How climate change is already disrupting lives in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

| 18th August 2017
A farmer in Mekong Delta examines the extent of flooding in the region.
Climate change its causing flooding and droughts that damage agricultural land in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. The "rice bowl" of Asia produces 57 percent of rice production for the country - including 80 percent of its exports. ROBYN WILSON met the farmers facing ruin.
Floods come in a very unexpected way so farmers cannot grow rice and if the flood water comes sooner than expected

Farmers in the tropical southern region of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta today continue to build dams around their fields to protect the land from severe weather.

Fearing a major drought or flood - both of which have destroyed swathes of crops in recent years across provinces such as Bến Tre and Sóc Trăng - they are hoping these new barriers will stop saltwater from seeping into the soil, rendering it infertile.

Rising sea levels and global temperature increases are causing dramatic droughts and floods in the Mekong region, which are hitting families hard.


Local people cannot cook


“In my hometown, local people don’t use the national water source,” explains Tan Hung, who is from the coastal province of Bến Tre.

Like many people in the Mekong Delta, Tan’s family use underground pumps to source fresh water for day-to-day use. But when a severe drought hits, it reduces river levels and allows salty seawater to push inland.

“When this happens the local people lack the ability to take a shower or even cook because the river water they usually use has reduced,” Tan explains.

Floods come in a very unexpected way so farmers cannot grow rice and if the flood water comes sooner than expected

The saline intrusion not only reduces the amount of fresh water available to the local people but it penetrates their soil and eventually cripples their crops.

Grandmother’s coconut and grapefruit trees


Famed for its coconut groves, fruit orchards and rice paddy fields, Bến Tre is an area with acres of fertile land but when a serious drought hit in April last year these lush lands turned into a dried-out, salt-covered plots.

Tan’s grandparents own a farm in the area and sell the likes of lemons and coconuts to small markets nearby but in 2016 they were left emptyhanded.

“The fruits on my grandmother’s coconut and grapefruit trees didn’t grow at all and their lemons were very small,” he explains.

For families in the region that rely on farming as a source of food and income this is a big concern. Statistics by global research group the CGIAR show that the total amount of agricultural land in the Mekong Delta stretches over 2.6 million hectares. 

Rice bowl of Vietnam


From this land, it produces an incredible 50 percent of Vietnam’s overall food, through rice, fruits, fish and shrimp – making up the bulk of the region’s products. This part of Vietnam also accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the Mekong population’s income and food security.

Known as the “rice bowl of Vietnam”, rice production in the Mekong Delta is particularly crucial. Not only does it produce 57 percent of the country’s total rice production but it also provides 90 per cent of the country’s overall exported rice, according the CGIAR. 

Provinces in the Mekong with the largest rice areas include An Giang, Kien Giang and Dong Thap – all of which are have fallen victim to extreme weather patterns over recent years.

Swathes of rice crops, which need water at specific points in their growing cycle, can be completed wiped out from drought and flooding.

Climate change worsens


As Thi Mai, who is from Bến Tre, explains, “Floods used to come in August and last until November but this is no longer true.” She says that the flooding season is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

“Floods come in a very unexpected way so farmers cannot grow rice and if the flood water comes sooner than expected, they suffer a lot of damage,” she adds.

Entomology professor Michael Hoffman of Cornell University in the US says droughts and flooding can be exacerbated by external factors like farmers having no crop insurance.

He went on an exploratory trip in March 2016 along with a group of Cornell University students to assess the country’s future as climate change worsens. “This is a real danger because it’s their source of food and income,” he says. “It has a huge impact.”

A lower wage


This can be seen within rice cultivating provinces like Tra Vinh, which has also suffered from severe droughts and floods. 

Sua Saday, who is from the province, says his family and many others lost their crops to the 2016 droughts and estimates that rice production has dropped by around 50 per cent as a result.

Professor Hoffman says that these stressful farming conditions are having a hand in driving the youth away from the region to seek alternative work.

Le Tuan Tai, a 22-year-old from Tien Giang Province says this has started to happen in his hometown. “Many of the youth are deciding to flee to the cities to find jobs, even with a lower wage, because this is one of the stable things they can do,” he explains.

Due to melting glaciers


“They just cannot rely on farming anymore. Maybe you can be a millionaire this year but next year you could be a loser.” And the effects are set to worsen still, with sea levels rising at an increasing rate due to melting glaciers.

Research by the National Ocean Services shows global sea levels rose to a record high in 2016, measuring around 3.25 inches higher than the 1993 average (when sea-level satellite records began).

This is why companies like the International Union for Conversation of Nature are helping Vietnamese communities better prepare for the effects of climate change.

IUCN programme manager Andrew Wyatt says one of the major issues that the region is dealing with today is maladaptation.


We have to act now

He says that by understanding and implementing solutions like controlled flooding and reduction in underground water pumping (typically used for intensive shrimp farming) the impacts of climate change could be reduced.

“We have to act now before it’s too late,” Mr Wyatt says, whilst highlighting the latest figures by the NOAA showing that sea levels could rise by as much as 2.6 meters by 2100. 

Compare this to conservative sea level rise estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of 40 cm by 2100 – the result of which could flood coastal populations from 13 million to 94 million people – and the need to act sooner rather than later becomes all the more imperative.

This Author

Robyn Wilson is a freelance journalist currently writing and travelling across Asia. She is a former news editor at Construction News. She blogs at Weird Fishes and tweets at @RobynFWilson.

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