The Mekong’s struggle with Rice

And the existential threat to its fertility

International trade enabled new political states to form around the Mekong Delta. The Mekong basin, also known as Vietnam’s “rice basket”, supported canals and irrigation systems that led to a sustained period of agricultural prosperity. It functioned as a trade channel supplying raw materials to maritime networks linked to China, Java, and India. It was the alternative to the Silk Road.

Vietnam has become a leading rice producer, thanks to an extensive network of canals and irrigation systems. They allow year-round cultivation in a region where, just 50 years ago, floodplains laid fallow for half the year and farmers planted only once a year. Within a generation, Vietnamese farmers have gone from planting one crop a year to planting three on the same acreage. But large canal infrastructure developments have come at a high environmental price. The Communist Party now faces a dilemma — continue to promote rice as a flagship export and bear the ecological consequences of degraded soils, or abolish the 3rd harvest and resist the urge to build even more irrigation infrastructure.

“You have a ‘rice first’ policy that sacrifices the interest of the poorest for the wealthy… From an equity perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever. But this ‘rice at all costs’ approach is deeply ingrained, and there are strong commercial interests” 
-Jake Brunner, IUCN

Constructions of such infrastructure have disrupted the Mekong’s ecology: high dikes block natural floods coming from upstream and deprive downstream farms and fisheries of essential nutrients. Chemicals used by upstream farmers pollute canals and acidify the soil, leading to a decline in fish population. In addition, shoreline dikes interrupt the natural flow of fresh- and salt-water nutrients, threatening the ecosystem of coastal mangroves. If these mangroves were to die, Vietnam could become more exposed to storms and rising sea levels.

The Mekong is as enchanting as it is fertile. Let’s hope the Communist Party makes the right decisions for future generations to come.