On September 22-23, 2009, 30 scientists and wetlands managers met at Can Tho University in the heart of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. They discussed the state of the wetlands in the delta and proposed policies that would help sustain the vital ecological services provided by wetlands and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region. The participants came from the delta’s leading universities and research centers, government agencies, NGOs, and management boards of wetland protected areas.
IUCN, together with the DRAGON Institute-Mekong at Can Tho University, hosted the workshop entitled “Wetlands Governance in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta.” The workshop was part of the Mekong Region Water Dialogues (MRWD), a project supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland to address water governance issues and climate change in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos PDR.
The purpose of the workshop was to assess the distribution and condition (state) of the Mekong Delta’s remaining wetlands, the threats to these wetlands (pressure), and what action is being taken to address these threats (response). The participants broke into two teams, one focusing on the inland (freshwater) wetlands and the other on the coastal (mangrove) wetlands.
With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above mean sea level, the Mekong Delta is basically one huge seasonally inundated wetland divided into three different zones: a deep flood area, an alluvial area, and a coastal area. However, over the last 30 years, the delta has been transformed from a largely natural state into a massive rice-bowl. To support this transformation, a dense network of 11,000 km of drainage canals and 20,000 km of dykes has been built. The canals and dykes in the upper delta prevent floods and drain the floodwaters from the deep flood zone as fast as possible, while dykes along the coast prevent saline intrusion into rice paddies. This allows farmers in most parts of the delta to grow two and often three rice crops/year.
The purpose of this transformation was to feed a country recovering from decades of war and increasingly to produce rice for export. Until recently, rice exports were monopolized by state-owned enterprises that benefited from the single-minded focus on rice production. Nationally, production increased from an average of 11 million tons 1975-79 to an average of 39 million tons 2000-2008, with most of the increase coming from the delta. Vietnam is now the world’s second largest rice exporter.
As a result of this transformation, the Mekong Delta’s native rice varieties have been replaced by strains optimized to the new heavily manipulated hydrology and only a few percent of the delta’s natural wetlands remain as tiny islands of nature in a sea of paddy fields. These fragments still provide habitat to globally outstanding biodiversity such as the Sarus crane and the hairy nosed otter, both assessed by IUCN as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat status, as well as food, fiber, and fuel to local communities. The delta’s remaining natural and semi-natural wetlands also serve as natural sponges, absorbing the Mekong’s floodwaters and recharging the aquifers on which HCMC, Vietnam’s urban and industrial heartland, depends. It is this ability to buffer extreme weather events and provide a safe supply of water to millions of users downstream that make the delta’s wetlands so economically important.
Unfortunately, the Mekong Delta’s remaining natural wetlands are still under pressure as a result of poor management and a governance system that regards wetlands as forests, and provides no mechanisms for meaningful participation of local people in management planning, decision-making, and action. In addition national policy emphasizes rice production at the expense of all other considerations. Significantly, the third annual rice crop brings little additional benefit to the farmers when the high level of chemical inputs used and the associated health risks are taken into account. In fact, calculations by Can Tho University’s Professor Duong Van Ni, who has spent his life studying the delta’s farming systems, show that farmers always receive less than 20% (for the second crop) and usually less than 10% (for the third crop) of the export price.
Even within the Mekong Delta’s few protected areas, wetlands are managed not as wetlands but as forests with priority given to fire suppression. IUCN and WWF research in Tram Chim National Park in Dong Thap Province shows that these fires are mostly set by local communities that have been excluded from access to the park for cattle grazing and fishing. In response, parks have stocked water year-around and cut more canals to allow easy access to water to put out fires.
The Mekong Delta’s coastal wetlands face similar problems. Half of the mangroves were destroyed by Agent Orange sprayed during the American War and since 1975 most of the rest have been cleared for shrimp and fish farming. Today, the only large intact mangrove forest lies at the southern tip of the delta in Ca Mau Province. Theses mangroves are actually expanding as sediment from the Mekong is deposited where ocean currents meet and sediment transport is blocked. With the exception of the 40,000-ha Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve to the south of HCMC, the rest of the delta’s mangroves are highly fragmented by fish and shrimp ponds or confined to narrow coastal strips by dykes. With the dykes on one side and rising sea level on the other, the mangroves have nowhere to go and are increasingly exposed to wave and storm damage. And once the mangroves disappear, the ability of the dykes to withstand the impacts of sea level rise will be seriously diminished. An important carbon sink will also be lost. Removing or moving the dykes inland, on the other hand, would lead to the loss of lucrative fish and shrimp production in areas with currently few economic alternatives.
Discussions at the workshop identified both successes and challenges in wetlands management. Given the priority given to rice and aquaculture, attempts to restore the delta’s inland and coastal wetlands will take time, but progress is possible. Some measures are already being taken to restore and rehabilitate wetlands. For example, in Tram Chim, WWF has negotiated an agreement with the park management board and provincial government to implement a hydrology management regime that closely mimics the natural flood pulse. On that note, a major recommendation from the workshop was that park managers be evaluated based on wetlands conservation success, not on fire suppression.
Another example of progress comes from a wetland adjacent to Tram Chim, in which farmers and local authorities have expressed interest in planting the original long-stem rice variety. According to Dr. Ni there is a slow transition toward two rice crops a year, which reduces the need for such intensive water management. If this trend can be sustained, it may be possible over the next 10-20 years to restore some of the delta’s natural ecosystem functions, with clear benefits in terms of flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
To accelerate this “re-wilding” process, conservationists need to work with decision-makers to demonstrate the long-term economic benefits of investing in natural ecosystems and thereby make the case for the incremental recovery of the Mekong Delta’s natural wetlands. The dense population means that any land use change involves large trade-offs. It is important to remember, however, that sea level rise is happening relatively slowly and that in 10-20 years time Vietnam may be able to afford the land use changes that are required for successful adaptation to climate change. Another point to bear in mind is that these transitions and trade-offs will be easier to manage if they are implemented delta-wide so that the short-term costs and long-term benefits are shared equitably among the delta’s 13 provinces.
For more information, please contact Mr.Luong Quang Huy at [email protected]