As published in Vietnam Investment Review on 29 May 2019

The Mekong Delta region, known as the rice bowl of Vietnam, is now under serious attack from climate change and heavy salt intrusion. Caitlin Wiesen, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam, writes about the current situation and actions government can take to enable international finance while ensuring the sustainable development of the delta.

Globally, Vietnam is one of the largest exporters of rice, and the Mekong Delta region is at the core of this. The country’s rice contributes not only to local but also global food security.

Over centuries, residents of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region have learned to live with floods and to maintain a delicate ecological balance that has allowed the area to grow into an economic powerhouse and rice production hub. This balance is now being fundamentally challenged by climate change and developmental hurdles.

Recent decades have seen the region battered by floods and droughts that are stronger and more intense, and these trends are fully in line with climate change projections. At the current rate of warming, scientists from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that global temperature change will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052. This is a critical tipping point that will cause further long-term impacts on our ecosystems, and our wellbeing. The Mekong Delta region is very sensitive to every point of warming thresholds. With a sea level rise of one metre, approximately 40 per cent of the Mekong Delta could be inundated, having a knock-on impact not only on agriculture, but also on migration and other aspects of social development. Climate change adaptation in the Mekong is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Rapid adaptation to the impacts of climate change is essential for continued sustainable development. According to the IPCC 1.5 Degree Report, we have only 10-30 years to act and adapt to new climate thresholds, and shift to a low-emission pathway to minimise negative impacts. There is no time to lose.

Urgent work required

In practical terms, this requires new approaches to planning that are climate-smart and consider current and future ­impacts. Balancing the ecological and water budget for the region can only happen when provinces work together with the central government.

It will be most effective when private sector actors in both industry and agriculture can jointly plan towards the government’s common sustainable development goals.

Some work has already started. The government and partners including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working to help bring financial and climate smart planning together, to ensure that policies are backed by effective funds, including from the private sector.

With support from the Green Climate Fund, which has been established within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in order to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, and to help vulnerable societies adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, we are helping to develop systems to better integrate climate change risk information into government decision-making along Vietnam’s coast. Furthermore, jointly with the Netherlands, we have provided inputs and advice to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development for preparing integrated flood planning for the Mekong Delta.

Multi-layered effects

The Mekong Delta has significant advantages as investment location, including excellent transport links, an educated labour pool, and booming agricultural and aquaculture industries. However, the effective management of the environmental sustainability and climate change adaptation risks will be the key to future sustainable development. The UNDP’s recent case study on the Cai Lon-Cai Be Irrigation System Investment Plan highlights how environmental, social, and economic safeguards can be part of no-regret integrated investments for water governance. However, transformational change needs faster action if it is to reach the Mekong’s farmers soon. In the past decade farming systems have developed rapidly, moving gradually away from intensive rice agriculture to cash-crops and an emphasis on aquaculture. It is essential that this transformation is supported to consider our changing climate. The UNDP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN are working with the Vietnamese government to find effective and feasible low-regret adaptation options for the 20 million farmers in the Mekong Delta.

We have worked with leading Vietnamese research organisations to undertake scientific analysis, including hydrological modelling, in support of integrated flood management plan in the region.

To maintain climate change at safe levels, local farmers also need to better understand how they can contribute to a sustainable farming future. Across the Mekong, essential long-term resources like groundwater resources are being expended without replenishment and as this clean underwater water is extracted, land is sinking, and saltwater intrusion rates are accelerating. These impacts are not caused by climate change, but they put added pressure on agriculture systems already struggling to cope with it.

Investment opportunities

The good news is that advanced technology, private sector capital and good practices are available, and if scaled up, can stem this decline. Transitioning Vietnam to the sustainable green economy of the future is possible and promises a generation of higher-quality, more sustainable jobs and cleaner, greener growth.

According to the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Mekong Delta region accounts for roughly 12 per cent of Vietnam’s territory and 20 per cent of its population, but has only 6 per cent of all foreign-invested projects and 5 per cent of all registered capital. This still amounts to nearly 1,000 projects with a total value of over $12 billion. The number of foreign-invested projects in the Mekong Delta has increased by 73 per cent since 2010, which is more than double the national average. The average size of registered projects has also increased in the last decade to $12.5 million, suggesting a reduced dependence on a few large projects.

The Mekong Delta has huge renewable energy potential, especially wind and solar, which can power not only the Delta region, but also supply surplus energy to other regions and the whole country. There are already some wind and solar power plants in the region, but the large potential has not yet been fully tapped in as it require large investments from the private sector.

The transitioning to climate smart agriculture in the Mekong Delta in order to adapt to a changing climate also presents many business and investment opportunities. These include, business opportunities for conservation and producing of seedlings that can withstand new extreme weather conditions, investments in new technologies for plantation and food processing, and logistics development in Mekong Delta.

Moving forwards

Setting Vietnam on this path will require the government to set strong policy signals for green growth and climate resilient investment. While a decade ago such an approach was seen as an added-cost by many in the private sector, in the current climate, being able to show investors that land-use plans and energy strategies take climate change into account is increasingly a pre-requisite for serious investors looking for long-term partnerships.

Perhaps most importantly, men and women across the Mekong Delta need to learn about the likely impacts of climate change on their area, and act to adapt, and also reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture in the Mekong Delta region can have a bright future, but climate change casts a dark shadow over this potential. The government, private sector, academia, development partners, and communities all need to take urgent action.

Only through co-ordinated joint action will we able to build a system of climate resilience and sustainable development in which nobody in the Mekong Delta region is left behind.


Icon of SDG 13

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Viet Nam 
Go to UNDP Global