Yearlong farming cycle is bleeding Vietnam's Mekong Delta dry

By    September 21, 2016 | 03:26 pm PT
Yearlong farming cycle is bleeding Vietnam's Mekong Delta dry
Farmers harvest rice at a paddy field October 8, 2014. Photo by Reuters
Vietnam's rice basket is facing a tough choice.

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s rice bowl, might just avoid saltwater intrusion risks if farmers abolish the third rice crop and give the environment enough time to recover from the stressful farming cycle, environment experts said.

The Vietnam authorities earlier this year predicted in a report that about 45 percent of the delta, where nearly half of the country’s rice is grown annually, will be affected by saltwater intrusion by 2030.

Rice farmers in the region have built thousands of dykes to stop floodwater flowing from upstream in the Mekong River and cultivate an extra crop in the final months of the year.

For example, a total 1,100 kilometers of embankment embracing the provinces of Kien Giang and An Giang and the city of Can Tho have reduced the volume of floodwater by half to 4.5 billion cubic meters in 2011 from 9.2 billion in 2000.

Larger dykes built in the 2000s allow farmers in the country’s stronghold of booming rice industry to plant a third crop on the same acreage.

However, the ongoing construction of an elaborate embankment network across the region has not only been extremely costly but also disrupted the region’s ecological complex in significant ways, said Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent environment expert.

High dykes are blamed for blocking the natural flows of water and depriving downstream floodplain farms and fisheries of key source of nutrients, which has in turn contributed to a gradual decline in fish populations, Thien explained.

Besides, with the high dykes, farmers can extend their rice cultivation period, using more agricultural chemicals, which then pollute and cause water and soil to acidify, he continued.

Studies show that after 20 years, the amount of fertilizers, used to produce 1 kilogram of rice during the extra crop, is forecast to increase by 40 percent.

“Preliminary statistics show that after 15 years of planting the extra annual rice crop in tandem with seasonal floods, we have lost VND47.8 million ($2,000) per hectare or VND7 trillion ($300 million) in total,” said Thien.

He stressed that, unlike popular belief, the third crop has not lifted freshwater rice farmers out of poverty since the extra income from extending the traditional rice growing season is small, about VND5 million ($200) per hectare, compared to the damage.

The environment scientist called on the government to abandon the third crop, a move that he said will benefit both the farming output and the environment in the long term.

“The Mekong Delta will be able to prevent saltwater intrusion during the dry season. Enacting such a measure is much better than asking China to release water from its upstream hydropower reservoirs,” Thien said.

This year Vietnam has struggled with the worst drought since French colonial administrators began recording statistics in 1926.

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 the hardest.

Saltwater has encroached nearly 80 kilometers inland in the Mekong Delta, official statistics show.

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

The Mekong Delta, whose winter/spring output makes up half of the national number, recorded the highest losses.

Official reports show that the historic natural disaster has hammered its production down by almost 10 percent to 10 million tons from the same period last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States said in a food security brief released on July 5.

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 amount, mainly to China, the Philippines and Indonesia.

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