The Mekong Delta is yearning for opportunities

August 21, 2022 | 04:54 pm PT
Carolyn Turk World Bank Country Director for Vietnam
If you enter "10.196725, 105.544721" in Google Maps, it will take you to a location in the Co Do District of Can Tho City. An orchard spanning several thousand square meters appears on the screen. Why does the orchard stand alone?

Drag the mouse to the right a bit, you will see the National Highway 91 - a backbone road of the Mekong Delta - just a few hundred meters away. Around this highway, you will see countless orchards and vegetable farms. Yet at our location, only an orchard is spotted in the middle of a vast rice field.

The orchard is a property of Mr. Chin Hop in Trung Hung Commune of Co Do District. Mr. Chin was one of the first local residents who invested in orchard growing. He made such a decision because of a new road and bridge, which now connects his farmland to the National Highway. For the first time, the traders’ cars could reach his farm.

For many years, despite living no more than 100 meters away from the National Highway, people in this village could only transport rice by boat because a canal separated them from the outer world. Rice could travel slowly by boat, but fruits need to be moved quickly – something which was not feasible with muddy roads and boat trips.

A small bridge built in 2020 has sparked hope for the whole community. Yet strikingly, this bridge was made possible only by community donations. Farmers like Mr. Chin have been on the side lines for decades as activities blossomed on the other side of the canal, where there is a national highway, a fruit barn, and a wholesale market.

The tale of Mr. Chin, whom we met during our trip to the Mekong Delta, is filled with hopes. But, at the same time this story represents the situation of countless others who are desperate for change and investment. For such a long time, most of the local youth have abandoned farming and left their hometowns to seek better opportunities. Many of them, born into poverty, could not finish schools and have to opt for manual labor. According to the General Statistics Office, as of 2020, the Mekong Delta had the lowest proportion of trained workers in the country – only 14.9% of workers there had completed either vocational training or higher education. Meanwhile, 37% of domestic migrants originally come from the delta.

Farmers harvest rice in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Anh

Farmers harvest rice in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Anh

Lack of connectivity is just one of the many challenges facing the region. The delta is a global hotspot for climate change, the only region in Vietnam where the poverty rate (using the World Bank classification for low middle-income country) increased between 2015 and 2019. This has been further compounded by the dual crisis of droughts in 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic.

June 21, 2022 marked an important milestone in the region’s development story when the Government of Vietnam launched the Mekong Delta Integrated Regional Master Plan 2021-2030, with a vision to 2050. This is the first time Vietnam has developed an integrated regional master plan which involves both central ministries and provincial authorities.

This effort once again demonstrates the whole-of-government approach and a strong commitment to promoting sustainable development and enhancing the climate resilience of the Mekong Delta.

The challenge, though, lies in the actions that will have to follow.

Here I would like to stress the three recommendations I made at the launch event, which I think will be key to translate the master plan into concrete actions. First, keeping a strong focus on efficiency and effectiveness. Second, ensuring vertical and horizontal coordination. And third, keeping the master plan a living document.

The tale of Mr. Chin whom you met earlier shows us that a small intervention, when done properly, could still transform the entire community. But we need to speed up these interventions. Only a few farmers can afford an orchard or a shrimp pond when the surrounding areas are set aside for rice cultivation. And while waiting for that bridge to arrive, young people continue to leave their villages, giving up dreams and opportunities at home. The problem will get bigger and harder to solve over time.

The master plan will not work unless we have an action program that clearly sets out investment priorities that match with available resources. With an estimated financing need of at least US$57 billion between now and 2030, it is important to focus on high urgency and high impact actions and ensure that financial resources will be used efficiently and effectively while maximizing the social and environmental benefits.

Second, the master plan cannot be implemented without collaboration across sectors and different levels of government. This is where current institutional and legal framework could be amended to enable regionwide and interprovincial investment programs that require collaboration across provincial jurisdictions. The Mekong is a region of shared problems of eroding river banks, rising seas and complex water management challenges. As the problems flow across the provincial boundaries, so must the solutions to these problems.

And finally, we need to keep the master plan a "living document." Vietnamese people love a quote by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life." It is critical that an effective feedback mechanism is put in place to allow for continuous reflection and revision. During our field trips in the Mekong Delta region, we were constantly amazed at the amount of knowledge a commune official could provide – he quickly pointed out obsolete pieces of information in the local planning maps.

The execution of the master plan requires the participation of all parties, and we are honored to be part of this. The World Bank is committed to bringing our global knowledge and financing to work in partnership with the government, development partners, private sector, and other key stakeholders to transform the Mekong Delta into a prosperous and climate resilient region.

For us, even without meeting him in real life, we can all have a better sense of people like Mr. Chin. He is an honest and hard-working Delta farmer, who is always searching for opportunities to improve his life. Mr. Chin and his peers hang on to their hopes that life will only get better and are eager to take action. All it takes for such people to fulfill their dreams are the right investments at the right time.

*Carolyn Turk is the World Bank Country Director for Vietnam.

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