Salt Wounds Vietnam’s Rice Crop

Vietnamese rice farmers are facing tough times this year as drought continues to punish the country's rice bowl bringing salt levels in the Mekong delta to record levels.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is already reporting that more than 200,000 metric tons of rice have been damaged, resulting in a loss of over 1 trillion VND ($44.64 million U.S.) to the region. It's a number that is likely to grow as the ministry expects salinity in the delta to reach its highest level in a century.

According to the ministry, saltwater intrusion appeared two months earlier than previous years due to serious river water shortages that are caused, at least in part, by dry conditions that began in 2013. If the drought persists until June, it could put some 500,000 hectares of rice crops at risk.

Not only is the drought harming rice farmers, but Hanoi blames the dry weather for a fresh water shortage affecting some 575,000 people throughout the region.

"The source of water this year is lower than before, this leads to deeper salinization compared to previous years," Duong Van Ni, an expert of Can Tho University told RFA. "This is partly due to the weather conditions."

El Nino effect

Both 2013 and 2014 were drier than usual, while 2015 saw the complete lack of the normal flood as an El Nino began to grip the Pacific, he said. The drought and more upstream agricultural development in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are pushing saline levels up, he explained.

"Because of El Nino effects this year, the water is very salty," rice farmer Ben Tre told RFA. "Normally it is not salty after Tet, but this year the water was salty since the tenth month of the lunar year last year."

Salinity in the Vam Co, Tien and Hau Rivers and other rivers in the delta is now higher than traditional levels. Meanwhile, saltwater has intruded upstream 50 to 60 kilometers into the mainland, and even 93 kilometers in the Vam Co River's neighborhood, about 15 to 20 kilometers deeper than previous years, according to local media reports.

The problem has caught Hanoi's attention as Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attended a Feb. 17 meeting at Can Tho where he pledged VND 2.3 billion (U.S.$ 103,132) in government aid for farmers in the region.

The government has organized a meeting with relevant ministries and leaders of all 12 Mekong Delta provinces on Monday to discuss solutions, according to TuoiTreNews.

River stress

The Mekong River delta has been under stress for quite some time as many countries in Asia see the river 2,700-mile-long river as a road to industrialization. Countries that have a claim on the Mekong have built dozens of dams along the river.

China and Laos see the river as a way slake the region's thirst for electricity as well as for agriculture and flood control. By 2020 Beijing wants to produce 282 gigawatts of hydroelectric power, and Laos wants electricity to become its major source of revenue by 2025.

Daming the river changes its water flow and is expected to have impact on agricultural production downstream, and particularly in countries like Vietnam that lie near the Mekong's mouth. Dams block sediment that normally flows into the delta, causing it to shrink.

Add in the effects of climate change which is causing sea levels to rise,and the Mekong gets hit with an environmental double-whammy.

While the government is taking action to ease the burden for rice farmers and others living on the delta, Duong Van Ni said it could be too little too late.

"Irrigation projects have been carried out. Dykes to prevent salinization have been built in some place, and in others farmers have even changed their crops," he explained. "However, most of the measures are just for the short term and do not address the issue for a longer term. I think what they need to do is to provide people with capacity to deal with risks."

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