Is Vietnam in for Another Devastating Drought?

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Is Vietnam in for Another Devastating Drought?

Lessons learned from last year’s disaster can shape a climate-resilient approach in the Mekong Delta.

Is Vietnam in for Another Devastating Drought?

A farmer burns his dried-up rice on a paddy field stricken by drought in Soc Trang province in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (March 30, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Kham

The Tet Holiday (Vietnamese lunar New Year) has come to an end, marking the commencement of a new dry season in Vietnam’s lower Mekong Delta. Right now in coastal provinces around the Delta, thousands of farmers, especially those who miserably suffered during last year’s historic drought, are mobilizing to prepare for another similarly devastating drought, which is expected to arrive in the Delta in a few weeks.

During last year’s dry season, the record drought, followed by saltwater intrusion, cost Vietnam VND 15 trillion ($669 million) due to the heavy toll on agricultural production. It also caused dire humanitarian and other economic impacts: almost half a million households lacked fresh drinking water and experienced food shortages and thousands of affected people had to migrate to urban areas in search of jobs. The drought was mainly caused by Mekong upstream dams built by China in connection with El Nino effects.

To mitigate agricultural losses caused by a possible repeat of the 2016 double disaster – severe drought and inland salinity intrusion, remarkably exacerbated by Chinese dams – most of the disaster prone provinces of the Delta have begun to secure freshwater by all measures available to them. In many vulnerable communes in Hau Giang, Ben Tre, and Tien Giang provinces, farmers have used water tanks to collect rain-water and drilled wells to extract groundwater. They also have reduced the annual rice crop and switched to cash crops that require less water. Meanwhile, local authorities have been dredging canals and irrigation facilities and setting up fresh water pipeline networks in hotspots of drought. In addition, a number of temporary dams and desalination plants are being built in a hurry around the Delta to prevent saltwater from entering the major waterways.

However, many local peasants and environmentalists still remain worried about the future of the Delta. “These are necessary yet palliative measures,” said an environmentalist at Can Tho University who requested anonymity. “Acute drought like what happened last year will happen more frequently in the future since the region’s ecosystem is already damaged by non-sustainable development and Chinese dams, which are affecting everything from water levels to water temperature to fish migration patterns and trapping of silt.”

The environmentalist and other local activists are deeply concerned that if China remains slow and reluctant to release adequate water throughout the period of low water, like it did last year, downstream agriculture will be endangered, thus once again generating environmental risks for the whole Lower Mekong Basin.

In addition, Chinese dams on the Mekong’s upper reaches also trap as much as 80 percent of the sediment that reaches the region. The Mekong River’s silt is vital to fertilize the Delta’s vast low-land areas, since it replenishes nutrients that wash away during monsoon season and sustains the delta against rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Thus, even though the Mekong Delta authorities and people can secure freshwater for dry season, without upstream water and sediment supplies this low-lying delta may not escape inevitable erosion and disintegration, which are likely to arrive earlier than estimated in recent sea level rise scenarios in Vietnam.

The impacts of Chinese dams became more glaring and irrefutable in the last year’s drought, which ruined downstream agricultural-rich regions along the Mekong. In short, China has been partially responsible for the dire situation across the region. However, as I argued in The Diplomat previously, Beijing’s responses to the problem remain controversial and different from what its state leaders have vocally pledged in regional and bilateral cooperation forums. Given this fact, the Mekong Delta’s farmers remain pessimistic and stoic as they don’t know how much longer they can make a living from farming.

“Worry or don’t worry, it’s no different and does not matter because we are voiceless,” said Lam Ngoc Tien, a 32-year-old ethnic Khmer farmer in Binh Dai district, Ben Tre province, where the 2016 drought’s traces remain clear and present. “We can’t control climate change with hotter and hotter weather nor stop dam building by upriver countries. And when their impacts come to us at the same time, it is a real nightmare that downstream low-land ordinary farmers like us are being forced to bear,” he added.

There are a few weeks left for the Delta’s people to get ready and well prepared to cope with a new drought season. It’s worth looking back at the recent developments and incidents in the Mekong Delta to unravel some enduring lessons for Vietnam’s government and people in their approach to climate-resilient development in this biodiversity-rich yet vulnerable region. We hope these measures will help them avoid a crippling double disaster like that of last year, as we wait to see more responsible responses from China to substantially alleviate the low-water season in downstream regions.

Lesson #1: A Decades-Old “Growth First” Policy Meant Irrecoverable Environmental Costs 

Since the establishment of the first industrial zone in Can Tho City some 20 years ago, all of the provinces in the agriculture-rich Mekong Delta have emerged to compete against each other in developing industrial zones and inviting foreign investments, triggering a persistent “industrialization race” in the region. To boost economic growth, the provincial authorities have assertively revoked fertile agricultural land for private development projects. According to a report by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), the Delta’s authorities have en masse established as many as 74 industrial zones and 214 industrial clusters with a total area of about 42,000 hectares – most of which was revoked from high-yield agricultural production areas along the major waterways. Many villages well-known for their specialty fruits and rice (such as green-peel and pink-flesh grapefruits, king oranges, durians, milk apples, and fragrant rice in Long An, Dong Thap, Hau Giang, Vinh Long, Can Tho, etc.) have been industrialized without serious considerations for food security and environmental impacts.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in these industrializing villages have given up their ancestral land, which is both their major property and means of production, and moved to resettle in urbanized areas. Some of these households suddenly became richer thanks to multi-million VND compensations for their revoked fields, but without the necessary preparation and capability for a new, non-farming livelihood they soon returned to poverty, working as low-cost labors in factories erected right on their former land.

More ironically, only a small portion of the more than 40,000 hectares mentioned above has been substantially industrialized, yet immediately those few projects become high-profile pollution emitters doing a lot of harm to the local environment and ecosystems. Meanwhile, the majority of the revoked land remains unused so far due to either foreign investors deciding to withdraw from contracts or multi-billion dollar projects that proved unrealistic, causing huge waste and agricultural losses year after year as the land lies empty. Eventually, what’s left behind are blighted jungles and polluting factories scattered like tombstones across the Delta. This situation further contributes to the Delta’s environmental degradation, raising local temperatures and shrinking the regional forest cover area and farmers’ orchard density. These dwindling forests and orchards play a major role in moderating climate hazards such as scorching days, drought, and floods since they are able to detain and store the sheer volume of water during the wet season underground beneath the water table.

Lesson #2: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

While their counterparts around the Mekong Delta are struggling to cope with the severe weather conditions, farmers in Cu Lao Gieng islet on Vietnam’s Mekong River – a representative disaster prone area in the delta, located near the Vietnam-Cambodian border – have been celebrating a big Tet Holiday after another fruitful year in 2016.

For generations, Cu Lao Gieng rice farmers harvesting their shining emerald paddies have completely relied on the Mekong River, which formed their triangular islet, to water their crop. But since being increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change and Mekong mainstream dams, instead of crying over environmental change, the islet’s peasants have proactively switched to growing high-yield mangoes which they named “xoai ba mau” (mango of three colors) since the mango skin changes from green to a reddish purple when it ripens. Farmer Nguyen Hoang Du, the pioneer who imported the seeds and popularized this kind of mango in the isle commune, summarizes his great idea and contribution succinctly in a loud voice: “Many farmers in here now become millionaires thanks to the mangoes.” He adds that the villagers are no longer worried about the changing weather nor decreased upstream water flows.

Du is among dozens of farmers in the islet who have been lifted out of poverty since they decided to get rid of their traditional plants and switched to growing the large three-color mangoes some five years ago as their own way of coping with the environmental change. Along with earning hundreds of millions of VND from year-round mango harvesting, the isle farmers are benefiting from a remarkable tourism income since their orchards are becoming eco-tourism hotspots in An Giang border province. “These achievements are very impressive and significant to reduce the commune’s hunger and poverty rate,” said Huynh Van Cuong, chairman of the commune’s People’s Committee. He informed the local media that provincial state authorities have strongly supported this climate-resilient agricultural model by providing multi-million VND financial aid to help the farmers’ mangoes meet the national Good Agricultural Practice (VietGap) standards.

The isle farmers’ enduring efforts to triumph over adversity finally paid off. The way they have simply yet miraculously overcome the environmental hurdles that are facing the entire Delta reminds Vietnam’s government and other affected people elsewhere of a popular moral: God helps those who help themselves. As the furthest downstream country set to shoulder the increasingly unbearable impacts of Chinese-backed Mekong mainstream hydropower projects, Vietnam could take a leaf out of the Cu Lao Gieng farmers’ book by sustaining freshwater-based agricultural activities and protecting local ways of life while boosting community-based ecotourism.

This economic development model may look familiar elsewhere, but it is really invaluable in the fragile Mekong Delta since it appears to perfectly link ecological protection to poverty alleviation in the region, enabling vulnerable communities to effectively deal with the dangers and impacts simultaneously posed by climate change and Chinese dam-building projects. In this respect, the isle farmers’ approach further reveals a clear policy alternative for Vietnam’s self-help climate-resilient strategy in the Delta, instead of waiting in vain for any “water savior” to emerge from among its upstream neighbors. What the government will have to do, among other things, is to empower and provide enough avenues for concerned citizens to raise their voices on issues of national importance while realizing the ambitious agricultural development strategy, which aims to develop a “sustainable, modern and high-value agriculture in the Mekong Delta,” as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in remarks at the Mekong Delta Forum in June 2016.

Lesson #3: A Need for a “Rice First” Policy

The farmer-billionaires’ success story in Cu Lao Gieng also sheds some light on why Vietnam should seek a “rice first” policy, which advocates freshwater-based agricultural production, at least in the near future, in its Mekong Delta. First of all, related to the first lesson, hasty industrialization without careful preparation — both increasing local authorities’ capability in industrial administration and environmental management and preparing farmers to take up non-farming jobs — may inevitably accelerate the environmental risks posed by Mekong upstream dams and result in social disorder due to spontaneous migration and a soaring poverty rate.

Second, the Mekong Delta remains the core agricultural production base in Vietnam, not only contributing significantly to both national food security and agricultural exports, but also playing a key role in the country’s economic development. The delta’s agricultural sector in particular is a rich source of inputs, such as the capital that comes from agricultural exports and invested and income-based savings, to feed the growing industrial and other modern sectors of Vietnam’s economy. Thus, the more agricultural land area in the delta shrinks, the more serious potential threat Vietnam’s economic growth may face.

Third, even though the Delta is deemed as the country’s biggest “rice bowl,” producing agricultural products year-round, hunger and poverty remain challenges, especially during the dry season. The humanitarian crisis due to food and freshwater shortages, promptly followed by sky-rocketing food prices, during last year’s drought highlights the need to strengthen the local capacity of agricultural production and foster a self-reliant food supply.

Fourth, in recent years farmers in coastal provinces such as Soc Trang, Ca Mau, and Bac Lieu have transferred from rice farming to a shrimp-rice model, which is believed to have potential to be more sustainable and profitable than traditional rice cultivation. However, it is worth observing that most rice-shrimp farmers in the Mekong Delta remain unsuccessful while the local environment and mangrove forests are irreparably damaged due to saline contamination after a few crops of shrimp breeding. From the standpoint of environmentalists, climate variability, increased water temperature and salinity, and rainwater scarcity coupled with pollution all make it quite difficult to grow rice in the wet season, while shrimp farming is being increasingly affected by uncontrollable disease outbreaks and sub-optimal water quality. As a result, shrimp-rice farming communes appear extremely vulnerable to food and freshwater shortages during the dry season since their fields and shrimp ponds, heavily contaminated by saltwater, are no longer usable for rice or any other vegetable farming.

Thus, as long as local irrigation systems and network of dams and desalination plants remain incomplete and inefficient, the delta’s state authorities and farmers will have to secure their freshwater-based agricultural areas by all means in order to prevent further expansion of agricultural land contaminated by saltwater intrusion.

Lesson #4: It’s Time for Local Wisdom

The above-mentioned success story from An Giang’s multi-billionaire village demonstrates that the Mekong Delta’s farmers, most of whom are not well-educated, can enrich themselves with creative agricultural production models, which may further generate new jobs and supporting economic activities on the spot. On the other hand, it also underscores the local inhabitants’ wisdom and experience in adapting to the changing environmental context on their own. Apparently, these isle villagers have enhanced their capacity to solve climate hazards and mitigate dam-building’s impacts by accommodating traditional farming paradigms to fit neatly into their changing ecosystem. Such local wisdom should be acknowledged as an important part of the region’s broader approach to climate-resilient development.

From the standpoint of policymaking, local peasants’ tactics to respond to changing climate conditions should be incorporated into the government’s decision-making. Thus, any policies or measures suggested by either policymakers or experts should not just look fixedly at the exercise of educating — or, more bluntly, imposing their perspectives and solutions on — the local people; rather, they should pay more attention to local wisdom with a view toward moderating the delta’s development process for all actors’ benefits – farmers, economic stakeholders, and local authorities.

Concluding Remarks

Climate hazards, notably floods and drought, are not new phenomena in the Mekong Delta. However, the last year’s historic, devastating “double disaster” drought serves as the most visible example to understand how fierce climate hazards can be when they are facilitated and exacerbated by Mekong mainstream dams. To make thing worse, the non-sustainable industrial development undertaken by the delta’s state authorities adds another danger to this environmental security risk, undermining regional ecosystems and increasing social disorder. Still, the success story of farmer billionaires in Cu Lao Gieng, a disaster prone isle commune in Vietnam’s Mekong River, appears to reveal promising prospects for Vietnam’s self-help climate-resilient strategy. Even though the region has witnessed some relative stability and improvement in environmental protection, it pays for Vietnam to remain prudent and patient in policymaking.

While pursuing anti-dam diplomacy over the Mekong River, Vietnam needs to practice self-reliance by sustaining freshwater-based agriculture, boosting agricultural modernization attempts, and learning local wisdom. All these are necessary steps for a climate-resilient development strategy, especially when the Mekong River Basin continues to be fraught with foreseeable environmental security risks and complex inter-boundary impacts.

Nguyen Minh Quang is a lecturer at the School of Education, Can Tho University, focused on conflict studies and environmental security issues in Southeast Asia. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of Can Tho University.