Rice at all cost?

21 July 2014 | Article

On May 27, IUCN and the South West Steering Committee (SWSC) organized an inception workshop in Can Tho for a 4-year BMU-funded project Integrated Planning Approaches to Implement the CBD Strategic Plan and Increased Ecosystem Resilience to Climate Change. The project will test planning and investment strategies that will enhance the capacity of Mekong Delta to cope with growing competition over its land and water resources in a changing climate.

Five years ago it probably wouldn’t have been possible to hold this workshop. Having flirted with starvation in the 1980s, the need to maximize rice production is an article of faith among the country’s leadership. And some groups have a vested interest in a “rice at all costs” policy. Despite the fact that Vietnam is now the world’s second largest rice exporter, government and party documents still include production targets. As a Harvard University study observed, however, this approach is inefficient, ineffective, and unfair. The delta’s rice farmers, who are among the poorest groups in Vietnam, are in effect subsidizing the rest of the population.

The workshop brought together many people who have long harbored doubts about the extreme intensification of rice since the 1990s, from one, to two, to three, and even to four or five rice crops a year. But only recently have their opinions received a serious hearing within government and the media. What triggered the change were the Mekong floods in November 2011, which flooded Can Tho.

Until the 1990s, most rice production came from two crops a year, one in summer and one in autumn. This required the construction of relatively low dikes, also known as August dikes because they were overtopped by the Mekong flood in August. The production of three (or more) rice crop requires the construction of high dikes, also known as ring dikes because they form polders. These dikes have dramatically shrunk the Mekong’s floodplain and displaced flooding downstream. Meanwhile, the global rice prices have fallen sharply over the last two years because of increased production, large stocks (exacerbated by the Thai rice pledge program), and stable demand. In short, this is not a good time to be a rice farmer, especially of the low quality varieties grown in the delta. (In recognition of this, MARD recently reduced the area under rice production from 4.1 million to 4 million hectares.)

That the workshop there was agreement that rice intensification has resulted in growing costs in terms of increased risk of catastrophic flooding (as opposed the river’s natural flood “pulse”), reduced water quality, public health problems (because of increased use of agro-chemicals), reduced biodiversity, and the collapse of capture fisheries, which particularly affects the 20% of the delta’s population who are landless. But we are wiser now. In the words of former senior provincial official: “In the past, our development approach was one-legged and not until the consequences are clear do we try and rebalance our approach. I was one of the decision makers then and I realize that while we did good things, we also made mistakes. I wish back then that we’d had greater public participation.”

While there was agreement on the benefits of rice de-intensification, questions were raised about to how this could be achieved. Houses in the delta were traditionally built on stilts to avoid being flooded. But within the ring dikes, farmers have built concrete houses that will be flooded if the dikes are breached. As one participant put it: “If all the dykes are demolished, how do people live in flood conditions such we experienced in 1978 and 2000? It will be very difficult. When we promote “living with the flood”, we have to show what else is possible or we’ll have nothing to eat.”

A barrier to a more rational use of the delta’s water resources is extreme fragmentation between 13 provinces, all of which competing for development opportunities irrespective of the economic logic or long-term sustainability. For example, the Plain of Reeds used to act as a natural sponge absorbing water during the wet season and releasing it during the dry. This capacity has been largely lost as a result of the dense network of canals built to intensify rice production. If the water retention capacity of the Plain of Reeds were to be increased by reducing the number of crops per year, Dong Thap would lose but the downstream provinces would gain from reduced flood risk. As a participant from Ben Tre said: “When Dong Thap floods, we are happy because we know that we won’t have salinity intrusion problems that year.” This is where the SWSC could play a vital role in coordinating planning and investment across the delta for the benefit of all its inhabitants.

For media coverage of the workshop, see:

Jake Brunner - Mekong Programme Coordinator - IUCN Viet Nam