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August 22, 2014


Climate Change and Saltwater Intrusion Encourage Shrimp Farming


This story and five-minute audio report that accompany it nicely tell the story of saltwater intrusion and its effects on rice and shrimp farming in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta:


Things will change for rice farmers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta when the dry season starts in January 2014.  That’s when rice farmers usually start raising a rice crop, typically relying on the 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 is rising, pushing saltwater up into empty river and streambeds.  What little fresh water there is goes salty.  So does the soil.  Once that happens, rice farmers know their crop is history.


Minh, a 64-year-old rice farmer says: “This village is affected by saline intrusion.  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 bet and make some money off climate change.  He 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.  Salty water is killing off the region’s rice, while the shrimp, somewhere down at the bottom of his ponds, love it.  In a year, they can earn Sung 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.”


Tim Gorman, a Cornell grad student researching how peoples’ lives in the Mekong Delta are being changed by global warming, says 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 also see some nice new cars.  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 USA.”


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 his driveway.  He says the big 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.  Seedstock, antibiotics, aeration systems, and start-up costs make shrimp 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!”  But more and more, those who can afford it are moving away from rice and putting their money down on shrimp and a changing climate.


Source: Marketplace.  As Waters Rise, Mekong Rice Farmers Switch to Shrimp.  Christopher Johnson.  August 21, 2014.

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