Last week, ExSE took a hard look at the environmental challenges facing the Mekong Delta region and found that the prospects are not good. Due to unenviable geography and global warming, rising sea levels, higher average temperatures and irregular precipitation patterns will all converge in the next 50 years to change the face of the Mekong Delta (MKD). That’s to say nothing of salinity intrusion, flooding and tropical storms. However, the MKD’s problems are not only environmental in nature; the region’s economy also faces a host of challenges, many of them tied to the Delta’s environmental changes.
Issues in the Mekong Delta are of course significant for its residents, but they also carry great importance for those outside the region because of the MKD’s role in national and regional food security. The statistics on the Delta are incredible. In an area taking up just 36,000 square kilometers (12 % of Vietnam’s total area), the Delta’s 22 million inhabitants plant 2.6 rice crops per year totaling 25 million tons of rice. The MKD’s rice production accounts for over half of Vietnam’s total and the seven million tons rice that the Delta exports has helped Vietnam become the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand. In addition, the Delta accounts for 70% of Vietnam’s fruit production and three-quarters of its fish catch.
The Delta’s massive agricultural output is no accident. The region is perfectly situated to receive large amounts of water and sediment from the three main stems of the Mekong Delta and the many thousands of canals that intersect them and a tropical temperature allows for farming year-round. What’s more, concerted efforts in the past 30 years to improve the region’s water infrastructure have doubled arable land in the MKD. Combined with advances in genetically modified rice strains, yields in the Delta have increased by 30% and total production has doubled, all within the past 20 years.
Incomes have also increased. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), the average income of Delta residents has gone from 50 cents USD/day in 1999 to $2/day in 2010 and the region reached it Millennium Development Goals in 2006. However, despite impressive improvements in agricultural output and per capita income, the Delta has lost ground to other regions of Vietnam and now lags behind in important measurements of human and economic development.
In the late 1990’s, the Delta was actually 20% above the national average in per capita income. However more than 10 years later, the number stands at a little more than 80%. In the first decade of the new millennium, Vietnam underwent a period of intense economic growth through industrialization and people all over the country got richer as a result. The benefits of economic growth were not felt equally by everyone, however. Due to development bottlenecks, some regions, including the Mekong Delta, did not industrialize like others
One of these bottlenecks is a lack of infrastructure. The proportion of waterways, intra-provincial roads and inter-provincial roads per thousand people are all behind the national average. Of these three measures, the proportion of inter-provincial roads stands out. For one, there are only 0.34km of them per 1000 people in the Delta, standing at only half of the national average. This is especially important because of the nature of the Delta’s economy. The MKD, because its economy is so heavily concentrated in agriculture, lacks many necessary products and thus has a long history of importing and exporting nearly everything. While this may be good for enterprising middlemen, it is not good for the region’s economic development. With so few avenues for importing and exporting goods, the logisitical cost rises and because the MKD lacks so many raw materials, industrial development becomes disadvantageous. In fact, unless an investor is interested in agricultural processing, building a factory closer to Ho Chi Minh City is probably a better business plan in many cases.
A second bottleneck, and another reason a potential investor might not consider the Delta, is a lack of skilled labor. Like the region’s road density, the MKD’s percentage of trained labor lags behind the national average; according to data collected by GSO (General Statistics Office of Vietnam) the Delta’s percentage of trained labor stood at just over half of the national average. In addition, the proportion of Delta residents with some sort of higher education stood at less than 1%, or in other words, just a fifth of the national average. With a workforce that is so poorly trained and educated, the Delta becomes an even less attractive region for investment, especially when compared to the populations near the Red River Delta (Hanoi and its environs) or Ho Chi Minh City.
What’s more, those Delta residents that have some technical training and/or higher education do not stay in the Delta for long. As the region’s economy falls farther behind the rest of Vietnam, more and more Delta residents are moving to urban centers to look for work. One of the main destinations for these people is Ho Chi Minh City, where over half of the city’s migrant workers come from the Mekong Delta. What trained labor the MKD might have ends up leaving the region for greener pastures, thus widening the gap between the Delta and places like Ho Chi Minh City.
One reason that the MKD has such a low percentages of trained labor and educated inhabitants is that in the past there was no need for supplementary education of any form. In an environment where the annual rice yields are stable and prices are good enough, investing time and money for a new career is an unnecessary risk and one that Delta residents have not taken. Paddy rice cultivation requires little technical skill yet provides a modest, usually stable income. However, the income provided from rice is rarely enough to invest in the expansion of other industries and in the Delta’s case, the lack of infrastructure makes such an investment an even more expensive proposition.Unfortunately for the farmers of the Mekong Delta, rice cultivation is becoming a less and less stable enterprise. For one, the price of rice has dropped in the past decade. As more and more rice is produced worldwide, the seven tons of rice the Delta exports annually decreases in value and farmers lose out.
However, shifts in the world rice market are nothing compared to problems farmers face due to global warming. As detailed here, rising temperatures, sea level rise, an erratic precipitation and flood schedule and more frequent tropical storms all threaten to radically alter the Mekong Delta in the next century. The region already has enough impediments to development with its lack of infrastructure and trained labor; its environmental issues only add to the severity of the situation. The Delta, now more than ever, is in acute need of solutions. However, who’s coming up with these solutions, if there are any to begin with, is another question unto itself and one that needs to be answered before any future for the Mekong Delta can be imagined.