2016: Drought is plaguing much of mainland South-East Asia, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Thailand’s shortages are the worst for two decades, Vietnam has been hit as hard as any. The Mekong basin is home to one-fifth of the population. It produces about half of the country’s rice. The government says the amount available for export in the three months to June will be 11% less than originally forecast. Drought in the country’s Central Highlands has affected a third of coffee plantations there and now endangers the region’s supply of drinking water. These woes are weighing on the economy. Growth in the first quarter slowed by half a percent year-on-year to 5.5%.
The immediate cause is El Niño…People living near the Mekong say there is another problem: hydroelectric dams built in China near the head of the river that are holding up its flow. Since March China has loosened some of the dam gates, ostensibly as a favour to its neighbours. But locals say the effect on water levels has been measly. The episode has only heightened fears that China (with which Vietnam has an enormous trade deficit and an intense territorial dispute) can use water flow to hold the country to ransom.
The dams are certainly stripping the Mekong of essential sediment. But many of Vietnam’s water woes are self-inflicted. In the delta, for example, a booming population has built more than 1m wells since the 1960s. These have made saline contamination worse, and are also causing subsidence. In 2014 an American study found that the delta, which mostly lies less than two metres above sea level, could be nearly a metre lower by 2050.
A related problem is the ruling Communist Party’s obsession with maximising rice production. Straining to hit absurd targets—inspired by memories of post-war food shortages—the government has pushed delta farmers to produce three rice crops per year.
This policy has caused the poisoning of paddies with pesticides and has discouraged farming of more profitable, less thirsty crops. It has also prompted the building of a massive network of dykes, canals and sluice gates, which spread pollution from fertilisers and pesticides and restrict the flow of sediment. Koos Neefjes, a climate-change expert in Hanoi, the capital, reckons all this infrastructure has done more to harm the delta than China’s dams.
Fixing this will mean taking on powerful state-owned rice traders and exporters, who benefit from intensive production.
Excerpts Vietnam’s drying delta: Salt of the earth, Economist, Apr. 30, 2016, at 37