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 up on a rice farm in Tra Vinh Province on the coast of the southern Mekong Delta.
Droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and the intrusion of salt in the freshwater he needs for his paddy fields have eaten away at the meagre income he once enjoyed.
The family farm used to be able to produce three crops per year. 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.”
Distinct from other grains, rice is grown in a flooded field.
As the water lays stagnant on the surface, there is no exchange of air between the soil and the atmosphere, which means methane-producing bacteria can thrive.
When released into the air, the gas is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Bjoern Ole Sander, the Vietnam country representative for the International Rice Research Institute, says rice farming contributes significantly to methane emissions worldwide. In Vietnam, the amount of gas released from the crop is even 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’
At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the newly reunified country was one of the poorest in the world and 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. By 2020, Vietnam was the second-largest exporter of rice in the world, shipping 3.9 million tons overseas last year.
But as the Mekong region shifts away from intensive rice cultivation, it is not yet known how the farmers themselves will be affected.
Like Nhan, many are already suffering from the deterioration of the Mekong’s environment.
Dang Kieu Nhan, director of the Mekong Delta Development Research Unit at Can Tho University, says farmers have been badly affected by the unstable weather patterns in the region.
“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 led to record-breaking levels of salt intrusion.
Approximately 33,000 hectares (81,545 acres) of rice were damaged during the drought and 70,000 households did not have enough water to grow rice or to meet their everyday 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.
By 2030, the government hopes to have reduced the size of land under rice cultivation in the Delta by 300,000 hectares (741,315 acres), 20 percent less than the 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) 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.”
Limited options for farmers
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 of the Rice Research Institute says one particularly attractive mitigation technique is the alternate wetting and drying method. If done correctly, it can reduce methane generating bacteria by roughly 50 percent. On top of that, it has the added benefit of reducing the amount of water needed without affecting yields.
To apply the technique, farmers allow the water level to drop below the surface by between 10 and 15 centimetres (4 and 6 inches). Once the water level has fallen, the soil can be irrigated again and fields are alternated in wet and dry cycles.
“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 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.
Although effective at reducing methane, the system will not work for all farmers. For those in the lower Mekong, where saltwater intrusion is the biggest concern, paddy fields need a significant supply of freshwater to keep the salinity at bay.
Nhan of Can Tho University says more also needs to be done to help farmers effectively implement the new technique.
“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. But while some farmers have seen their rice crops damaged by intrusion, they find that the water source is still not salty enough for aquaculture.
In the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang, 64-year-old farmer Ut Khuong says that while growing rice has become unpredictable because of the saltwater, he is unable to 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.”
To help farmers deal with the complex effects of climate change and human causes leading to environmental degradation in the Mekong, Nhan says more money and a holistic approach are needed.
He points to a recent initiative in An Giang Province where the Australian government provided $650 million for sustainable economic development projects in the Mekong province.
The money went towards building reservoirs, infrastructure for irrigation and transportation, building cooperation among farmers, as well as stimulating other economic activities, and improving sectors like health and education. Although such a diverse solution is costly, Nhan believes such initiatives are needed more widely in the Mekong Delta.
“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.
Struggling at the forefront of climate change, the farmers themselves would welcome 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 Muoi Huong told Al Jazeera. “I hope the government will also support more of our farmers in agricultural production.”