The research, which was carried out by the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology, was disclosed at a recent conference on desertification prevention and better water usage policies in Ninh Thuan Province.

According to the study, the hardest-hit localities in terms of desertification are neighboring provinces Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan, both of which are located on the coast not far from Ho Chi Minh City.

The two provinces have the driest climates in the nation and their sand wastelands cover over 131,000 hectares.

In Binh Thuan, the districts of Tuy Phong and Bac Binh have some 35,000 hectares of sand wilderness along a 50-kilometer stretch of coast.

Mobile sand dunes cover some 5,000 hectares.

Due to droughts and strong winds, sandstorms threaten to bury villages and fields of crops, as well as vast sectors of National Highway 1 A.

In addition, mobile sand dunes in Tuy Phong District’s Chi Cong, Lien Huong and Binh Thanh communes are already limiting agricultural output.

In the province of Ninh Thuan, there is a 41,000-hectare wasteland area, accounting for over 12 percent of the province’s total land area, according to a study led by Professor Le Sam from the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research.

According to a survey released last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNESCO, Vietnam has 462,000 hectares of sand along its coasts, with more than 419,000 hectares of this concentrated in the ten central coastal provinces from Quang Binh to Binh Thuan.

Over half of the south central coasts’ three million hectares of land is classified as wasteland.

At a similar conference last year, astudy revealed Vietnam had four areas under the threat of desertification – the south central coast, the north western region, the central highlands, and the 489,000-hectare Long Xuyen Quadrangular Area which covers Kien Giang, An Giang Province and Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta.

Annually, desertification takes away some 20 hectares of farmland while erosion, drought and the intrusion of saline and alum water also damage thousands of hectares of agricultural land.

Vietnam has around 9.3 million hectares of wasteland, the study revealed.

Unearthing the cause

Scientists at the conference identified droughts and unreasonable exploitation of natural resources, especially water and forests, as the major causes of desertification in the region.

Droughts and dry weather, which are typical of the south central coast, threaten up to 25 percent of agricultural lands in the region.

During the last ten years, the region has faced severe droughts with the longest spell lasting nine months in 2004-2005.

Many areas in Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan and Khanh Hoa provinces, which covers some 300,000 hectares, have an average annual rainfall of 500-700 mm, the lowest in the nation.

In addition, deforestation is also to blame for desertification due to its effects of increased erosion and soil degradation.

These environmental catastrophes are partially due to residents’ low levels of environmental awareness.

A lack of adequate long-term agricultural and land use planning is also to blame for the soil degradation and desertification.

If plans do exist, they often do not take into account influences on the local environment and ecosystems.

According to a survey by Nguyen Cong Vinh, a scientist from the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences, some localities have overexploited fresh water causing saline water to infiltrate their fresh water systems.

The hasty cultivation of seafood is also a contributing factor to sea water penetration in coastal areas.

Professor Ha Luong Thuan, from the Vietnam Academy for Water Resources, said the prevention of droughts and desertification were interlinked but they were currently tackled separately in most provinces.

In 1998, Vietnam became the 134th member of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Annually, around VND1 trillion (around US$620 million) is allotted for the desertification prevention program with about 200,000 hectares of trees planted as part of the program.

In 2006, the Vietnamese government signed a national action program to prevent desertification by 2010, focusing on fighting deforestation and implementing sustainable management of natural resources.

Sai Gon Giai Phong / Thanh Nien News - May 26, 2008