Scientists are looking for ways to save one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. 

Southeast Asia’s Mekong Delta River could be mostly underwater within a lifetime, according to an international team of researchers. 

Saving it would require urgent, concerted action among countries in the region to lessen the impact of upstream dams and better manage water and sediments within the delta. 

A new article in the journal Science outlines solutions to the region’s dramatic loss of sediment essential to nourishing delta land.

“It's hard to fathom that a landform the size of the Netherlands and with a comparable population might disappear by the end of the century,” said study co-lead author Matt Kondolf, a Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The Mekong Delta is truly outstanding in terms of agro-economic value and regional importance for food security and  livelihoods,” said study co-lead author Rafael Schmitt, a senior scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. 

“Without rapid action, the delta and its livelihoods could become victims of global and regional environmental change.”

To slow and reverse damages, the researchers recommend that policymakers:

  • Design dams to enable better sediment sediment passage, place them strategically to reduce their downstream impacts, or replace them with wind and solar farms, where possible.

  • Strictly regulate sediment mining and reduce use of Mekong sand through sustainable building materials and recycling.

  • Allow floodwaters to spread out over the Delta and deposit their sediments

  • Limit groundwater pumping in the Mekong Delta

  • Reevaluate intensive agriculture in the Mekong Delta for sustainability.

  • Implement natural solutions for coastal protections on a large scale along the delta's coast

Most efforts to rehabilitate the delta have involved individual countries approaching isolated engineering challenges, and proposing solutions on local scales, according to the researchers. 

Making meaningful progress will require coordination among countries, development banks, development agencies and other private and civil society stakeholders, the researchers write.