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Future of Vietnam’s rice production threatened by climate change

23 May 2014 | 05:40:59 PM

Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice and 80 per cent of it is grown in the Mekong Delta, a vast flood plain and one of Asia’s most fertile agricultural zones. But farmers here say the future of rice production is now threatened because of rising sea levels and temperature increases attributed to climate change.

Standing on a beach strewn with bits of plastic and wood, farmer Cung Pham says like many here that he’s already lost the fight.

Pham lives in Tra Vinh province on the Mekong Delta’s seacoast. He used to grow a variety of crops, but today his fields are under water. “We grew watermelon, peanuts and sweet potatoes,” he says. “Then we couldn’t do it anymore because the sea water began flooding our land.”

Joined by other farmers, Pham planted rows of trees and helped build cement dykes but eventually these too gave way to the rising sea. “I kept moving inland gradually but over the last three years the whole area has been flooded and it is impossible to farm,” he says.

Like Pham, thousands of coastal people have lost their land and incomes but now provincial officials say salt water from sea level rise is travelling further inland, threatening more than 220,000 hectares of rice production in just one province.

“Climate change has had a severe impact on the economy of the province and on rice production in particular,” says Truyan Minh Pham, Deputy Director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Tra Vinh, one of the Delta’s 13 provinces. “Saline water now comes every year to the inland areas, which results in reduced production.”

Sixty kilometers from the coast, rice farmer Binh Thach never imagined sea water would be killing his rice crop. He says during the dry season when rivers are low, sea water now moves easily upstream and contaminates the canals he uses for irrigation. This season he expects his harvest will be half of what it was just a few years ago.

“I test the water by tasting it and decide whether it’s good to pump into my rice field or not,” Thach says. “Of course it’s not reliable, we know it’s salty but we don’t know exactly how salty it is.”

Farmers like Thach are in desperate need of information and ideas that will help them adapt to climate change.

Starting this month, a new project co-financed by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Vietnamese government aims to tackle some of the challenges.

Over the next six years, 'Adaptation in the Mekong Delta' is investing US$50 million in activities meant to strengthen farmers’ ability to adapt to the changing environment. "It's hitting the poorest people and ethnic minorities disproportionately," says Roshan Cooke, IFAD’s Regional Climate and Environment Specialist.

The goal of the IFAD-supported project is to create local centers to monitor and forecast salinity and improve irrigation canals and dykes, and help farmers find income alternatives that might include growing something other than rice. The project should directly benefit some 125,000 people in the Mekong Delta rice-growing zone, IFAD estimates.

As part of the project, researchers at Tra Vinh University look for fish species that are more tolerant to salt water and could provide a good income for farmers.

Thuy Pham, Vice-Dean of the university’s Aqua-Agriculture Faculty, says alternatives like fish farming will become more important as temperatures continue to rise. Rice flower pollen becomes sterile at 36 degrees Celsius and higher, temperatures that are increasingly common in the Mekong Delta and other rice-growing regions of Asia. This direct consequence of climate change potentially threatens not only Vietnam's rice crop, but food supplies worldwide.

"If we fail to do the necessary research quickly, food security will be compromised," she says. "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 may not be a big exporter anymore."

Source: VietNamNet Bridge

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