For farmers suffering the effects of a severe drought, the rain couldn’t come fast and heavy enough

Unprecedented levels of heavy rainfall caused chaos across Vietnam the past few months—flooding homes, destroying businesses and washing away motorbikes—prompting a deluge of pictures and videos on social media. I rarely come across somebody who doesn’t have an insane story about what happened to them during the storms. But locals shake their heads when I poke my head out of my raincoat to ask them if this is the end of days, replying: “This is just rainy season.” But I’ve been here for two rainy seasons already, and it certainly felt like something was amiss. So what’s it all about? Is this normal? To confuse matters even further, this phenomenal rainfall came immediately after Vietnam suffered the worst drought in nearly a century. And, according to a report by Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment, the drought cost the national economy more than VND15 trillion, with coffee, rice and fish farmers bearing the brunt of the impact.

Vietnam is the world’s biggest producer of Robusta coffee, an industry valued at USD2.4 billion and making up 1.9 percent of Vietnam’s total exports, employing around 2.6 million people, primarily in the Central Highlands where most of the 500,000 small holding coffee farms are located. These coffee farmers are forecast to harvest 1.5 million metric tons in this year’s crop, the lowest since the 2012-13 harvest.

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Fifty-six-year-old Dinh Ngoc Can, a farmer in Di Linh Lam Dong Province, says his farm was severely affected by the drought, drastically reducing the productivity of his trees, with leaves withering, and branches shedding their pods prematurely. But Can was well prepared, having dug a deep-water well 40m into the ground the previous year. “If I run out of water, I can also build a pipeline to other farms who still have a water supply. Many farmers have dug ponds to harvest rainwater during rainy season. If they have water resources, I can buy it from them.”

But other farmers weren’t so well prepared. The situation became so severe in some regions that entire communities lost the ability to support themselves, prompting FAO, the UN agency that deals with food and agriculture, to implement a project to support livelihood for rural community affected by drought in Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces, worth nearly VND4.6 billion and benefitting over 4,500 households.

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Further south in the Mekong basin, the prolonged drought and subsequent saltwater intrusion into the Mekong Delta rivers have caused extensive damage to more than 100,000 hectares of shrimp and fish breeding ponds in eight provinces, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), and 11 of the 13 provinces in the delta region declared the drought a natural disaster.

Le Van Thang, who has been farming fish in Tra Vinh for the last 15 years, says he lost 15 tons of his usual 70-ton harvest because of the drought. “This year was bad. I lost almost VND 400 million as a result of the smaller harvest because of the salt water coming in from the sea. My fish aren’t able to live in the brackish water it brings up the rivers.” Does he think it will be a problem next year? “Yes, maybe. But I know how to solve it now. I won’t start my next generation of fish in January or February, when the salination risk is highest. And I can now check the salinity of the water in the river before pumping it into my pond, so I won’t have the problem again”.

In addition to fish and shrimp, preliminary losses for rice crops that were damaged by the drought stand in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a Vietnamese government report, of which nearly 70 percent occurred in the Mekong Delta, an area which supplies half of the country’s rice and 60 percent of its fish and shrimp.

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El Niño and La Niña

The drought is one manifestation of the El Niño weather phenomenon—a non-regular occurrence in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather patterns around the globe, often with destructive consequences. In Southeast Asia, El Niño brings drier weather and increases the risk of drought and forest fires, whereas the La Niña phenomenon is the reverse of the El Niño, where cooler waters bring increased precipitation.

The severity of the drought can be partly attributed to the 532 hydroelectric dams upstream of the Mekong, a river that passes through six countries on its journey from Tibet to the East Sea. Dams not only withhold water, but the larger surface area allows more rapid evaporation, further decreasing the eventual water flow downstream. China had to release 200 million cubic meters from some of its dams to ease the severity of the impact in the Mekong basin. These dams are a factor which will exert even more influence in the future despite the launch of the new Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM), which is intended to help coordinate the use of water resources along the river, as the 204 additional dams, which are planned and under construction, come online in the coming years.

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Clearing of forests to make space for cash-crop plantations such as coffee and soy reduces the land’s resilience to natural disasters. The smaller plants with shallower roots are less able to prevent soil erosion during heavy rainfall, so landslides become more likely, rainwater runs off more quickly, and rapid leaching of fertilizers contaminates nearby water sources like rivers and lakes. The Vietnamese government has restricted logging activities, helping to preserve the primary forests, and is implementing a program to replant 3,000 square kilometers of forest a year, to increase the forest cover to 57.4 percent of the nation’s land area.

The biggest factor, though, is the decreased rainfall experienced during 2016, a pattern that, if it continues, could be extremely damaging to the country’s agriculture. According to data from the Meteorology and Hydrology Department, rainfall at 10 meteorological stations in Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces averaged just 25.8 millimeters in April, about a third of the 77.4 millimeters average of previous years. This is in a province that accounts for almost 30 percent of the national coffee harvest, and can be used as an indicator to forecast coffee production.

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So, is this a taste of things to come for Vietnam, or an unhappy coincidence of extreme weather events? Talking to Dr. Nguyen Tan Chung, an expert in Soil and Water Sciences, who is currently lecturing at the Nong Lam University Ho Chi Minh City (formerly University of Forestry and Agriculture), it seems like this drought-flood cycle is likely to become more frequent. “That’s the first time it has been so bad in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s so weird,” he says about the September flooding that crippled the city. “It was the worst rain in over 40 years, since 1975. But it’s going to happen more often due to a shorter El Niño cycle, so we need to prepare to adapt.”

According to World Bank data, average rainfall for September in Vietnam was 256 millimeters between 1990-2012, and while recent data on rainfall is not yet available, Dr. Chung’s view is supported by a paper published recently by the Centre for Global Development, Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change. In it, Vietnam is ranked as the fifth most vulnerable country to extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes, meaning that without a resilience strategy, agriculture could be in for a tough time.

“There are many ways that people can prepare against this in the future, and for the farmers in the Mekong Delta, switching to drought-resistant crops is a critical part of this. For example, a lot of research is being done into genetic modification of rice plants to make them more resilient against salt-water intrusion,” explains Dr. Chung. The government is also aware of the risks, and a recent policy change requires any land being developed for new shrimp ponds in the delta area to include at least 30 percent mangrove trees. “This is because the plants not only could help to remove pollution from the effluent water that is generated by the shrimp ponds, and but also reduce greenhouse gas emission and increase CO2 sequestration in the air.”

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There’s also a solution to the water shortage for coffee and pepper farmers, a system of intelligent irrigation that is beginning to be implemented across farms in the Central Highlands. “By calculating the soil’s water retention curve, and using sensors in the soil to identify how much each plant need watering, we can work out the most efficient way to utilize the water resources available. So rather than needing more water, we just need to use the water we have more efficiently,” says Dr. Chung.

As the risk of natural disasters such as droughts and floods increases, it’s critical that Vietnam takes decisive actions to mitigate against them. This will require a concerted effort, from policy-makers to grassroots decision makers (farmers), to ensure that decisions on land use favors sustainable development. These strategies should include the preservation and conservation of existing resources as well as recycling the resources already in use. The government’s greening strategy points towards smarter waste management as well, including the recycling of nutrients from agricultural processes. By following these few basic principles, Vietnam can move towards not only a more sustainable agricultural economy, but also a more resilient one.

Nick Piggott is the CEO of Nutri-Tec, a nutrient recycling company based in Vietnam. 

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN