MO CAY, Vietnam (Reuters) – In the dead of the night, the entire front of shopkeepers collapsed Ta Thi Kim Anh's house. The pitch on the sandy beaches of the Mekong River only took a few minutes to half of everything she owned to jump into her dark depths.
"Our kitchen, our laundry room, our two bedrooms, all gone," said Kim Anh, who spoke among her twisted metal and rubble, from which she still sells eggs, soap and instant noodles to villagers in Ben Tre, a province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta region.
"We would rather stay in a hole instead," said Kim Anh, who used coconuts and old tires to strengthen the riverbank during her home.
Upstream embankment and extensive mining of the Mekong riverbed to the sand, causing the land to sink between the scattered network of rivers and canals near the mouth of one of the world's great rivers at a rate of about. 2 cm (0.75 inches) years, experts and officials said.
The 4,350 km long river, known as Lancang in its top row, flows from China's Tibetan plateau along the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, through Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where it forms the delta known in Vietnam as "Nine Dragons".
Reuters visited three provinces across different branches of the delta, where it has supported agriculture and fishing communities for millennia.
Throughout the region, local authorities are struggling with a rapid pace of erosion, destroying homes and threatening livelihoods in the Southeast Asian nation's largest rice producing region.
An important cause is the years of upstream in Cambodia, Laos and China, which have removed crucial sediment, say local officials and experts.
This sediment, which is essential for controlling the mighty Mekong currents, has also been lost due to an insatiable demand for sand ̵
"It's not a problem with the lack of water, that's the lack of sediment," says Duong Van Ni, an expert on the Mekong River at the College of Natural Resources Management of Can University, the largest city in the Mekong Delta region.
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At this time of year, the Mekong waters used to flow into Vietnam as a milk-brown crawl, the locals and officials said.
Now the river is running clear. And without fresh sediment from upstream, the deeper river bed creates stronger currents, which in turn eat away at the banks of the Mekong, where those who rely on the river for their livelihood have their homes.
The problems began when China built its first hydroelectric power stations in the Upper Mekong Basin, Ni said at Can Tho University. It left Laos, Cambodia and Thailand as the main source of sediment for Mekong in Vietnam, he said.
The sandmine industry in Cambodia boomed during over the past 10 years, partial demand from wealthy but cramped Singapore, where it is used to reclaim coastal lands, culminated in a ban on all Cambodian sand exports in 2017 under pressure from environmental groups.
However, hydropower projects remain. Earlier this month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen opened a hydroelectric power of 816 million. USD in Stung Treng Province, close to the Laos border, built by companies from China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
So far, the new dam is the Southeast Asian nation's largest hydropower project and will have catastrophic consequences for the fishing and biodiversity of the Mekong River, environmental groups say. She Sen has rejected criticism of the project as he says benefits Cambodia and its people.
"Since China has built hydroelectric plants, the new sand almost never reaches us," Ni said. "If we use the sand we have here, there will be no more".
China's Foreign Ministry said in response to Reuters question that it "attaches great importance to the concerns and needs of the downstream countries on Mekong" and adds that its regulation of water flows from water dam "has already become an important instrument in prevention of floods and droughts ".
Singapore's Ministry of National Development said in a statement sent to Reuters that the city state is importing sand on a commercial basis from various countries. "We have strict controls to ensure that suppliers get sand in accordance with the laws and regulations of the source country," it said.
SLINGSHOTS AND SAND THIEVES
Regional officials in southwestern China's Yunnan Province have disappeared the dam collection on Mekong as "fully legally compatible".
However, downstream the problem gets worse by thieves illegally reminiscent of sand, usually at night.
"The unlicensed sand workers are very fast and rude," said Nguyen Quang Thuong, vice president of Ben Tre Province's agricultural department, to Reuters in a recent interview.
"They avoid very quickly, so it's very helpful to get groups of local people to help the authorities."
Such a group in Ben Tre, some of which are as old as 67, have used homemade weapons such as. slingshots and rudimentary catapults to drive sand thieves away.
"We patrol 24/7, and in the first few months we managed to get rid of 90 percent of the thieves," Nam Lai, one of the groups, said. "Since 2018 none of them dare go near our beach".
Still worry about activists and environmental groups that at Mekong running through six countries with competing needs to exploit the river's hydropower potential, the damage has already been done.
Pianporn Deetes, at the International Rivers Campaign Group, who has been working on Mekong for two decades, said there was a lack of political will among the countries sharing the river to recognize cross-border effects of such projects.
"Without recognition of the existing problems, I do not think there is any hope," she said.
Reporting by Mai Nguyen and James Pearson; Further reporting by Kham Nguyen and Minh Nguyen in MO CAY, Vietnam; Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH; Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing Alex Richardson