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Changing policies and practices in the Mekong

Dr. Chu Thai Hoanh from IWMI and an SEI Associate discusses policy and governance approaches to food systems in the Mekong Delta region.
Now a little bit about the Mekong Delta is that we see with trends and with pressures how the policy can change to adapt to these pressures and trends in development. We may take one example in the Mekong Delta about the change shifting from rice to aquaculture, in particular shifting from fresh water for rice to brackish water for shrimp. So in the– after 1975, after the reunification of the country [Vietnam], then the government tried to come with the rice monoculture policy, rice everywhere. So we built sluices, we built dikes, to protect from salinity, to expand the rice land into the coastal zone where the saline water was.
But then until around 2000, when it expanded to some areas, in particular in the Ca Mau peninsula, and Bac Lieu province where the acid sulphate soil existed there. So farmers didn’t have enough fresh water to control the acidity, to leach out the acidity. Then they cannot grow rice as expected. But at the same time, saline water was there. And that is their source of the water that they could use. So in 2001, farmers broke a dam for salinity control, [so that] less saline water would come in. And that created a pressure for the government to review the rice monoculture policy. And the government changed what at that time we called the revised land use plan.
So the government revised land use plan and allowed the fresh water zone for rice, the buffer zone in between fresh and saline [water]. Farmers can grow rice in the wet season and shrimp in the dry season. And the saline zone has the shrimp. So the government changed their policy and changed the view also at that time. Government and people didn’t look at saline water as a constraint for agriculture. But they looked at it as a resource for aquaculture. And the income from shrimp is much higher, like about 10 or 20 times higher than from rice. This is why, the reason the farmers broke the dam because they see the resource there has a possibility to have a high income there.
But because of the policy of rice monoculture, that limited it. So that gave an example of how does the change of the policy so far. But when we change that, then we have– we are facing other challenges.
For example, when rice and shrimp farmers, one needed fresh water, one saline water. They are conflicting in water use. And in some extreme cases, like this year, we very high – very severe drought and very high saline intrusion, then both rice crop was damaged and shrimp crop was also damaged. So another factor included in the challenge is climate change or sea level rise, or like El Nino we saw this year, with the frequency there can be more in the future.
The Mekong river is a tremendous source of food, resources and livelihoods, and it is also deeply embedded in the culture of the region. In this video Dr. Chu Thai Hoanh, Emeritus Scientist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and an SEI Associate, talks about the governance of the Mekong’s precious resources.
He takes us on a journey to southern Vietnam, in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Rice production and aquaculture are both major activities there, and satisfying the demands of both rice and shrimp producers is certainly a challenge. This example shows how policies have real effects on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Image Sources: “Rice fields in Laos” Copyrighted by Darin Wahl and “Shrimp farming in Aceh, Indonesia” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by WorldFish
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Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

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