Saltwater threatens to drown nearly half of Vietnam's paddy fields

By    July 12, 2016 | 05:05 am PT
If nothing's done, "the [Mekong] delta's agricultural production will be exhausted in the next three years."

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, said the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

“If we don’t come up with solutions right now, the delta’s agricultural production will be exhausted in the next three years. And by 2030, up to 45 percent of the Mekong Delta’s areas will be salinitized,” the government’s online news portal quoted Nguyen Van Hieu, deputy minister of Planning and Investment, as saying.

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 took 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.

The historic natural disaster has taken a heavy toll on agricultural production. Thousands of hectares of fruit, rice and sugar crops have been destroyed.

The Department for Agricultural Economy under the Ministry of Planning and Investment said the country's south central region, Central Highlands and southern Mekong Delta have been hit hardest.

Saltwater has made its way nearly 80 kilometers inland in the Mekong Delta, official statistics show.

Experts estimated that the prolonged drought, along with falling groundwater levels, have increased salinity levels in inland areas to as high as 23ppt (23,000 milligrams of salt per liter).

The buildup of salt in soil has reached toxic levels making it impossible for plants to grow.

The intensified saltwater intrusion has hit Vietnam’s 2015-2016 winter/spring paddy crop, which accounts for about 45 percent of annual production.

The Mekong Delta, which accounts for half of the winter/spring output, recorded the highest losses. Official reports show that the drought has hammered the delta’s production down by 1.1 million tons from the same period last year to 10 million tons, the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a food security brief released on July 5.

The FAO forecast that Vietnam’s total rice output is likely to fall this year by 2 percent from last year to 44.5 million tons.

The country’s rice exports will also “decline somewhat, due to a combination of tighter export availabilities and reduced demand”, said the FAO.

Reuters cited industry analysts last month as saying that Vietnam’s rice exports this year will dip 4.45 percent from last year to 6.44 million tons. The country produced a record 45.21 million tons of paddy in 2015 and exported around 30 percent of the output, mainly to China, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Rice has not been the only victim of the prolonged drought and salinity; it has also taken a heavy toll on the country’s shrimp production.

The latest report released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said that as of June, the worst drought and saltwater intrusion in almost 100 years had ravaged 83,000 hectares of shrimp farms.

The southernmost province of Ca Mau, which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s shrimp production, last month recorded a loss of VND260 billion (about $12 million) in shrimp production, with 52,000 hectares of affected areas.

According to a new estimate, the most severe drought and salinity in almost a century has caused some VND4.7 trillion ($300 million) in lost agricultural production in the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam contains 12 provinces: Long An, Tien Giang, Vinh Long, Ben Tre, Dong Thap, Tra Vinh, An Giang, Hau Giang, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang, Kien Giang and Ca Mau, plus the city of Can Tho.

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