries in the Mekong River basin reminds me of the efforts made in Europe’s Rhine-Meuse basin. Although this river basin is at least 4 times smaller than its Asian counterpart, I would like to highlight one lesson learned from a Dutch perspective.

Like the Mekong Delta, the Dutch Rhine-Meuse delta struggled and emerged from the impact of wars, canalization, floods, upstream dams and pollution. So, if you put the Dutch delta in historical perspective, and if you put lessons learned into practice, I am hopeful about the action plan needed to save the Mekong Delta from drowning.

Due to Europe’s industrialization in the 19th century, the pollution of the Rhine increased and the tension between the bordering states increased as well. The downstream Dutch delta was most threatened because we use the Rhine water for drinking water supply, irrigation, and flushing the polder to prevent salinization. The Netherlands negotiated with upstream countries for almost twenty years before the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution (ICPR) was to set up in 1950.

This was just the beginning of a process of trust-building and creating measures to strengthen common aims. There was a big discussion between upstream and downstream countries: all countries noticed the pollution impact on the Dutch delta, but they didn’t want to pay for cleaning up the river, because the Dutch industry was still discharging untreated water. In 1971 the Rhine river was so polluted that the river was biologically dead.

After a century of increasing water pollution that harms fish stocks and human health, this disaster with international impact was the moment that the Rhine states realized the river needed to breathe again. The step-by-step process took time, but finally, the Dutch river delta was brought back from the dead by trust-building between states and international cooperation to integrate all water-related interests like navigation, fishery and pollution.

So collaboration between river basin countries is key to addressing the interconnected challenges, from hydropower dams and sea-level rise to groundwater extraction and sand mining.

Let’s talk about water

In each newsletter, a storyteller will join us to talk about water.

This week we introduce you to Ryszard A. Daniel. He is a civil engineer researching, designing and supervising the construction of many projects, such as the Rotterdam Europoort Barriers and the flood protection system in New Orleans and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Ryszard A. Daniel

What’s the most insightful thing you’ve read about water this month?

Allow me to flash back a few years instead of a month. One of the most insightful works I have read is Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine”. It is not particularly about water, but it has two episodes that deal with water disasters and the way of handling them – one in Sri Lanka as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: and one in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. As an engineer, I knew what damage water could do to property, even to lives, but this book shows that water can also wash away cultures. Or perhaps it is not water but the way we handle water disasters.

Do engineers need to prioritize nature-based solutions over ‘grey’ alternatives?

Well, they should anyway consider the nature-based solutions first. I would not speak of a dichotomy ‘nature based’ against ‘grey’; all our projects comprise the parts of both. But indeed, I think we have gone too far the gray way – even the dark grey way. It is also good to realize that ‘nature based’ applies not only to our projects, water control projects in particular but to our entire ways of living. And I mean here much more than switching from a Mercedes diesel to Tesla electric car.

What makes working in river deltas unique?

People. Not that people living in river deltas are unique. They are not, but there are so many of them; and despite their differences, they developed the ways of not only harmoniously living together but also attracting newcomers and visitors. This, of course, affects both the scale of water-related issues and the importance of correct, well-balanced engineering solutions. There is a lot at stake there.

What message do you have for people dealing with flooding?

That’s a tough one. I came across various approaches. In the Netherlands, we design the coast protection structures for a 10,000-year storm; the New Orleans’ levies in the USA are designed for a 100-year storm. I am not going to assess which norm is better, the more because the actual protection depends on more than a norm. It also includes the correct, well-trained acting when the flooding happens. I would say, while using the norms of so-called probabilistic design let us not rely on them too much, particularly let’s be ready to mitigate the impact of flooding when it comes.

What’s your one tip (that doesn’t get discussed enough) for young engineers?

I am 73 already, so it may sound like an old man’s view, but here it is: Do not digitalize and remotely control everything. Our water control structures have more value when they have human operators and are open and communicative to the public. Think about local acceptance, evoking interest and warm feelings, receiving school excursions, and things like that. This really pays back.

Story of the Week

Tuning to the heartbeat of delta

Tuning to the heartbeat of delta

These are those moments of leaving the hotel lobby through a revolving door, and diving into the city's air, that make me feel like being in another world in Ho Chi Minh City.

Video of the Week

Towards resilient deltas with community participation

Wrap up

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See you next time,


Joep Janssen
Joep Janssen
Founder and editor-in-chief Nextblue
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