Rising sea levels threaten farmers' livelihoods in Vietnam

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A UN agency has stepped in to help farmers adapt to climate change in the Mekong Delta, writes Nina Tietzel.

Vietnam's Mekong Delta is one of Asia's most fertile agricultural regions and is frequently referred to as the 'Rice Bowl of Vietnam'. 

But the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)has warned this status is under threat by climate change. 

According to IFAD, rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather are posing serious challenges to farmers in the Mekong Delta, where 60 per cent of the country's rice is grown. 

Many farmers, including Cung Phan, have already lost the fight against the changing environment. 

Cung Phan used to grow fruit and vegetables near the coast, but the land he used to cultivate is now under water. 

"We grew watermelon, peanuts and sweet potatoes. Then we couldn't do it anymore because sea water began flooding our land," he said.

Cung Phan said he built new dykes together with other farmers, but they did not hold up for long. 

"Some of us could not cultivate anymore... because the land was flooded," he said. 

These days, Cung Phan relies on a small allowance from his children to survive. 

Beyond a coastal problem 

Rising sea levels also present a problem for farmers further inland - many say their crops are spoilt by increased salinity in their rice fields. 

The reason: salt water from the ocean flows upstream and contaminates fresh water canals on the way - as far as 20 kilometers inland.

For Binh Tach, a rice farmer in Tra Vinh province, this is resulting in the loss of many of his crops. 

"Saline water is coming into our rice field. Especially at this time of year, the salt level is very high. (...)The rice is not growing well. It's dying." 

Excessive heat can also spell the death sentence for a rice harvest; when a crop is in flower, temperatures above 36 degrees Celsius can make pollen sterile. 

Temperatures in Tra Vinh frequently exceed that critical point- with dire consequences for farmers in the Delta, who say they can no longer keep up the production of one of Vietnam's most important agricultural crops. 

Rice is a staple food of the national diet and a cornerstone of the economy; after Thailand, Vietnam is the world's second biggest exporter of the grain. 

UN action to help 'disproportionately affected' poor 

The situation in the Mekong Delta is raising concerns beyond Vietnam's borders. 

"The situation is quite critical for farmers in the Mekong Delta," Roshan Cooke, IFAD's regional climate and environment specialist, told SBS. 

"They're dealing with increasing temperatures, erratic rain fall, leading to water stress, and also increasing salinity effects. On top of that,  they have been exposed to a greater number of extreme events. They're beginning to see typhoons and cyclones tracking further south and hitting these southern provinces, which historically did not get affected by extreme events."

Starting in May, a new project co-financed by the Rome-headquartered IFAD and the Vietnamese government is aiming to reverse the alarming trend. 

Over the next six years, 'Adaptation in the Mekong Delta' is investing A$53 million to strengthen rural people's capacity to adapt to their changing environment - especially the poor.

"It's hitting the poorest people and ethnic minorities disproportionately," said Mr Cooke, who works on the project as a technical specialist.

IFAD's goal is to benefit 125,000 vulnerable people, by targetting "specifically female-headed and ethnic minority households, in the Ben Tre and Tra Vinh provinces in the north-east Mekong Delta".  

The investment will be spent on building better dams and dykes, the improvement of irrigation canals - and science. 

Researchers at Tra Vinh University are testing a new variety of rice, which is resistent to heat and can grow in salt water. 

Thuy Phan, the Vice-Dean of the university's Aqua-Agriculture Faculty says swift success is crucial. 

"If we fail to do the necessary research quickly, food security will be compromised," she said. 

"If farmers can't grow rice, they will shift to other crops because it's not a good business for them. So in the long run Vietnam will not be a big exporter anymore."

Mr Cooke is also concerned about Vietnam's future rice production capacity.

"Curtailing the climate change impact is extremely important." 

Source SBS

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