As waters rise, Mekong rice farmers switch to shrimp

Rice has been widely planted in the Mekong Delta since the Vietnam War. But rising waters from the South China Sea threaten the fresh water needed to grow rice.

Many rice farmers are switching to saltwater shrimp as a crop, to eliminate risk from salinization. Paddles aerate a shrimp pond, adding oxygen to the water.

Industrial shrimp farms line the Bassack River in the Mekong Delta, a few miles from the South China Sea.

A shrimp farmer named Sung pulls a basket loaded with shrimp from the bottom of one of his ponds.

It’s the rainy season here in Tran De. About a dozen field workers have squished out into a green paddy that goes on for more than two and a half football fields.

They chatter in Khmer as they bend low and pull young rice plants from their monsoon-soaked beds, and toss them into piles for replanting.

“I was born in this area, I’m from this area,” says a 64-year-old farmer named Minh. “I learned from my father and my grandfather, from the time I was a kid, how to grow rice.”

Minh is renting the land to grow his crop. “Rice is good,” he says, “you can always eat it. It’s reliable.”

At least right now it is.

Things will change when the dry season starts in January. That’s when farmers here usually start raising a rice crop, typically relying on fresh water they pump or channel in from some branch of the Mekong River.

But the dry season has been getting dryer. And the South China Sea - less than a mile away - is rising and pushing up into empty river and stream beds.

What little fresh water there is goes salty. So does the soil.

Once that happens, rice farmers like Minh know their crops are history.

“This village is affected by saline intrusion,” he explains. “During the dry season, people here can’t do anything with the land. They just leave it, go somewhere else and work, or try to find some work locally.”

If Minh risked planting a dry season crop, he could earn more than $2,000.

But he won’t take that chance. Instead of fighting saline intrusion, he’s found a way to hedge his bets and make some money off climate change.

He’s gone and bought himself a shrimp farm.

So has another farmer, named Sung. Standing beside two shrimp ponds out behind his house, Sung fires up what looks like a system of small spinning steamboat paddles.

They’re adding oxygen to an opaque brown pool.

This salty water is killing off the region’s rice, while the shrimp, somewhere down at the bottom, are loving it.

They can earn Sung in a year more than four times what an average rice farmer brings home.

“In a good year,” Sung says, “I do two crops. If it hits, I get $4,720 from these two ponds. This is the only thing I can do. Growing rice is not very profitable.”

With very few choices, explains Tim Gorman, a Cornell grad student researching how peoples’ lives in the Mekong Delta are being changed by global warming, some farmers are turning away from rice.

“The biggest option to people here in these areas affected by saline intrusion,” Gorman explains, “is to abandon rice altogether and switch to saltwater shrimp.”

This has been a “winning strategy” for many people in the area, Gorman observes. “Just driving around here you can see that there are big new houses, you see some nice new cars. And so you have some people who really have made a lot of money from growing shrimp, which is primarily exported to markets in Europe, Asia, and the US.”

Shrimp farmer Sung isn’t doing quite that well. He’s helping his daughter pay for college, but there’s no fat new Mercedes in the driveway.

That kind of money goes mostly to big-time farmers. Some people earn tens of thousands of dollars a year in the shrimp trade. With the lure of five and six-figure profits, plus faltering rice crops killed off by rising seas, Gorman says some folks are even taking hammers to the very gates and dykes set up to protect the area from the ocean.

“People are actively manipulating the infrastructure,” he says, “sabotaging the infrastructure, to allow salt water to come in. Not just during the dry season, but all year, so they can switch from freshwater rice farming to saltwater shrimp farming.”

Shrimp is no sure bet, either. Seeds, antibiotics, aeration systems, start-up costs - kilo for kilo, it’s way more expensive to raise than rice. A few sick ones can take out a whole pond.

Sung says he’s gone bust before. “In a bad year, all I have left are the whites of my hands!”

That’s the risk for most farmers here - rice, shrimp, or anything else.

But more and more, those who can afford it are moving away from rice and putting their money down on a changing climate.

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Christopher Johnson is a reporter for BURN: An Energy Journal from SoundVision Productions with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

About the author

Christopher Johnson is a freelance journalist who has worked in public radio as a producer, reporter, editor, commentator, and manager.

Many rice farmers are switching to saltwater shrimp as a crop, to eliminate risk from salinization. Paddles aerate a shrimp pond, adding oxygen to the water.

Industrial shrimp farms line the Bassack River in the Mekong Delta, a few miles from the South China Sea.

A shrimp farmer named Sung pulls a basket loaded with shrimp from the bottom of one of his ponds.

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