Severe drought and salinity intrusion in Vietnam assessed by research centers

A scientist inspecting the severe drought in a rice field in Ben Tre province southern Vietnam. The assessment will support adaptation efforts in Vietnam. Photo: L. Sebastian (CCAFS)

Experts from CGIAR centers and local institutions conducted impact assessments on the drought and salinity intrusion that recently affected agriculture in Vietnam. 

Severe drought episodes and salinity intrusion hit Vietnam due largely to the 2015-2016 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, the second most severe since 1965. A cause of serious concern, the Vietnamese government set a call to address and take action to these climate challenges.

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security in Southeast Asia (CCAFS SEA) responded by undertaking impact assessments in two major regions of the country, the Central Highlands and the Mekong River Delta (MRD), together with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).

Two teams, composed of experts from CGIAR centers operating in Vietnam and local partners from national research organizations, appraised the extent and level of damages in the Central Highlands (18-22 April 2016) and MRD (25-28 April 2016). Key informant interviews with provincial and district leaders and surveys with local farmers and households were also conducted to ascertain the direct impacts of the drought and salinity intrusion.

Water runs dry in the Central Highlands

The acute drought experienced in the Central Highlands was heavily felt through the shortage of water supply for agricultural and domestic use. Extremely dry plots, rice fields with cracked soil and dried up coffee plants were visible signs in the provinces of Kon Tum, Gia Lai an Dak Lak of the drought which peaked in the latter part of 2015. Drought effects were most evident in the sloping lands and remote areas, where farming households and ethnic minorities live, thus, rendering these groups even more vulnerable.

The region has 214 dams, which under normal conditions, would be more than enough to cover the region’s water needs and even that of neighboring provinces. But water levels in the reservoirs and rivers were so low they cannot effectively irrigate agricultural lands. Around 70% of the rainfed cultivated areas also suffered from severe drought.  

In Dak Lak alone, crop production was reduced by nearly USD 60 million and the lack of feeds (grasses and forages) and water affected livestock production. The drought wiped out more than 100 head of cattle in the province, and 109 head of cattle and hundreds of poultry in Ea Sup district.

Farmers in the region recognized the value of innovative techniques like intercropping, drip irrigation and small-scale water storage. Despite that, they were not compelled to shift their farming practices due to high technical requirements and operational cost, cash flow problems and reduction of outputs from main crops.

Based on the team’s assessment and evaluation, these are the recommended measures that can be undertaken to cope with future recurrence of drought and the ENSO: (1) develop appropriate policies to encourage diversification of agricultural systems; (2) enhance watershed functions with agroforestry to enhance water discharge and recharge; (3) improve ground and surface water resources management; and (4) scale down current early warning systems to provide guidance at the commune and village levels.

The twin problems of drought and salinity in the Mekong Region

Aside from drought, the MRD experienced increased salinity intrusion which, the researchers found, was connected to the decrease in water from upstream of the Mekong and the ENSO. Although communities were warned of the drought situation, the local authorities and farmers still did not anticipate such severe impacts and were unprepared for the impacts on agriculture and aquaculture.

As a result, 11 of the 13 provinces in the MRD were greatly affected—not a good indication from a region that contributes 57% and 41% of the total rice and aquaculture production, respectively, of the entire country.  A more popular farming system in the region—the rice-shrimp system—was also badly hit. A rice-shrimp farmer even lamented that she does not see any future in continuing her household farms.

Stress-tolerant crops, which can withstand increased salinity, droughts, floods and acid sulfate soils, are available but not yet used optimally. During the winter-spring season, the government instructed farmers to reduce planting areas to avoid losses. Yet, inconsistent policy on subsidy did not benefit the farmers who actually complied with the directives, and those farmers who did otherwise, received subsidies.

Practices and technologies, such as improving early warning and climate information services, promoting stress-tolerant crop varieties, adjusting cropping calendars and cropping intensities, diversifying production systems and employing proper natural resource management, are recommended as potential adaptation strategies for communities.

The involvement of other sectors in providing production direction for small-scale farmers and the improvement of policies supporting such producers should be encouraged, as well, to address current and foreseen changes in the climate.

Further support for developing adaptation strategies

Although the two assessment teams have different specific recommendations for each region, both teams recommended adaptation practices and management measures, which could help Vietnam become more climate-smart. The recommended adaptation solutions include the promotion of CSA as espoused by CCAFS SEA. CSA ensures sustainable agricultural productivity and improves adaptation and mitigation potentials of vulnerable areas and peoples to climate change impacts. CGIAR centers can provide technical support and guidance regarding the technologies and practices they have tested.

“The strength that the CGIAR could contribute is in: downscaling some of the global data and analyses to Vietnam scenarios and forecasts for their planning; recommending CSA options for integration in current and future donor or development interventions; and recommending research for development for future preparedness,” said Dr. Leocadio Sebastian, the regional program leader of CCAFS SEA.

In addition, the recommended actions not only aim to improve the current situations of communities, but also prepare them for future climate challenges. Interventions consider involvement of both the affected farmers and other sectors that directly or indirectly benefit from better agricultural production and resource management. Equally important is the development and improvement of policies to address current and foreseen climate challenges. Such policies would support the needs of smallholder farmers, and the agriculture sector in general.

Dr. Sebastian notes: “We hope that through this engagement of the CGIAR centers operating in Vietnam, we could contribute to the Vietnamese government’s short-, medium- and long-term responses to the impacts of climate change in these affected regions.”

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