A plan to save the Mekong Delta
18 October 2016 / David Brown
Rising seas and upstream dams are threatening to hammer the fertile region. Can Vietnam act in time to stave off disaster?
- The Mekong Delta Plan is the product of several years’ work by Dutch and Vietnamese officials, supported by a platoon of experts from both nations.
- It's a blueprint for dealing not only with the effects of climate change and upstream dams but also with certain shortsighted activities by the Vietnamese themselves.
- The region's farmers as well as the relevant branches of government must be persuaded to buy into the plan.
This is the final installment of an in-depth, four-part series exploring threats facing the Mekong Delta and how they might be addressed. Read the first, second and third installments.
“I think this year Vietnam got a taste of the new normal,” said Dinh Tuyen, my journalist friend in bustling Can Tho, the Mekong Delta’s hub city. “Less fresh water from rains or from up the river, and more salt water as sea levels rise.”
We’d been talking about a story Tuyen had written in May for Thanh Nien, a leading Vietnamese daily. It featured photos of blue-green river waters, and called attention to a remarkable development: the Mekong’s southern branch was not, as usual, muddy with a cargo of silt.
Tuyen had quoted the IUCN’s Nguyen Huu Thien: “The Delta has been built up by 6,000 years of silt deposits. Each dam that’s constructed upstream on the mainstream or tributaries reduces the river’s sediment load. When the silt can no longer push to the sea, then inevitably the [land-building] process will reverse…and it will be reckoned in mere centuries.”
I asked Tuyen if people he meets on his travels through the region are aware of the ravages that climate change has in store for the Delta.
“Little by little, it’s sinking in,” he said. “They notice when the rains come late, and when they have to drill deeper for fresh water. When they see a story like the one we just talked about, they go ‘Oh, yeah — that makes sense.’ And then, down toward the coast this year, nearly every farmer suffered losses from salt intrusion.”
“So they’re ready to adapt to the new normal?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Tuyen. “They’re hopeful the government can come up with a workable plan.”
Low water in an estuary of the Mekong Delta. Early in 2016,
the Mekong Delta suffered its worst drought in 90 years.
Photo by Cong Han/Thanh Nien Daily News
Experts align behind “no regrets” strategy
There is already a plan. It was presented to the prime minister in December 2013 and it may be politically feasible.
The Mekong Delta Plan (MDP) is the product of several years’ work by Dutch and Vietnamese officials, supported by a platoon of experts from both nations. The Vietnamese participants were drawn chiefly from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which has jurisdiction over climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, heir to two millennia of water management experience. The two Vietnamese ministries rarely agree. However, the Dutch were well cast as facilitators. The Netherlands has plenty of experience keeping the ocean at bay, and the Dutch have run an effective aid program in Vietnam for three decades.
A NASA satellite image of the Mekong Delta.
Remarkably, the two Vietnamese ministers and their Dutch counterpart signed off on a fairly coherent approach to the Delta’s next hundred years. I’ve read all 126 pages, which was a bit of a struggle notwithstanding my own 30 years’ experience as a government official. The document appears to have been drafted in Dutch, translated into Vietnamese, and last of all rendered into a sort of English for the benefit of the World Bank and other possible funders.
Here’s my four-paragraph summary.
1. Rising sea levels, upstream dams and changes in the annual rhythm of wet and dry seasons will hammer Vietnam’s fertile Mekong Delta. Current efforts to produce more and more rice and other exportable crops are unsustainable.
2. Plan an orderly, strategic retreat; don’t try to defend every last inch of shoreline. Reconsider triple cropping of rice in the upper Delta. Build dikes around the heart of the Delta, all of it (roughly) that’s 1.5 meters above current sea level. Dig a big canal to move water south and west from the Mekong’s upper branch. Conserve fresh water by restoring aquifers and building reservoirs, including seasonal catchment behind sea dikes in coastal areas.
3. Accept that for one third of the Delta’s present area, the best outcome is a brackish-water economy. Forget about rice there. Restore mangrove barriers and redesign current aquaculture methods.
4. Anchor the Delta economy in agribusiness. Refocus on wringing more value out of smaller and more diverse harvests. Produce inputs locally. Ensure farmers can borrow to build capacity. Capture more value by branding quality products and marketing through co-ops.
Is Hanoi on board?
Perhaps the strongest point of the Mekong Delta Plan is its “no regrets” feature — what in another policy context U.S. President Barack Obama has famously called “not doing stupid stuff.” It’s a coherent plan that’s mapped to a realistic scenario of climate change, with flexibility to adjust if forecasts turn out to have erred, up or down.
For more than two years, the MDP dropped from the public’s view while ministry officials and their counterparts in the parallel Communist Party structure argued over its elements and emphasis. During a June 2014 visit, flanked by representatives of international development banks and cheered on by Dutch businessmen, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte did his best to nudge the MDP forward. 2015 was not a year for major initiatives, however; the Vietnamese elite was preoccupied by a bitter fight for control of the party that did not sort out until January 2016.
A “Mekong Delta Forum” in Can Tho in late June signaled that things are coming together. Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, referred approvingly to the MDP. Then the new ministers of investment and of the environment talked at length about how long-range planning, realistic objectives and above all, close coordination among ministries and among provinces, could preserve and even strengthen Delta prosperity.
Though he was present, the agriculture minister didn’t join the chorus. That is reason for a bit of worry. Unless there’s strong policy emphasis on a “softer” strategy, the agriculture ministry can be expected to keep doing what it does best — pouring concrete in a futile battle to hold back the sea and pressing farmers to produce more and more bottom-of-the-barrel commodities.
Will farmers buy in?
Innovation’s possible in Vietnam’s agricultural sector, given the right incentives. Dean De at Can Tho University says it happens when four groups align: academics, farmers, enterprises and government officials. That happened in a dramatic way in the 1990s, when export markets were a powerful magnet. Circumstances are different now. Mekong Delta agriculture isn’t challenged by opportunity; rather, it’s a question of salvaging a viable agro-industrial economy during much more difficult times.
Usually the officials are the last to see the wisdom of change, said De. This time, however, much of the government seems to be keeping pace with expert opinion on adaptation strategies. If that’s correct, it’s the farmers whose buy-in is crucial. They must be persuaded to change their habits, not necessarily to earn more, but certainly to limit their losses from climate-driven events and upstream impacts on Mekong River flows.
Farmers transplant rice seedlings in the Mekong Delta.
Photo by Dinh Tuyen/Thanh Nien Daily News
I met Ho Long Phi on my last day in Vietnam, after 10 days’ travel in the Delta. Professor Phi was trained as an hydraulic engineer. Recast as a “social hydrologist,” he’s an expert on farmer motivation.
I ventured that the Mekong Delta Plan sounded like something that people could agree on.
“I disagree,” Phi replied. “It has a very low probability of implementation, even with the support of the multilateral development banks, because it doesn’t take adequate account of farmer attitudes or available resources.”
Phi continued, “Recent survey data collected by my institute [the Center of Water Management and Climate Change at Vietnam National University’s Ho Chi MInh City campus] shows that motivating farmers is the critical factor in preemptive adaptation. Farmers are by instinct short-term profit maximizers. Eighty percent are in debt. Banks won’t lend them money to modernize their production. It’s hard for them to access good, real-time information on markets. No wonder they’re wary of taking risks.”
Later, I flipped through my copy of the Mekong Delta Plan. The MDP’s a big tent. Every good idea makes an appearance. Yes, the MDP addressed Phi’s concern on page 66: “Critical in this approach is direct stimulus to the establishment of farmer associations; direct support in capacity building; credit supply; targeted value chains.”
My ecologist friend Vu Ngoc Long emphasizes the regeneration of the Delta’s “natural sponges,” the now vastly reduced melaleuca and mangrove forests. That’s addressed on page 26.
The measure of success
Much more than might be guessed by browsing Vietnamese newspapers, it isn’t just upstream dam projects or Mother Nature that’s hammering the foundations of the Delta economy.
“Saving the Delta economy” importantly means quitting shortsighted activities that Vietnam can control, like sand mining in river channels, the large-scale removal of mangroves to build shrimp ponds, the draining of aquifers in the brackish water zone — factors which have contributed far more so far to rampant erosion along the coast than the upstream dams’ reduction of the Mekong’s sediment load. It means a dignified burial for Vietnam’s hoary food-security policy, the obsessive pursuit of bigger harvests that has been rendered obsolete by the nation’s integration into the global economy.
The makers of the MDP didn’t hesitate to take issue with conventional wisdom. They dismiss, for example, the population growth scenarios that underlie Vietnam’s five-year plans and “visions” and influence the distribution of budget support. The Delta’s population is not going to grow to 30 million people by 2030 unless the booming greater Ho Chi Minh City economy ceases to lure migrants and Delta families abandon family planning. More likely, says the MDP, population will continue the downward drift of the last decade, perhaps to an optimal level, in a reduced but still prosperous Delta, of about 15 million.
The MDP is a charter for policies that rebuild the fertility of the land and curb pollution, that encourage delivery of higher value food products to the world market and to Vietnam’s own new class of discriminating consumers, and that promise fair returns to the farming and fishing families who anchor the value chain. It will be a gamechanger if it is liberally interpreted and energetically executed.
That’s a substantial “if.” Decision making in Vietnam is top down, but implementation of decisions is often spotty. The provinces tend to turn a deaf ear to edicts from above that they don’t like. And, when what Hanoi ordains is at cross-purposes with local interests, an envelope stuffed with cash often buys harmony at the expense of policy coherence.
Well-aware of this truth, perhaps, the MDP brings to the process an unusually well networked vision, one the World Bank has backed with a $310 million soft loan to support data collection, analysis and decisionmaking on a regional scale. That gives the plan’s regional manager, as yet unnamed, a fighting chance of overcoming parochial interests and bureaucratic friction.
A boatload of rice in the Mekong Delta.
Photo by Richard Vignola/Flickr
Officials in several Delta cities told me that the Dutch advisors have put heavy emphasis on enforcing cooperation among the region’s 13 provinces, because hydrological frontiers do not follow political boundaries. That would be a very good thing if it could happen, they volunteered. My interlocutors’ meaning was clear: Hanoi must compel local jurisdictions to pull together and produce results.
Details of organization and the all-important guidelines for implementation will be revealed at the autumn meeting of Vietnam’s National Assembly, or so I heard. Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue appears to have been tapped to turn plan into reality. Hue’s a rising star, an outsider from the north, an economist with strong ties to the party machinery.
Hue — or if not Hue, another ranking colleague who is tasked with effecting this epic change of direction — will be challenged to implement policies that rebuild the fertility of the land and curb pollution, that hoard and ration fresh water, that encourage delivery of higher value food products to the world market and to Vietnam’s own new class of discriminating consumers, and that deliver fair returns to the farming and fishing families who anchor the value chain. He’ll have to project confidence that the Delta can manage the relentless impacts of rising seas and unruly monsoon storms, and the consequences of upstream meddling with the river’s flow as well.
It’s a tough job, and as the seas rise year after year, one where success is bound to be relative.
- David Brown -