Mekong Delta fruit farmers being killed off by saline intrusion

By    July 26, 2016 | 01:24 am PT
Vietnam’s 'fruit basket' is dying, and authorities don't have a solution.

Vietnamese fruit farmers are facing tough choices on what to plant and how much after the prolonged drought and saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta.

For farmers in Ben Tre Province, 87 kilometers west of Ho Chi Minh City, planting fruit trees such as rambutan and durian now constitutes a leap of faith.

Farmers say that the little groundwater that is left is too salty for durian and rambutan.

Van Cong Dao, a rambutan grower in Chau Thanh District, said his 8,000 square meter orchard had either withered or died due to saltwater intrusion, which has driven him to slash and burn the majority of the orchard.

He plans to switch to growing grapefruit which is believed to be more tolerant to saltwater.

Chau Thanh District lies deep inland surrounded by channels and fissures that provide both drainage and irrigation, said Nguyen Van Vang, deputy chairman of the local People’s Committee.

He added local farmers need a dyke system that surrounds the entire plantation area to prevent salt water from leaking into irrigation canals and affecting their fruit crops.

Physical barriers like low-level dams and gates to block saline water from reaching the area are poorly constructed, Vang continued.

Local authorities said the drought has so far damaged 550 hectares of fruit crops, with durian and rambutan the hardest hit.

"We know local farmers have been quick to cut down their fruit trees, but we cannot advise them to replant them because without adequate defenses against saline intrusion, their crops may be killed again. I don’t know how we would explain it to them," said Vang.

In contrast, local agriculture authorities have advised local farmers to continue cultivating their traditional fruit crops rather than hastily switching to other crops, said Nguyen Huu Thiet, head of the Rural Development and Agriculture Department.

Preliminary statistics show that some 13 percent of more than 7,000 hectares of fruit crops in Chau Thanh District has been badly damaged by saltwater intrusion.

Vietnam has been struggling with its worst drought since French colonial administrators began recording statistics in 1926.

A joint rapid assessment, carried out by the Vietnamese government, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations in March, estimated that in the 18 of the country's most severely affected provinces, as many as two million people have no access to clean water and 1.1 million are in need of food aid.

The agriculture sector has taken a hit from the adverse weather conditions, said the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, adding that the sector recorded negative growth of 0.7 percent during the first half of the year.

Tran Van Cua, a durian grower in Vung Liem District in the southern province of Vinh Long, said 60 percent of his 370 durian trees that had taken him between 12 to 15 years to grow had either withered or died due to saltwater intrusion.

He added that last year he earned VND700 million ($31,000) from 30 tons of durian, but expected a sharp fall in output this year.

So far this year, Cua has only been able to harvest 9 tons which may only fetch VND5,000 per kilogram due to low quality.

Ho Van Dung, who owns a 4,500 square-meter durian plantation, said it will take him up to five years of assiduous cultivation to bring half of his farmland back to life.

The Ministry of Planning and Investment forecasts that about 45 percent of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where more than half of the country’s rice is grown, will be affected by saltwater intrusion by 2030 if hydropower dams and reservoirs along the Mekong River stop water from flowing downstream.

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