Yin and Yang: Can Vietnam balance climate change? By Cassidy White
In between the mangroves and tropical fruit trees, the jungle of southern Vietnam occasionally revealed glimpses of a lazy, murky brown river winding through the My Khanh Commune. Ahead of me, a stream of motorbikes, each carrying a student or associate of the University of Montana, buzzed along a narrow path, having just left a biogas farm and heading towards another. Several farmers in the commune had transitioned to a sustainable system involving biogas collection, fish raising, and fruit production. With this system, they could make a profit, protect the environment, and reduce their impact on climate change all at the same time. The farmers had found balance between Yin and Yang, and were at peace. But as I gazed out at the river, I couldn’t help but wonder how long this would last. How much longer would it be until salt started to seep into their canals, disrupting the balance and overpowering the sweetness in farm families’ lives?
A few days earlier, sitting in a lecture at Can Tho University with Dr. Le Anh Tuan, my classmates and I learned about the threat of salt water intrusion. Two main factors, climate change and dams, are resulting in brackish water traveling further and further north into the Mekong Delta, altering the people’s livelihoods and sending the balance of Yin and Yang teetering. For starters, as dams have been built along the Mekong River in countries upstream of Vietnam, less freshwater has been reaching the Delta below. Brackish water is heavier than freshwater, and with less freshwater flowing downstream, the salt is now able to work its way into regions where it normally wouldn’t exist. In addition to the dams, climate change is warming average temperates in Vietnam (and globally), lengthening the dry season, and reducing precipitation, all of which also add up to less freshwater in the Delta.
Saltwater, while a natural occurrence, does not naturally reach as far inland as it is now spreading in the Mekong Delta. It’s presence, however, has been both a blessing and a curse. Native species and historic crops such as rice and fruit trees are not accustomed to surviving in the presence of salt, meaning farmers have two choices: switch to a saline-resistant hybrid or a new method of farming.
Most have chosen the latter. In the case of Luong Minh Dung (55) of Bac Lieu province, that decision was made in 1993 when salt water intrusion meant he could no longer grow rice year round. Ever since then, he has grown one crop of rice during the rainy season, and raised shrimp in the dry season when the brackish water comes. For him and other farmers in his situation, the salt water is a blessing. Where one kilogram of rice sells for 4,000 dong, one kilogram of shrimp sells for around 200,000. By raising shrimp, the farmers have seen a significant increase in their personal wealth and well-being, as passerby might notice from the multiple new, modern homes in the process of being built in the area. They have been able to utilize the impacts of climate change and maintain balance between Yin and Yang. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for artemia farmers.
Artemia are salt water macro-invertebrates raised for their eggs which are sold to shrimp nurseries as shrimp food. They are sensitive to both heat and salt concentration, so, as both continue to increase in upcoming years, they will eventually no longer be able to survive in Vietnam. Without artemia eggs for food, farmers will not be able to raise baby shrimp nor rice growers be able to raise shrimp in the dry season. The balance Luong Minh Dung found over two decades ago is merely a temporary solution, and may soon be overturned as climate change impacts move through the food chain.
The day after meeting with Mr. Dung, my fellow students and I found ourselves at a similar farm. Before receiving the official farm tour, we gathered around our host’s home, situating ourselves and taking bathroom breaks as necessary. Rice lay out on the street, drying in the sun and a cluster of kids giggled on the porch, peeking out from between their fingers long enough to shout hello in sing-song voices and practice saying “My name is…”. I wondered if they would grow up to be farmers and if these farms would even be functional by the time they were adults. In thirty years will they be drying rice in the streets? Or will the saltwater become permanent, forcing them to raise shrimp year round? Maybe shrimp will be long gone in the Mekong Delta by then and they will have switched to entirely different forms of agriculture.
From what I’ve seen and know of climate change, I can say it will be near impossible for Vietnam to reclaim a permanent balance until the world finds balance between economic growth and sustainability. If or when that point is reached is unclear, but steps are being made in the right direction. Options are being explored worldwide, solutions are being implemented, and the teetering ecosystems and livelihoods may not be out of control just yet. After all, the forces of Yin and Yang have been around in Asian culture for centuries, and, if the Vietnamese can do anything about it, there is hope that they will continue to exist in harmony in the future.