With 17 million inhabitants, the Mekong Delta is one of the world's most densely populated regions. It is also one of Vietnam's most productive agricultural areas. However, the delta is increasingly challenged by the effects of climate change.

A consortium contracted to devise a 100-year flood management plan for Vietnam’s Mekong Delta will deliver its first set of recommendations to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in March. The plan will be a road map for design, planning and dedicated funding, like the one devised by the Dutch Delta Commission for the Netherlands in the year's following 2005's shocking devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.

The consortium, led by DHV Engineering Consultancy, Amersfoort, the Netherlands, won a $980,000 contract in December to provide consultancy services for the so-called Mekong Delta Plan. Under the 18-month contract, the consortium will create a strategic, 100-year vision, including guidelines for strengthening water governance and developing short-term structural measures for the period between 2015 to 2025.

“There are many plans and designs already in the delta,” says Dick Kevelam, DHV’s leading professional in coastal development, speaking from the firm’s Shanghai offices. “What is special about this is, it takes all of those plans and combines them together to see what type of direction Vietnam should take for the long term. It’s the same exercise we did in the Netherlands after [the North Sea flood of] 1953 and again after Katrina.”

After Katrina wrought so much devastation on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Netherlands government’s eyes were opened, Kevelam says. “The Netherlands government recognized that all big projects are typically realized after a disaster,” he says. Katrina prompted the 2007 formation of a Dutch Delta Commission, which devised a multibillion dollar plan to strengthen the country’s water defenses against the effects of global warming for the next 190 years.

“One big chunk of this [Mekong Delta] project is not only to design or plan measures but to define and manage change in the delta’s governance structure,” Kevelam says. “That is still the biggest challenge in the Mississippi Delta. In New Orleans, the [U.S. Army] Corps is making short-term measures, but those don’t address the issues when you look further away,”

Vietnam and the Netherlands signed a strategic partnership arrangement in October 2010, so that climate-change and water management experts could work collaboratively on devising long-term plans for managing resources in the two countries, which are likely to be among the countries most affected by global warming. Funding for the project comes from both countries through the Partners for Water program.

After the flood of 1953, the Netherlands managed to put together a strategic plan for the next 50 to 100 years, a plan which included funding stipulations. “Katrina set a new agenda of thinking,” Kevelam says. “We know we have to plan further out because we know it takes a few decades for design and planning.”

For the Mekong project, the DHV consortium will look at worst-case scenarios of climate change and how the current delta system will respond, then propose mitigation measures.  “We’re going to make some thinking about new technologies in the coming decades and decide if we can build higher dikes or if we have to change the whole thing,” Kevelam says

With 17 million inhabitants, the Mekong Delta is one of the world’s most densely populated regions and one of the world’s largest rice exporters. “It’s very low-lying, only 80 centimeters [roughly 31.5 in.] above sea level,” Kevelam says. “It’s a very flat area, like a big pancake.”

With climate change, the extremes between the annual flooding and drought seasons are increasing. “It’s a natural system now, so when the river flooding comes, the delta is partly flooded like a big storage basin,” Kevelam says. Although annual flooding of 50 cm is acceptable, it has increased in recent years to as much as 1.5 meters, which seriously affects salinization of agricultural land, urban development and industrialization.

The consultancy contract was awarded by the Dutch government’s NL Agency, the contracting agency under the ministry of international affairs. Other members of the consortium include Royal Haskoning, Nijmegen, Netherlands; Wageningen University & Research Center, Netherlands; Deltares, Netherlands; RebelGroup, Rotterdam; and UNESCO-IHE, Delft.

Following the March presentation of initial recommendations, the consortium will deliver a policy paper and suggested programs to Vietnam’s prime minister by May 2013.