HANOI, Vietnam, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Vietnam's Mekong Delta is at risk from rising sea levels due to climate change, experts warn.
Known as the Rice Bowl of Vietnam, the 15,000-square-mile region produces half the country's rice output of 49 million tons a year, with 80 percent of its population engaged in rice cultivation.
"Rising sea waters will cause inundations to the Mekong and will require drastic changes in lifestyles," said Dao Xuan Lai, head of sustainable development at the U.N. Development Program in Vietnam, The Guardian newspaper reports.
People will be forced to switch crops and innovate, he said. Those close to river banks and river mouths have already had to find different ways to make a living in fresh water.
Even if all emissions worldwide were stopped now, the water would still rise about 8-12 inches in the next few decades, Lai said.
"People in this region are still very poor and will need help from the international community to survive this," he said.
The World Bank considers Vietnam among the countries most threatened by rising waters brought about by higher global temperatures.
Basing its research on warnings from international organizations that sea levels will increase by 11.8 inches in 2050 and 3.28 feet by 2100, a study by the Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment says that with a 3.28-foot rise, up to one-third of the Mekong Delta and a quarter of Ho Chi Minh City would be permanently submerged.
Rising seawater is also turning the rivers of the Delta salty, with saltwater at four parts per thousand already reaching 35 miles inland, causing significant damage to crops and livestock, particularly affecting rice production.
Rice cannot be grown in saline conditions. Other typically strong crops, including oranges, lemons and coconuts, cannot be grown in higher concentrations of salt.
"I have to travel five hours upstream by boat to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking," Vo Thi Than, a 60-year-old woman who lives beside a dock and operates a small restaurant on the small delta island of Cu Lao Oc, told The Guardian.
"A long time ago, there was no salty season at all. Now, five months a year the water is salty," she says.
To address the problem, Vietnam's Southern Irrigation Planning Institute has devised a six-point irrigation plan that includes upgrading of canal networks that lead water from rivers to cultivation areas in the delta but work isn't expected to be completed until at least 2030.