Farmers nestle in rice fields as they work in Can Tho.
Rice growing in the Mekong Delta will need to be reduced as the region is likely to face a water shortage in the next decade, leading agriculturalists have warned.
Professor Vo Tong Xuan, one of Vietnam’s leading agricultural experts, said local rice farmers do not know how to use water economically and each hectare of farmland now consumes more than 20,000 cubic meters of water.
That means the 3.8 million hectares of Mekong Delta rice needs more than 76 million cubic meters of water per year, or one sixth of the region’s annual intake from the Mekong River, Xuan said.
Although rice cultivation requires a large quantity of water, supply has never been a problem in the Mekong region before, thanks to the river.
But now experts are warning that climate change and upstream hydropower projects will siphon off much of the water before it reaches Vietnam’s main food-growing region.
‘Crazy’ concerns coming true
David Dapice, professor at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Vietnam, said the rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers would eventually weaken the flow of the Mekong River over the next 10 years.
He added that several hydropower plants to be built on the Mekong River in China, Thailand and Laos would worsen the problem in the delta. The river flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before flowing into the ocean via several distributaries in southern Vietnam.
Dapice said people in the delta were also exploiting too much groundwater, a practice that could threaten both water supply and quality.
“More than 10 years ago it would have been crazy to say the Mekong Delta would ever run out of water,” said Nguyen Minh Thong, former director of the Can Tho Department of Science and Technology. “But concerns over a future water shortage are becoming real.”
“The region’s economy depends heavily on water, but provincial authorities haven’t mapped out any coordinated plan to deal with the issue,” he said. “In fact they’re even competing with each other to see who’s got the largest rice area.”
Thong said many people knew about the looming impacts of climate change but chose to ignore it because “it hasn’t hurt anyone yet.”
No avoiding the issue
Vo Hung Dung, director of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s branch in the city of Can Tho, said reducing rice area was a crucial task the Mekong Delta could not avoid.
“Such an idea, if brought up now, is likely to face objections from both central and local governments because the agricultural sector, especially rice farming, contributes a lot to the economy,” Dung said.
“I know it is impossible to have the Delta rice fields shrunk now as millions of farmers would be affected,” he said. “But if the issue is raised now, we could understand it clearly and consider it thoroughly so that a plan for the future can be created.”
“We have to face the truth,” he said.
Some have argued that reducing the Delta’s rice growing area would send poverty rates skyrocketing.
But Dapice said maintaining a large area for rice farming would not necessarily keep poverty levels where they are as the water shortage would cause rice outputs to drop. He suggested the government shift the focus away from rice cultivation.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has already planned to reduce the rice area in the Mekong Delta by 150,000 hectares over the next 20 years, but experts have said it would be difficult to realize such a plan.
Do Van Xe, vice president of Can Tho University, said many farmers do not know how to cultivate anything other than rice. “If the government wants them to switch to soy beans, for example, what should it say to persuade them?”
Experts said that although growing corn and fruit requires much less water and is more profitable, many farmers still favor planting rice as the market for the staple was secure.
Xuan said the government should start thinking about completely reforming the rice farming sector in the Delta. Concrete plans to switch to other plants needed to be mapped out for rice areas expected to be most affected by climate change, he said.
Dung, on the other hand, suggested that former rice areas could be zoned for the industrial and service sectors. But he noted that the industrialization process must be planned carefully so that it can create enough jobs for farmers displaced from their rice fields.
According to the Vietnam Food Association, the Mekong Delta produces about 60 percent of the national rice crop and accounts for 99 percent of its rice exports. The delta, which is home to 22 percent of the country’s population, also produces 60 percent of the nation’s seafood and 80 percent of its fruit crops, a report by the United Nations said.