Mekong Delta, Vietnam – At the United Nations COP26 summit in Scotland, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh joined 109 countries in pledging to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
To meet the commitment, the Southeast Asian nation will need to look at rice – one of the country’s key exports and a staple food – but also the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among foodstuffs after beef.
The heart of Vietnam’s rice production lies in the country’s Mekong Delta region known as the “rice bowl” of the nation. More than 50 percent of the country’s total rice and 95 percent of its exports are grown here, in an area roughly the size of the Netherlands.
But rice farming in the Mekong faces a double challenge – not only is the crop a source of emissions but rising sea levels linked to climate change, as well as man-made factors, are making the grain increasingly difficult to grow in the low-lying region.
Tran Dung Nhan grew to be a farmer on a rice field in Tra Vinh Province, along the coast of the southern Mekong delta.
Droughts, floods and rising sea levels have eroded the meagre income he once earned.
Three crops were once possible on the family farm. Now, they struggle to produce even one – and even then, the yield is unpredictable.
“I can clearly see the effects of climate change on our fields. The water is getting saltier, our soil is more dry and barren,” the 31 year old told Al Jazeera. “Life here in the Mekong Delta, especially the coasts, is very tough and it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Rice is grown in a flood field, which is different from other grains.
The water remains stagnant on the ground, so there is no exchange of oxygen between the soil, the atmosphere, and the soil. This means methane-producing bacteria thrives.
The gas traps heat more effectively than carbon dioxide when it is released into the atmosphere.
Bjoern Ole Sanderser, the Vietnam country representative of the International Rice Research Institute, said that rice farming is a significant contributor to methane emissions around the world. The amount of methane released from Vietnam’s rice crop is higher than the global average.
“Globally, it is about 1.3 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, which seems small, but all civil aviation emissions are just about 2 percent,” he said. “Of all the greenhouse gases that Vietnam produces 15 percent is from rice, so it’s a significant source and definitely something that then also has been recognised within global programmes of mitigation.”
No longer ‘rice first’
The newly reunified nation was among the poorest countries in the world at the end of Vietnam War 1975. Food was scarce.
A series of economic reforms known as Doi Moi, and a government-led “rice-first” policy kick-started rice farming, boosting incomes. Vietnam was the second largest exporter of rice worldwide, with 3.9 million tonnes shipped overseas in 2015.
However, the Mekong region’s shift away from intensive rice cultivation is yet to be seen.
Like Nhan, many are already suffering from the deterioration of the Mekong’s environment.
Director of the Mekong Delta Development Research Unit, Can Tho University, Dang Kieu Nahan says the region’s unstable weather has had a devastating effect on farmers.
“El Niños have occurred more frequently and severely in recent years,” he said, referring to the climate pattern in which unusual warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean results in droughts in Southeast Asia. “In 2016 and 2020 there were two cases causing extreme droughts and side effects… The lower the Mekong River reaches and the higher the sea level rises, the further salt intrusion goes inland in the Mekong Delta.”
The 2020 drought resulted in record-breaking levels salt intrusion.
A total of 33,000 hectares (81 545 acres) of rice were destroyed by the drought. Additionally, 70,000 households didn’t have enough water to grow rice or meet their daily needs.
The environmental pressure has encouraged the Vietnamese government to develop alternatives to the “rice first” policy, and it is now encouraging people to grow fruit or set up fish and seafood farms.
The government plans to reduce the land under rice cultivation in Delta by 300,000 ha (741,315 acres) by 2030. This is 20 percent more than the 1.5 million hectares (3.73 million acres) that were planted this year.
”Mentioning the Mekong Delta before, people would first think about rice, but not now,” Nhan said. “The government policy changed dramatically since 2017, and we cannot consider rice as [being] first any more.”
Farmers have limited options
Despite the government’s shifting priorities, Bernard Kervyn, director of the charity Mekong Plus, says rice farmers have limited options and an uncertain future.
“The prospects for the Mekong Delta are not good. People say in 20 or 30 years it might be flooded and not suitable for people to live there any more,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s a shared responsibility, but for the farmers of course there are not many alternative options available. It is hard for them to say okay we will grow less intensively, we will grow less crops; How can they do that?”
On the ground, researchers and farmers are experimenting with new production techniques to tackle the environmental challenges as well as to reduce the crop’s emissions.
Sander from Rice Research Institute says that an attractive mitigation technique is the alternate drying and wetting method. It can reduce methane-generating bacteria by approximately 50 percent if done correctly. It also reduces the amount of water required without affecting yields.
The technique involves allowing the water level to drop below the surface of the soil by between 10-15 centimetres (4-6 inches). Once the soil is dry, it can be irrigated once more.
“You can cut methane emissions in half… If you remove that water layer, you allow the exchange of air between soil and atmosphere, then the methane is oxidised and the bacteria doesn’t grow any more and methane emissions are strongly reduced,” Sander said.
Financial support is needed
According to Vietnam’s nationally determined contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement, the country intends to use the alternate wetting and drying method on a total of 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of rice land nationwide.
While the system works well for reducing methane, it is not suitable for all farmers. Paddy fields in the lower Mekong where saltwater intrusion is most severe need to have a substantial supply of freshwater in order to reduce methane.
Nhan of Can Tho University states that farmers must also be able to use the new technique in a more efficient manner.
“Doing so needs more intervention from local agricultural agencies and government to organise farmers, to connect farmers with services, and to build more irrigation infrastructure,” he said.
Another aspect of Vietnam’s rice reduction strategy encourages farmers to focus on developing other food sources like seafood. Despite the fact that some farmers have had their rice crops damaged by intruders, they still find that the water source is not sufficient for aquaculture.
Ut Khuong, 64, is a farmer in Hau Giang’s Mekong Delta province. He says that although growing rice has become unpredictable due to saltwater, he cannot farm prawns.
“The field’s salt level changes every year and you cannot predict it… We can’t have a shrimp farm because the water here is not salty enough,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what jobs we are going to change to yet.”
Nhan suggests that farmers need more money and a holistic way to deal with the complex effects on climate change and human causes that lead to environmental degradation in Mekong.
He cites an example of an Australian government initiative in An Giang Province that provided $650 million to support sustainable economic development in the Mekong region.
The money was used for building reservoirs, irrigation infrastructure, transportation, and building cooperation among farmers. It also stimulated other economic activities and improved sectors such as education and health. Nhan believes that such diverse solutions are more needed in the Mekong delta, even though they are costly.
“Compared to other regions in Vietnam people here play a very big role that the government placed them in to produce food for people in Vietnam,” he said.
Farmers, who are at the forefront climate change, would appreciate the support.
“Being a farmer is a hard-working job that requires knowledge, experience, and patience, as well as the urge to keep updating the new methods and techniques of planting,” farmer Ong Ba Muoi told Al Jazeera. “I hope the government will also support more of our farmers in agricultural production.”