Mekong Eye

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Saltwater Advances in the Mekong Delta

This week that the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s main rice growing region, is being gradually contaminated by salt water moving inland due to the ongoing drought, which in turn is caused mainly by El Nino. Already, 200 000 tons of rice have been damaged. Relief will come with the end of El Nino, which should bring more freshwater to the delta.

By Michael Friedländer , Eatglobe

Can Tho City, Vietnam, February 23, 2016

Eatglobe

This week that the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s main rice growing region, is being gradually contaminated by salt water moving inland due to the ongoing drought, which in turn is caused mainly by El Nino.
The creeping advance of saltwater in the Mekong Delta is reinforced by dams, which have been built upstream the Mekong in Laos and China and reduce the amount of water the river is carrying.
It is estimated that the saltwater intrusion will affect a fifth of the rice paddies in the delta. According to Phat, 200 000 tons of rice have already been damaged, which is about 3 percent of the spring harvest in the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta contributes about a third to Vietnam’s rice harvest, with three harvests annually.

Farmer harvesting rice in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho city, 10 March 2010

Farmer harvesting rice in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho city, 10 March 2010

The year-round rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta and most other rice-growing areas in Vietnam is made possible by the area’s ideal conditions for rice growing – ample rainfall, tropical temperatures, fertile soil and an extensive canal irrigation infrastructure built over the past 40 years.

The spring harvest contributes 44 percent to the delta’s production, followed by the summer harvest with a 38 percent and by the winter harvest with 18 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tourist rowing boat in Tra Su flooded indigo plant forest in An Giang province, Mekong Delta

Tourist rowing boat in Tra Su flooded indigo plant forest in An Giang province, Mekong Delta

With an annual rice production in 2015 of 45 million tons, Vietnam is the world’s fourth-largest producer, after China, India and Bangladesh, as shown by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It rice exports, forecasted by FAO to reach 8.7 million tons in 2016, make Vietnam the world’s third-largest exporter, after India with 10.6 million tons and Thailand with 10.4 million tons (see chart).

It is expected that the El Nino weather phenomenon will peter out in spring or early summer of 2016. This will likely end the extreme drought from which Vietnam and many other parts of the world are suffering, which will increase the supply of freshwater to the Mekong Delta and would thereby halt or even reverse the advance of salt water.

Photo 5

Chart: Eatglobe Data: FAO

Under such a scenario, the negative effects of the salt water intrusion into the delta would be concentrated on the spring harvest and parts of the summer harvest, and will not be repeated in 2017. Furthermore, it is possible that the resulting losses will be compensated by increases in other areas of the country. But even if Vietnam’s overall rice production should decline in 2016, the domestic availability of rice will not be affected as only exports will be cut.

Despite this likely benign outcome, the advance of saltwater in the Mekong Delta serves as a demonstration of how vulnerable it is to the effects of climate change.

Farmer harvestimg rice in the An Giang province in the Mekong Delta

Farmer harvestimg rice in the An Giang province in the Mekong Delta
Story courtesy of Eatglobe, creative commons licensing. 
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