- Vietnam’s investments in the Mekong Delta helped turn the nation into a top rice exporter and, subsequently, a manufacturing powerhouse.
- Today, however, the “rice first” policy has become unsustainable, as climate change threatens the fertile Mekong Delta region in Vietnam’s south.
- In recent years, policymakers have grappled over how to gird the country’s most important agricultural region against the effects of rising seas and upstream dam building.
- This article is the first in a two-part series on the future of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
On any list of places menaced by climate change, Vietnam’s broad and fertile Mekong Delta ranks near the top. And yet, as I wrote for Mongabay four years ago, rising seas and changing weather patterns are not the only threats to the delta’s fabled fecundity.
A spasm of dam building upstream in Laos, China and Vietnam’s own Central Highlands has suppressed the annual floods that until recently brought great quantities of nutritious sediments to the delta and flushed out brackish water. And then there’s institutional inertia: Vietnam has been slow to abandon a four-decade policy focus on maximizing rice production.
Perhaps change has been slow because Vietnam’s “rice first” policy worked so well at the end of the last century when, desperate for export earnings, the nation invested heavily in dams and dikes to tame the annual floods so that farmers could grow two and in some places three crops of rice annually.
Those investments ensured the nation’s food security. By the late 1990s, Vietnam was challenging Thailand as the world’s No. 1 rice exporter. Invested in manufacturing, earnings from rice exports speeded Vietnam’s transformation into a very competitive producer of goods for world markets.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, perhaps, that planners, politicians and particularly the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) were slow to acknowledge that the rice-first policy was becoming unsustainable. Nor did they see that the huge investments in dams and dikes designed and built to maximize rice production reduced the delta’s hydrological resilience and the ability of its farmers to profit from changes in the natural environment.
And yet, when I visited the delta for several weeks in the summer of 2016, it was already clear that things had to change. The fourth and last of my reports in 2016 ended on a hopeful note: senior officials in Hanoi and in the delta were studying a proposal that had emerged from several years of discussion among Dutch and Vietnamese experts.
Known as the Mekong Delta Plan (MDP), it emphasizes adaptive measures in place of an “ever more complicated array of hydraulic works.” It is impressive in its clarity. In summary:
- Acknowledge that rising sea levels, upstream dams and changes in the annual rhythm of wet and dry seasons are rendering unsustainable the regime’s efforts to produce more and more rice.
- 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, the part that’s (roughly) 1.5 meters (5 feet) 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.
- Accept that for the lower 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.
- 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.
‘A pragmatic decision’
This autumn, locked down at home in California by the pandemic, I read in Vietnamese media that work had begun on the Cai Lon-Cai Be Project. The CLCB is the Ministry of Agriculture’s answer to the infiltration of seawater into the rice fields that stretch along the western side of the Mekong Delta as far as the eye can see.
When the CLCB was conceived, rising seas, depleted aquifers and changing weather patterns were not yet a recurrent threat to the delta’s agricultural economy. Written into Vietnam’s 2010 Five-Year Plan, the CLCB was just one more big job for the ministry’s hydrological engineers, the team that had tamed the Mekong’s annual flood pulse.
Years later, Vietnam’s prime minister approved the equivalent of $142 million for the first phase of the project. Soon, local media reported, a MARD-affiliated company would begin building giant sluices to prevent salt water from contaminating a 346,000-hectare (855,000-acre) expanse of rice fields.
The Vietnamese news outlets also reported widespread skepticism about the CLCB project. An independent expert accused MARD, among other things, of using fear of climate change impacts as a bogeyman to sway public opinion in favor of a massively overengineered and poorly researched “solution.” A professor argued that the problem was not brackish water but rather MARD’s obsession with growing rice instead of cultivating other crops, shrimp and fish that are suited to local conditions.
Nguyen Ngoc Tran, who’d led a seminal survey of the delta’s hydrology in the 1980s, chided MARD for ignoring the government’s Resolution 120. He was referring to guidelines on “Sustainable and Climate-Resilient Development of the Mekong Delta” that had been issued in November 2017 after extensive discussion by Vietnam’s top leaders.
In Tran’s view, Resolution 120 established a clear preference for smart, flexible, “nature-friendly” responses to changing climatic conditions. The CLCB project instead would invest in “structural measures” that could not be easily undone. “If we keep putting patches here and patches there before we are sure that our solution is right,” Tran argued, “we’ll simply do more damage to our environment.”
A senior MARD official snapped back. The way he saw things, academic experts ought to be helping the ministry to mitigate negative effects, if indeed there were any, instead of opposing the whole CLCB irrigation project.
Was this, I wondered, evidence that the Mekong Delta Plan is just so much hopeful talk? By email, I checked in with some of the local experts I’d met four years earlier.
Not at all, they answered. Parallel to the CLCB hydroengineering project, important elements of the MDP were already being implemented.
In the upper third of the delta, farmers in the An Giang Quadrangle and Plain of Reeds areas are delighted that triple cropping of rice has been abandoned. The high dikes have been breached, restoring a vast freshwater flood plain.
In the central zone of the delta, MARD no longer insists that farmers grow a spring rice crop; they are allowed instead to grow crops that can withstand the salty water that now infiltrates up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the river mouth. However, orchards are suffering, and increasing year-round availability of fresh water is an urgent objective.
And, in the delta’s lowest third, a heated argument continues between those who insist that large tracts can be preserved as rice fields and those who believe that brackish water aquaculture is the key to the prosperity of the coastal strip. The MDP tilts strongly in favor of reestablishing mangrove forests along the delta’s long coastline and, behind this “soft” barrier, giving priority to high-value-added shrimp farming.
Fresh water is now a scarce resource in the Mekong Delta. Near the coast, aquifers are severely depleted and, behind the sluice gates, canals are polluted. In the central area, also, surface water is now brackish for much of the year. Much planning therefore centers on trapping fresh water in upstream areas during the wet season and, in the dry season, steering it to thirsty sectors downstream.
My sources — professors at the University of Can Tho, a freelance environmental consultant, and expat staff of the IUCN — say there is already considerable informal buy-in to the MDP. At the local level and also at high levels of the Vietnamese government, the plan is generally considered to make a solid argument for flexible adaptation to stresses on regional fertility. Even though the MDP represents a sharp break with established practice and has a foreign parent, its logic has been compelling.
For the Vietnamese and their Dutch colleagues, the MDP process is not just about the environment, but also about how a deteriorated environment weakens the delta’s economy and its social development. Recent scholarly research confirms that already in 2016, “the MDP [had] indeed been influential in introducing new ways of thinking about both delta problems and transformative strategies for agribusiness development. Minds have changed at all levels of the planning system, though change at the local level remains most limited. Implementation is fragile, however.”
What seemed most doubtful then and remains uncertain now is whether the approach that the experts have urged can be made compatible with Vietnam’s rigid, top-down style of policy planning.
How rigid? Consider the CLCB, a project conceived some 15 years ago. If there’s wide agreement that it no longer fits the circumstances, why hadn’t it been called off, I asked my expert sources.
“Frankly,” said one, “we made a pragmatic decision. The CLCB’s first stage was funded. It had momentum. Rather than continue to fight that one and lose, we decided it was more important to press for the integration of the MDP into the next five-year plan.”
(to be continued)
Banner image caption: A farmhouse sits on stilts above a flooded rice paddy in the Mekong Delta. Photo by Daniel Hoherd/Flickr
Analysis: Years in the making, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta policy takes the long view
- A vast experiment in land and water use management is now underway in the Mekong Delta, the part of Vietnam most threatened by the destabilizing effects of climate change.
- Competing visions for how to manage the delta in a new era of rising seas and upstream dam building have pitted adaptive fixes against more mechanical ones.
This article is the second in a two-part series on the future of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Read the first installment here.
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is approximately the same size as the Netherlands — about 41,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) — and is home to 17 million people, very nearly the same population as the Netherlands. Perhaps that made dialogue easier.
Unlike many foreign experts, the Dutch participants in the Mekong Delta Plan (MDP) dialogue were patient and brought plenty of relevant experience to the table. They were able negotiators, too; though officials from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) and Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MONRE) are natural rivals, the Dutch were adept at keeping both sets of Vietnamese participants engaged in productive conversation.
The group reached agreement that the environmental health of Vietnam’s vast and hugely fertile Mekong Delta could not be sustained by deployment of an “ever-more complicated array of hydraulic works.” At the end of 2013, after four years of discussion, the experts signed off on a 126-page plan that was strongly biased toward adaptive rather than mechanical fixes.
Like all foreign experts, the Dutch were eager to see progress. Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited Hanoi in 2014 to urge quick action. The World Bank promised a $310 million soft loan to support regional-scale data collection, analysis and decision-making.
In Hanoi, however, it was as though the MDP had disappeared into a black hole. From the perspective of high officials there, 2014 and 2015 weren’t a good time to make big policy decisions. Vietnam is a single-party state, and the Communist Party was preoccupied by an unusually bitter factional struggle.
Not until midway through 2016 could a set of new leaders focus on the experts’ proposals. As always, they did not share details of their internal debate with the media. However, late in 2017, two new documents signaled that the party-state had decided to embrace both the MDP’s prescriptive analysis and unusually close collaboration with foreign “development partners.”
The first of these documents was Government Resolution 120, policy guidance on “Sustainable and Climate-Resilient Development of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.” Resolution 120 acknowledged, in effect, that the delta way of life is being hammered not only by climate change and the harmful effects of many dams being built far upriver, but also by the consequences of short-sighted government decisions in earlier times. A coordinated response was urgently required. It would be developed by the national authorities in accordance with the concepts laid out in the MDP.
The second document was a revised Law on Planning. As amended, the Planning Law mandated the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) to implement multisectoral planning at the regional level. In other words, planners and policymakers were empowered to address the delta as a coherent whole. However, there was as yet no such entity as a “region” in Vietnam’s administrative structure. Regional institutions would have to be built from scratch.
Cross-sectoral planning is intuitively a good thing, but when local officials and political leaders have little experience in such cooperation, it is not so easy for them to bring about. Nor do Vietnam’s ministries have a tradition of cooperation. Agriculture, environment, transport, construction and other ministries have long done their business with minimal deference to other ministries’ goals.
Building new institutions
Resolution 120 assigned MPI the job of making all this unaccustomed coordination happen, of converging the Dutch and Vietnamese discussants’ vision, that is, the MDP, into a “Mekong Delta Integrated Regional Plan” (MDIRP) that accommodated the agendas and working styles of the Vietnamese ministries. The work of making the MDP “more Vietnamese” proceeded slowly, despite looming deadlines for inputs to Vietnam’s new five-year Socioeconomic Development Plan.
In April 2019, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued a 38-page “Action Plan” that, among other things, made quite clear his personal commitment to the materialization of a robust plan of work.
Foreign development partners were anxious nonetheless. Two months later, on the eve of a second Mekong Delta Plan Summit, 16 international organizations issued a bluntly worded joint statement. In his remarks at the meeting, World Bank resident director Ousmane Dioune underscored that the donor group was quite serious: “Looking ahead, we aim to mobilize at least $880 million to implement Resolution 120 … Any further support to the Mekong Delta will only make a difference if there are strong institutions, effective implementation, robust information, commitment to innovation, and involvement of all stakeholders.”
“The thinking being done,” Dioune added, “must result in a strong regional coordination institution that delivers effective and efficient vertical and horizontal coordination.”
Another memorandum, circulated by the German government’s aid agency, stressed that the coordination issue could only be solved if the prime minister intervened forcefully to resolve contentious issues (which, in fact, he had already done).
The politics of the Vietnamese party-state are rarely transparent. Vietnam is historically very touchy on matters of sovereignty and, as foreign advisers learn, there is a strong disposition to insulate domestic politics from outside interference.
The development partners’ anxiety was understandable. The decisions that had been made on delta development implied a level of cooperation between foreign experts and Vietnamese planners that was perhaps unprecedented for Vietnam. Even so, by mid-2019, the development partners seem to have been pushing on an open door.
In another government decision in March of this year, Prime Minister Phuc approved a five-year plan for MARD that aligns closely with the Mekong Delta Plan. Then, in June, a Mekong Development Coordinating Council was established by prime ministerial fiat. Its chairman is a deputy prime minister, its vice chairman is the planning minister; and senior officials lead delegations from the 13 delta jurisdictions (12 provinces and Can Tho city) and five national ministries.
The ministries are in the habit of giving direction to province-level subordinates. They may expect the new regional councils to rubber-stamp decisions made in Hanoi.
For the delta regional council to function effectively, however, considerable institution building will be in order. Presumably it will be sited in Can Tho, the delta’s hub, rather than in far-off Hanoi. The council ought to have its own staff capable of analyzing complex data and preparing briefs that put council members on the same page, so to speak. The MDIRP draft is said to emphasize using “integrated data systems, information and decision support systems” to promote “transformative and climate resilient investments,” and the World Bank is putting substantial money into setting them up.
A framework, 71 pages of “development orientations” for the MDIRP, was released on July 14, 2020. The document is easy to read and, to this reader, persuasive. It is doubtless backed up by a wide shelf of dense data. However, it appears to have been very largely the work of foreigners under a contract between the Vietnamese government and a Dutch consultant, Royal HaskoningDHV. Assuming the best of will and genuine agreement on MDIRP objectives, Vietnamese officials and their foreign advisers will inevitably clash over details. Here, the wiser course for the foreigners will be to remember that it is the Vietnamese who must live with the consequences of the decisions that are made.
Working with water
2020 has been another year of difficult weather in Southeast Asia. Rainfall was way below average in much of the region. In the Mekong Delta, the dry turn in the El Ninõ weather pattern has been aggravated by a second year of low flow in the river’s many branches — a phenomenon widely attributed to impoundment of water behind new dams upstream.
On the western edge of the delta, work on the first phase of the Cai Lon-Cai Be project is ahead of schedule. My expert friends say the project marks the end of an era. MARD’s hydrological engineers once ruled the delta. The hydrocrats have won a last battle, say the experts, but meanwhile they have lost the war.
That’s not yet a sure thing, I believe. Dike construction is lucrative; each project supports thousands of well-paying jobs. Rice exports may not put much money in farmers’ pockets, but they pay well for the state-owned companies that buy cheap and sell high. The ministries, in this case MARD and the Ministry of Construction, are in the habit of giving direction to province-level subordinates, and may expect the regional councils to rubber-stamp decisions made in Hanoi. Pressures and inducements from the hydrocracy and its allies in MARD will test the mettle of the new delta regional council.
Achieving a tolerable balance will be a learning process for all sides. Good outcomes will depend importantly on whether regional-level players can build and hold firm to alliances grounded in a clear view of local interests.
An early indicator of the Vietnamese regime’s ability to adapt its policies to more challenging conditions will be how it chooses to defend the delta seacoast.
In principle, MARD is moving away from fixed targets for rice and land use, permitting farmers more flexibility in choice of crops, promoting a policy of “living with floods and brackish water.” However, what MARD knows best how to do is build high dikes and sluice gate infrastructure — that is, to implement structural approaches to water management like the Cai Lon-Cai Be project launched last year on the delta’s southwest coast.
In the MDP vision, rice is no longer viable in the delta’s coastal regions, a zone where rising seas and withdrawal of fresh water from aquifers have in many places caused the land to subside below high-tide levels; where, during the dry season, saline water now penetrates far inland, and in the wet season the rivers no longer deliver great quantities of sediment.
Rather than raise and reinforce the now ragged system of coastal dikes, rather than pump aquifers dry and multiply the sluice gates that impound polluted water, the MDP envisions the regeneration of mangrove forests extending back from the coasts for several kilometers. The salt-tolerant, sediment-trapping trees will in addition provide habitat for free-range shrimp. And, inside the regenerated mangrove barrier, land once dedicated to rice cropping will now be ponded and produce ever more shrimp. That’s a happy prospect, but one still a long way from realization.
In the decade since the Dutch government first proposed to share its flood management experience with Vietnam, the Mekong Delta Plan has grown into an experiment in land and water use management on a grand scale. It is well worth watching, and not only for evidence that Vietnam is capable of making choices that maximize long-term environmental and economic benefit. Close observers can also, doubtless, find takeaway lessons that will be applicable, in the right policy environment, to managing any number of climate change scenarios.
Banner image caption: Boat traffic in the Mekong delta. Image by Jean-Marc Astesana via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Since 2008, David Brown, a retired U.S. diplomat, has written extensively on public policy issues in Vietnam. While writing these articles on the Mekong Delta, he received invaluable assistance from a number of expert practitioners there. Any errors of interpretation should be attributed to the author, and not his sources. Brown welcomes serious inquiries about his articles for Mongabay. (Write to him here: email@example.com).