The impacts of climate change in Southeast Asia are pushing people to change their livelihoods. Reports of farmers in the Mekong Delta converting their land from rice to shrimp production show the complexity of these economic shifts.
A recent report from Reuters details how Vietnamese rice farmers in the Mekong River Delta are switching to shrimp farming as climate change brings increasingly salty waters into one of Asia’s biggest rice-growing regions.
The Mekong Delta includes around 65,000 square kilometers, much of it coastal land, and is Vietnam’s primary rice farming region. The delta is key to making Vietnam the third largest rice exporter in the world. But in recent years, salt water intrusion has made the delta’s intensive rice cultivation difficult to maintain.
“There was a time the rice could still grow when the water was still fresh,” shrimp farmer Ta Thanh Long told Reuters. “But then the water became more and more salty each year.”
The farmers of the Mekong Delta are just one community of many in Southeast Asia that are seeing their livelihoods transformed by the impacts of climate change. Shifting weather and rising temperatures are hurting farmers’ yields and damaging the Mekong’s ecosystems. The impact of the heat on fish populations and other life in the river is exacerbated as water levels on the Mekong drop to record lows due to drought and upstream hydropower dams.
In some cases, communities receive support from the state or civil society groups to cope with losses or make the transition to a new livelihood. But more often, governments accept the toll of climate change on people’s livelihoods as inevitable, instead favoring large-scale plans for economic integration and transformation—if a new highway and a new special economic zone create jobs, the farmers won’t need to grow food.
Mekong Delta shows a farming economy in transition
The Mekong Delta’s new shrimp farmers are a compelling example of changing livelihoods in part because their decision is the result of a complex web of factors, including climate change, but also because the move away from rice farming represents a major shift in the government’s approach.
The main environmental change pushing farmers away from rice farming is that their land is impacted by longer and more intense exposure to salt water. Some amount of salinity is normal for the delta; every year, salt water pushes up into the delta for about one month during the dry season, before the Mekong rises with the next monsoons and flushes the salt back out. In addition, outflow from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake—which swells to many times its size during the rainy season—keeps water levels high through the delta even after the rains slow.
Today, climate change has driven sea level rise along the delta’s coast and has also led to record-breaking droughts across the Mekong region. At the same time, new hydropower dams upstream on the Mekong and a sand mining boom have also thrown off the delta’s natural cycle.
The shift to shrimp farming has been a clear choice for some in the delta and the transition isn’t particularly new. Though Vietnam remains a world leader in rice exports, the value of shrimp exports for the country’s economy surpassed revenues from rice in 2013. According to Reuters, industry experts say the amount of land dedicated to shrimp farming in Vietnam will likely increase by 3-5% per year.
Shrimp farmers in the delta also have the backing of the government, which set a goal of doubling shrimp exports to US$10 billion by 2025 and is rolling out training and financing for the delta’s seafood sector. Some business leaders are pushing for Vietnam to become a world leader in shrimp exports.
The momentum from the state comes from the fact that the government has prioritized adaptation to climate change. Back in 2016, the Vietnamese government adopted a resolution acknowledging the severe ongoing and potential impacts of climate change—as well as hydropower dams—on the delta. This has led to an integrated planning push by a range of government ministries and has earned major international financial backing, with the World Bank working to pull together over US$880 million for planning and adaptation in the delta.
From a planning perspective, the government has signaled it aims to shift from building dikes and hydraulic works, in order to control flooding, to “working with” the water—realizing that the delta’s coast may not be suitable for growing rice in the years ahead.
The impacts of a shifting climate aren’t limited to rural areas either: a new report from research firm Verisk Maplecroft says that 99 of the 100 cities in the world that are most vulnerable to environmental threats are located in Asia. These cities are at risk for “a combination of pollution, dwindling water supplies, extreme heat stress, natural hazards and vulnerability to climate change”, according to the report. The researchers found Jakarta to be the most vulnerable city in the world, with Indonesia’s Surabaya and Bandung also ranking in the top 10.
Though the switch to shrimp has been profitable for many farmers in the delta and helped them adapt to the changing climate, shrimp farming is also affected by increasing salinity and rising sea levels are likely to put much of their land underwater, regardless of how the land is being used.
One woman who farms shrimp in the delta province of Ben Tre told Al Jazeera that she had seen major losses due to salt water intrusion.
“Climate change is impacting everyone here. We have to try to adapt to survive,” said Duong Minh Hoang, former director of the government’s Agriculture Promotion Centre in Soc Trang province.