Some 2,000 kilometers from its start on the Chinese border, Vietnam’s fabled National Route 1 cuts flat and straight across the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Lining the two-lane highway are houses and shops, many of them perched on stilts over canals.
Bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians and buffalo carts hem the edges of the road, as buses, vans and trucks career down the middle, vying noisily for right-of-way.
The haphazard flow of traffic is routine. What makes this stretch of Route 1 unusual is how the road’s century-old embankment is now being used to regulate the flow of water to improve agricultural productivity. The results are raising questions that challenge the entrenched assumptions and priorities that govern natural resource management. Beyond improving the lives of poor Vietnamese farmers today, the lessons being learned in Bac Lieu may help other regions cope with a future affected by global warming.
Farmland, like natural wilderness, is a complex ecosystem in which one altered feature can have far-reaching consequences. Managing natural resources in a way that ensures food security, promotes farmers’ livelihood, and protects the environment is a delicate balancing act. Getting it right requires the active participation of farmers, agricultural scientists and extension workers, and government policymakers.
The Mekong Delta is the rice bowl of southern Vietnam, but until recently very few farmers in Bac Lieu — the second poorest province in the delta, with an annual per capita income of US$380 — managed to grow more than one rice crop per year. This was due to tidal inflows of seawater invading the canals that crisscross the province. Only during the rainy season, from June to October, are tidal forces overwhelmed by the outward flow of freshwater.
Shrimp farming became very profitable with the introduction of large varieties raised for export just as protection against saltwater intrusion made possible multiple rice cropping and bigger harvests. But rice requires freshwater, shrimp brackish water. The question became how best to manage water resources to balance these competing demands. from the Mekong River, bringing water and soil salinity down to a level that allows rice cultivation.
This feature was published in the March 2002 issue of The World & I magazine as the third of six essays in the series Struggle for Development. This abridged version is republished in Rice Today with permission from The World & I, a publication of The Washington Times Corporation.