Vietnam’s main coconut growing area stressed by salinity

By Hoang Nam   August 12, 2020 | 08:47 pm PT
Historic levels of saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta have caused coconuts in Ben Tre Province to shrink by half in size and farmers’ incomes by even more.

One afternoon in early August, Tran Trung Tac, owner of a dwarf coconut grove, opens 100 coconuts one by one for their water for making caramel sauce used to braise fish and meat.

The 70-year-old from Giong Tom District in Ben Tre, the country's biggest producer of coconuts, has been forced to make caramel sauce because the coconuts now are far too small to sell to traders.

From being the size of a stretched human palm, they have now become just half that.

"Each dwarf coconut should have at least 250 millimeters of water but now there is just half or even one-fourth of that, and more than 200 coconuts make just one liter of caramel sauce these days," Tac said.

Coconut farmer Tran Trung Tac opens a dwaft coconut fruit to get water. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Coconut farmer Tran Trung Tac opens a dwarf fruit to get water. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

He said the elevated saltwater levels in rivers used for irrigation are the reason the fruits are no longer as they used to be.

In his 5,000-square-meter orchard, most trees are over 20 years old.

In previous years he could sell his coconuts for VND130,000-180,000 ($6-8) a dozen, and earn some VND3.5 million ($150) a month.

The monthly income has now dropped to just VND180,000-350,000 since it is difficult to sell the smaller fruits.

Tac and other farmers are in a dilemma over their future course.

He used to grow sugarcane and rice before switching to dwarf coconuts. In the initial years he intercropped pomelo and lime in his grove, but the coconuts trees proved that only they could endure the salinity, which sometimes has risen to 5,000 milligrams per liter.

"The only solution I can think of now is to fertilize the coconut trees to help them recover. If I switch from coconut and the salinity gets worse next year, I will not know what to do."

Hoang Nuoi is a coconut trader in that neighborhood who buys from farmers. For the past decade he has been buying 1,000-2,000 nuts every day.

"This year coconuts are the worst ever. Their cost has therefore dropped dramatically. Dried coconuts now fetch VND90,000 for a bunch of 40 instead of just 12 fruits."

Farmers place coconuts along the streets of Ben Tre with hope that they could sell it to traders. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Farmers show off their coconuts along the streets of Ben Tre hoping a trader will buy. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Ben Tre is the coconut capital of Vietnam. It has the largest total coconut-growing area in the country -- 74,000 hectares (182,800 acres) -- mostly in the two districts of Giong Tom and Mo Cay Nam.

Ben Tre and four other Mekong Delta provinces, Long An, Kien Giang, Soc Trang, and Ca Mau, declared an emergency earlier this year.

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 as water flowed inland from the sea.

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 is seen as preventing the natural flow of water, while the sea level rise and gradual subsidence of southern Vietnam are also blamed for the salt intrusion in the delta.

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 had 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, while 96,000 families struggled to get water for their daily needs.

It has now become common in Ben Tre to see coconut trees with withered flowers or coconut fruits dying young due to salt intrusion.

The province agriculture department said around 20 percent or 14,000 hectares of coconut areas have been hit by salinity and drought.

Under a government decree on relief for people affected by natural disasters, coconut farmers will get a subsidy of VND4 million per hectare if more than 70 percent of their crop is damaged and VND2 million for those with 30-70 percent damage.

"The department sent its personnel to show farmers how to lead water into irrigation canals to wash the soil and use organic fertilizers," Huynh Quang Duc, the agriculture department’s deputy director, said.

A woman holds a dwaft coconut whose size is just half compared to normal. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

A woman holds a dwarf coconut. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

To prepare itself should drought and salinity return next dry season, Ben Tre has started dredging the Kenh Lap reservoir in Ba Tri District to store water during the ongoing rainy season.

With a capacity of more than one million cubic meters, Kenh Lap is the delta's largest reservoir. It ran dry in April.

Some 5,000 cubic meters of mud would be removed from its bed to ensure a consistent 2-meter depth for the reservoir, a manmade one that is nearly five kilometers long and 40-100 meters wide.

The dredging is scheduled to be finished by the end of this month, and authorities will then let water in from the Kenh Lon River.

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