I just returned from the Mekong Delta – Vietnam’s “rice basket” – to look at the results of development projects partly financed by the World Bank. With rice prices going through the roof, I expected to see farmers enjoying a financial boom. But, reality was more nuanced and underscored how difficult it is to grow more rice at the drop of a bamboo hat.
One of the projects I looked at improved water management in the delta by upgrading canals and building more gates (known as sluice gates). The idea is to prevent water from the sea from intruding and ruining crops in the dry season; and stop floods from washing away the harvest during the rainy season. The results have been dramatic.
Better irrigation and more security have allowed farmers like Ngo Kim Tan, 64 years old, in Can Tho province, to plan ahead and plant more crops. Keeping salt water out has translated into tastier fruit and higher rice yields. Her rice yield has gone from about 700 kilos of rice per “cong” (1,000 m2) to about a 1 ton per cong. Meanwhile the price of paddy has been multiplied by 1.5 in one year (from 3,000 VND per kilo to 4,500 VND – about 28 cents ofa US$ - this year).
|Ngo Kim Tan is expanding her house.|
The price of fertilizer, pesticide, fuel – and the uncertainties linked to climate, the environment and plain old luck, kept most farmers I talked to cautiously optimistic.
Doan Van Den, a 48 year old farmer whose land borders a secondary canal protected by a new sluice gate in Kien Giang province, spoke about his switch from harvesting rice once a year, to two crops of rice and one vegetable crop. Like his neighbors, he has seen his yield increase since the network of canals and gates has been completed. “Our income has increased. But when we grow rice more intensively, it costs more in fertilizer. We’ve benefited from prices going up but we’re still very poor.” The father of eight children sat in a simple thatched-roof house with a mud floor. He served us tea made with water from the murky Mekong River – there was no running water. “We can’t afford to fix the house yet.”
|Doan Van Den (shown here with his children) has benefitted from rising rice prices but is still very poor.|
As I traveled on the small roads and waterways that connect farmers to markets in the delta, I kept wondering how the environment would with-stand the pressure to grow more rice. If better irrigation allows rice intensification but intensification pollutes the very water that sustains the delta’s life and fields, how do you maintain a sound balance between food production and water quality?
The Ministry of Agriculture’s advice to farmers has been to stay away from rice intensification to keep pests and disease in check. Two rice crops and one cash crop  allow the land to rest more than three rice crops with no break. The advice has been to reduce three inputs: the amounts of seeds, pesticide and fertilizer – by applying new seedling techniques, fertilizing land more accurately, and using water and other techniques to get rid of pests.
Since I’m no agricultural expert (more of an in-house journalist reporting on development impact), I wonder what safeguards are really in place to avert the kind of rush to solutions that have perverse effects so often. Will sustainable farming practices survive the pressure to produce more and more food? It would be nice to feed the planet without killing it…
|The sluice gate, at left, helps manage water flows to farmers' benefit.|