It’s a hot day in Long My in the southern half of the Mekong Delta. Luong Thuy Hang walks carefully around women sitting on the laminated floor of the open-air, covered veranda; the walls hold sewing supplies and colourful fabrics, and fans are strategically placed to move the still, heavy air.
The women sit in groups, talking quietly amongst themselves as they work on their sewing. Small piles of fabric ornaments and children’s room decorations pile high as the day wears on.
As the manager of the operation, Luong Thuy Hang has worked with Mekong Plus, a non-profit that helps Vietnamese and Cambodian communities struggling with extreme poverty, for over five years. When the women finish their weekly quotas, they will send their products to one of the five Mekong Quilts stores; all proceeds will be reinvested in their community.
For Hang, the opportunity to earn a regular income was too good to pass up. I ask her what her plans are in the future, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. “I’ll be working to help support my family,” she tells me through an interpreter. “If I don’t have this job, I’ll find another. It’s what I have to do.”
A Dire Situation
The Mekong Delta region, which spans over 38,000 square kilometres and houses over 17 million people, is one of the poorest areas in the country.
With an emphasis on agricultural and aquacultural production and traditionally labelled as Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, this largely flat land has been almost entirely devoted to growing food, an activity dependent on the Mekong River. And due to several factors, the livelihoods of millions could be permanently altered in the coming years.
Dr. Marcel Marchand, flood risk and coastal management specialist with Deltares, told me via Skype that the changes we’re currently seeing in the Mekong Delta are nothing new, and will probably get worse without strategic and intense human intervention.
“The Mekong Delta is often referred to as one of the most vulnerable deltas in the world to climate change, and that is basically because of the low-lying area. That means it’s directly impacted by sea level rise,” he explained.
Dr. Marchand was also quick to report that the gradual rise in sea level is just one of the factors. “The river discharge of the Mekong River will probably change [due to] a combination of climate change and human interference by large dams.” As dams and dykes are built upstream in Vietnam, China, Laos and Cambodia, for hydropower in China and to regulate the yearly flooding in Vietnam, the farms downstream are affected by increased salinity brought in from the ocean and a lack of fertile silt flowing from the upper plains.
Traditional cash crops like rice wither in the salty and brackish water and poverty grows—and not just for farmers. Logistical workers who transport heavy loads of rice are also affected.
For Dr. Marchand, the potential solution is all about farming diversification. Rather than try to prevent the inevitable salinity rises, he’s working with local governments in the Delta to encourage the spread of other agricultural and aquacultural crops. The most profitable change, adopted by many farms, is a two-tiered approach: growing rice during the wet season, when freshwater is plentiful, and switching to saltwater or brackish shrimp in the dry season, as the ocean waters surge upstream.
Alongside this approach, soon helped by the salinity-measuring system Dr. Marchand is helping to produce and distribute with Deltares, are recent efforts to propagate salinity-resistant rice strains and encourage coconut farming—a crop that requires less fresh water to flourish.
Bernard Kervyn of Mekong Plus also heartily encourages alternative career paths for Delta citizens. Besides the Mekong Quilt retail program, the group also promotes new and updated agricultural systems to farmers eager to increase their yields.
Kervyn and others working in the Mekong Plus’ Long My division showed me the work they’ve done with pig farmers like Nguyen Van Troi. Troi, who comes from several generations of livestock farmers, pointed to the biogas system the Mekong Plus team helped establish near the pig pens, where methane harnessed from faeces is used for cooking. As we walked back, Kervyn proudly announced that Troi has spread the system to other pig farmers in the community.
This is just one of the welcome ways to save on money, especially as pork prices drop, a consequence of China’s ban on Vietnamese pork exports established earlier this year. “Troi is worried about it, of course,” Kervyn told me. “Farming pigs is all he knows how to do, and now […] it costs more to raise them than to sell them.” Asked what Troi can do about it, Kervyn shrugs. “What can he do? Just wait for better days.”
The Way Out
As situations seem increasingly dire and poverty increases in these rural communities, organisations like Mekong Plus don’t just focus on individual households.
Efforts are also being made to provide tutors for children who need extra help and scholarship funds for deserving students.
As a study by the Ministry of Education showed in 2015, the Mekong Delta has the nation’s largest dropout rate, nearly three times the national average.
The gap between rich and poor has risen in quickly developing cities like Can Tho, and more remote regions lack the resources to transport children to schools, which are sometimes long distances away from the family farms.
The need to focus more on education to eliminate poverty is sometimes lost in translation. Kervyn recalled a conversation with a potential donor while raising funds for his project.
“She asked me why we’re devoting resources to education, if our organisation was trying to reduce poverty. Like it was two separate things,” Kervyn says, shaking his head. “I didn’t know how to respond.”
Through a mix of education and employment opportunities, many hope that environmental changes in the Mekong Delta won’t stop communities from developing on their own terms, with a few helping hands.