In the heart of the Mekong Delta, researchers at Can Tho University are preparing for the potentially devastating impacts of climate change in their region.
Than Thi Phuong Thao, a scientist specialising in rice research, says increasingly severe weather patterns have already been detrimental to local farmers.
“In the dry season we’re getting even less water than previously but in the monsoon season it is likely to flood,” Ms Thao says.
Along with more pronounced seasonal change, some provinces in the Mekong Delta are also under threat from rising sea levels.
“Some scientists expect that the Mekong Delta might be under the sea,” Ms Thao says.
The Dragon Institute for Climate Change at Can Tho University has predicted that up to 50 per cent of crops in low-lying provinces may be flooded by the year 2030.
Despite this, Ms Thao believes the most immediate concern for the region’s agricultural sector is intensified dry spells.
“The biggest challenge for the Mekong Delta in the future is sun stress.
“As the climate gets hotter and hotter, farmers cannot grow rice so we must produce a variety that is tolerant to sun stress,” she says.
Ms Thoa and Dr Vo Cong Thanh are working with science students to produce several types of rice to suit the various agricultural conditions in their region.
“One variety may be suitable in this area near Can Tho City but other varieties might be more suitable for other provinces in the Mekong Delta,” Ms Thoa says.
Late last year, Dr Andrew Borrell, an expert in water-limited crop improvements from The University of Queensland’s Hermitage Research Station in Warwick, led a consultancy in the Mekong region.
Dr Borrell arrived in Vietnam the day after Typhoon Haiyan struck and witnessed the devastation first hand. “The Mekong Delta was completely under water.
“It’s difficult because they have a problem with either too much water or too little,” Dr Borrell says.
According to Dr Borrell, decreased river flows in the dry season caused by upstream damming and more pronounced climate patterns had led to saline intrusion towards the mouth of the Mekong River.
“Salt water from the South China Sea used to only go about 20 kilometres inland but now the salt water intrusion goes 40 to 60 kilometres upstream.
“This means irrigation water is much saltier to the extent that more than half of the area used by rice farmers is made barren,” he says.
Many farmers affected by increased salinity have had to diversify away from traditional rice production to alternatives such as shrimp farming.
Dr Borrell says that the Mekong Delta was already a difficult place to live and grown food and that any increase in sea water levels will severely affect the region.
“For the villagers in the lower Mekong, any slight change in water levels would be dramatic.
“They’re already right on the edge of where they want to be,” he says.
Ms Thao and Dr Borrell agree rice production is crucial to the livelihoods of people in the Mekong Delta region.
“In that part of Asia, rice is huge,” Dr Borrell says.
“It’s part of the landscape, it’s what they do and it’s part of their identity.”
Ms Thao says that the rice research done by Can Tho University was essential for mitigating the threats posed by climate change.
“It is really important to produce rice to export to other countries like Australia so we must solve the problems caused by climate change to produce high yields in the future,” she says.