Mekong Delta farmers lose durian farms to historic drought and salinity

By Hoang Nam   August 5, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
Farmers in the Mekong Delta are chopping down hundreds of hectares of durian trees that were lost to drought and saltwater intrusion.

For years Le Van Thoi has earned VND600-800 million ($25,800-34,400) a year from his durian farm in Cai Lay Town in Tien Giang Province.

Thanks to the 0.65-hectare farm, the 62-year-old’s family has a financially stable life.

This time last year the durian trees in his garden had started blossoming, in time for harvesting in January.

But this year has been a completely different story for the king for fruit. His orchard looks like it was abandoned a long time ago, around the roots of each tree are pieces of water pipes removed and scattered on the ground, which is dry and cracked. Most of the trees are dead and have turned blackish while their leaves have withered.

A corner of a Le Van Thois duriang farm in Long Tien Commune, Cai Lay Town of Tien Giang Province. All of the trees have lost their leaves to drought. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Le Van Thoi's durian farm in Long Tien Commune in Tien Giang Province’s Cai Lay Town. All the trees died due to a drought. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

This was caused by the unprecedented drought and salinity that lasted almost six months in the Mekong Delta.

During the last dry season, from late November to May, the delta, home to 12 provinces and Can Tho City, was hit by the worst drought ever and this caused historic levels of salinity in its rivers.

The rainy season arrived late last year and was shorter than usual, resulting in 8 percent less rainfall than normal at 1,240 mm, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

A series of upstream dams in China have been blamed for preventing the natural flow of water, while the sea level rise and gradual subsidence of southern Vietnam are among other reasons for the salt intrusion in the delta.

Tien Giang and four other provinces, Ben Tre, Long An, Kien Giang, and Ca Mau declared an emergency in early March, followed later by Soc Trang.

By mid-March seawater had intruded 50-110 kilometers into major rivers, all branches of the Mekong, two to eight kilometers more than in 2016, when the region suffered the worst drought in a century.

This year’s lack of freshwater damaged 41,900 hectares of rice and 6,650 hectares of fruit orchards, and 96,000 families struggled to get water for their daily needs.

Thoi had to buy freshwater at VND70,000 ($3) per cubic meter.

"Though I did not dare water them much and did so very sparingly, I spent as much as VND200 million just to buy water for the orchard. Yet I could not save any of it."

At least Thoi has kept his farm while many other farmers did not have such patience.

Along the 20-kilometer road from his Long Tien Commune to Phu Phong, durian wood has piled up from dead trees chopped down by farmers.

Stacks of wood from dead durian trees are placed along a street in Chau Thanh District of Tien Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Stacks of durian wood piled up along a street in Chau Thanh District, Tien Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

They hope to sell them or simply give them away to factories or workshops.

Two kilometers from Thoi’s farm is a 0.5-hectare durian farm with 100 trees belonging to Nguyen Van Phuoc.

Phuoc, 50, has been much luckier: half his trees survived the drought. Last year the orchard generated his family an income of more than VND200 million.

But even the trees that survived are not healthy and are recovering very slowly. Phuoc has sawed them off at the trunk and applied lime to speed up flowering.

Nguyen Van Phuoc applies lime powder at the cut of a durian tree with the purpose to make it grow back again. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Nguyen Van Phuoc applies lime powder on the sawn off trunk of a durian tree to make it grow back again. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Durian is the staple of Long Tien Commune, which has more than 1,100 hectares of orchards. Farmers there have received more than VND4.8 billion ($206,450) worth of aid from the province after the prolonged drought destroyed more than 530 ha of orchards.

Vo Van Men, head of the local Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s plant protection agency, said across the province more than 3,500 ha out of 14,000 ha of durian have been wiped out.

As set out in a 2017 government decree on supporting farmers hit by calamities, farmers losing more than 70 percent of their crop will get aid of VND4 million ($173) per hectare, and VND2 million if the loss is less.

However, despite the enormous loss of durian trees and an expected worsening of the salinity next year, most farmers want to continue growing the fruit next year because it is a traditional crop that yields high profits, the agency found.

"We are helping farmers clean the land and save all the trees that can still be saved. In the long term the province will invest in a system to prevent salinity and store freshwater," Men said.

"The province will also tell farmers to store water from the beginning of a crop to respond quickly should more drought and salinity arrive for the next crop."

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