What Future Awaits Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’? | Vietcetera
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Mar 16, 2021

What Future Awaits Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’?

The Mekong River is one of the busiest and most important waterways in Asia. But the least taken care of.
What Future Awaits Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’?

The Mekong Delta is home to unique ecosystems, as well as diverse communities unlike anywhere else in the world. | Source: Shutterstock

Nearly two decades ago, Chau would stay near the river, patiently waiting for her father to come back from hours of fishing. They owned a small boat, but they always had enough catch to sell and eat. But in recent years, the very place her family called home has gone through drastic changes that forced them to move out and relocate. With continuous harsh flooding, dam building, overfishing and sand mining, her family knew it was not anymore safe to stay.

“We moved out 13 years ago. My parents found another job when we came to the city. It’s a big change for us, but the environment in the city is better for us,” she said. They still have their old house there, a few hundred meters from the riverbank, which they visit every once in a while. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to live in the Mekong Delta again.”

The Mekong is a large and complex river system that spans across six countries. The water runs from China, in the Tibetan Plateaus, and stretches over 2700 miles, ending in Vietnam. As the world’s 12th largest river and the 7th longest in Asia, the Mekong is considered one of the richest ecosystems on Earth.

It sees unbelievably massive amounts of goods shipped in and out of its ports on a daily basis, supporting the lives of more than 60 million people who depend on it for their livelihoods. It has, for centuries, served as the prime reason why the countries that surround it became the world’s leading rice producers. In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta accounted for 56% of the total rice production, or about 6% of the world’s rice. About 65% of the country’s aquaculture and 70% of its fruits are grown there, and then exported to different countries, contributing to almost 20% of Vietnam’s gross domestic product. It is, to state the obvious, one of the busiest and most important waterways in Asia. But the least taken care of.

In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta accounted for 56% of the total rice production, or about 6% of the world’s rice. | Source: Shutterstock

Mekong River at breaking point

The issue of climate change is not specific to Southeast Asia, but the region is foreseen to feel its worst effects. From the different kinds of pollution to the emission of CO2, the region is at the risk of experiencing nature’s revenge.

In 2013, Mekong Delta farmers experienced having their entire fields destroyed by saltwater that flooded into soils, which gave birth to what farmers now call “salty season”. Because the volume of water flowing to the mouth of the river has declined (brought by low levels of fresh water), the seawater now intrudes inland and into farm lands. Saline water destroyed hundreds of hectares of rice fields, which eventually resulted in yield loss and decreased quality of crops. The same scenario happened in 2015, sending farmers once again deep into poverty.

In 2019, monsoon rains failed to arrive on schedule, causing unexpected drought along the Mekong Delta, killing rice and fruit crops. Water levels in the Mekong dropped to their lowest in 100 years, killing the marine creatures that used to thrive beneath its waters. The rains eventually came, but it didn’t last long enough to quench the thirst of the land.

According to an article from National Geographic, more strange things have happened since then. Some places in the north have seen the water change to an ominous color and began filling with globs of algae. Catches have dwindled dramatically — and if there were fish caught, they can only be used to feed other fish.

Experts also pointed out that unsustainable agricultural practices have greatly contributed to the Mekong Delta’s degradation. Vietnam’s “rice first” policy allows farmers to grow three crops a year, instead of the traditional one or two. While this has contributed to about 15% of the rice traded globally, it also increased the risk of pests and diseases, depletion of soil nutrients and increase of indirect export of water.

Vietnamese farmers grow three crops a year, instead of the traditional one or two. Source: Shutterstock

The nutrients that are taken from the soil are increasingly being replaced with fertilizers and other soil amendments, but that is likely to only be a temporary fix, reads a report from Future Directions International. If the practice continues, it is projected that five of the 16 Vietnamese river basins are likely to experience water stress during the dry season by 2030.

But that’s just a part of the overall picture. Hydropower dams, experts say, are the worst contributors. As about two-thirds of the water that flows into Vietnam comes from outside its borders, the country has no direct management to the majority of the Mekong River. At least 160 dams have either been built, under construction or are planned on the tributaries of the river. China has 11 dams on its section (and nine more planned by 2030), while also financing dam constructions in other countries.

The dams and reservoirs have already caused evident damage on fisheries, as they block sediment from flowing downstream. By 2040, as much as 97% of the sediment could be trapped behind dam walls, posing a loss of more than $760 million per year to Vietnam’s fishing and agriculture sectors.

Building a sustainable future

Last Saturday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc led a conference on climate-resilient and sustainable development of the Mekong Delta. Stressing the historical, cultural and economic importance of the delta, the prime minister acknowledged the critical challenges it faces due to climate change.

Forty percent of the Mekong Delta region will be underwater by 2100 due to the impact of climate change unless measures are taken immediately, Vietnam’s leader relayed.

He also highlighted Government Resolution 120 - Sustainable and Climate-Resilient Development of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam — which was issued in 2017 to develop socio-economic solutions that mitigate the effects of climate change.

After three years of implementation, the resolution helped attract investment in green agriculture, improved value chains and opened opportunities for the delta’s agricultural products to reach the world market, all while following sustainable practices.

The Mekong River is a lifeline to over 60 million people who live along its course. Source: Shutterstock

Large-scale concentrated agriculture production areas have been formed with key agricultural products such as shrimp, pangasius, rice and fruit. Processing technology has also been improved, helping to create value chains for agricultural products, according to Viet Nam News.

Resolution 120 was highly considered a huge step for Vietnam to pave the way for a more sustainable future in the Mekong Delta, according to Carolyn Turk, World Bank director in Vietnam. She further noted that the World Bank mobilized $2.2 billion for research and investment activities in the region to help identify pain points and find the most feasible solutions to prevent the impacts of climate change.

She applauded the Vietnamese government’s innovative ways and approach to sustainable development, while also pleading to continue the organization’s work to make the delta climate-resilient.

Minister of Transport Nguyen Van The also mentioned the ministry’s investments in transportation projects that greatly improved the region’s infrastructure (road, maritime and inland waterways).

PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc concluded that there are still so many things to do to fully steer the Mekong Delta way from further destruction. Mentioning the “8G” points in the revised Resolution 120 — Giao thong (traffic), Giao duc (education), Giang (rivers), Gan (connecting), Giau (rich), Giỏi (talented), Gia (ageing) and Giới (gender) — the Vienamese leader emphasized the interconnectedness of different factors and sectors in creating strong actions that ensure a sustainable future to the “Rice Bowl'' of Vietnam.