Drought wreaking havoc on Vietnam’s pangasius and shrimp farmers

An epochal drought in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam has killed 30 percent of the pangasius growing in ponds along the river’s banks and done serious damage to shrimp farming operations. The drought and other simultaneous disasters affecting the Mekong Delta have resulted in a raw materials shortage for the country’s seafood processors and the situation is so serious that many firms are said to be on the brink of insolvency.

The drought is the worst Vietnam has experienced during the past 90 years and has destroyed more than 4,500 hectares of seafood farms, according to a report in Thanh Nien News. In addition, nearly 260,000 hectares of rice and vegetables, and more than 160,000 hectares of orchards and cash crops have been lost, the newspaper said.

Eleven out of 13 provinces in the delta region have declared the drought a natural disaster and the country’s Agriculture Ministry has urged the government to provide more than VND 1 trillion (USD 45 million, EUR 40 million) in relief to the affected areas. Meanwhile, the situation is likely to continue until September and spread to the north-central provinces as well.

The drought, and seawater intrusion in the Mekong Delta, is sapping Vietnam’s economy. In addition to fish and shrimp, the country is a major global exporter of rice, coffee and pepper. Preliminary losses for the crops damaged stand at VND 5.57 trillion (USD 249 million, EUR 221 million), according to a Vietnamese government report, of which nearly 70 percent occurred in the Mekong Delta, which supplies 60 percent of Vietnam’s shrimp and fish as well as half of the country’s rice, according to Reuters.

The drought is having an especially calamitous impact on the delta’s pangasius production, as most of the Vietnamese processors and exporters have insufficient capital to raise their own fish, or to repair their decades-old factories. Thirty percent more pangasius farmers have given up during the drought and are not expected to return to rearing fish, so supplies for processing will remain low.

To compound the situation, prices being offered by importers for pangasius are lower than ever, so the losses being suffered cannot be recouped by increasing them. Importers are paying less than USD 3.00 (EUR 2.70) per kilogram for ASC-approved IQF skinless and boneless white fillets with five percent glaze, packed in full color foil pouches, landed in Europe (CnF).

Shrimp farms have also been seriously affected by the drought. According to Reuters, farmers in Bac Lieu, a major shrimp-raising province southwest of the delta, are advertising dried-up shrimp ponds for sale or lease.

In addition to drought, the delta has been suffering due to other factors. Much of it is only two meters or less above sea level and it has been sinking in recent years due to rising sea levels and heavy groundwater extraction from wells. This has caused sea water to intrude 90 kilometers (55 miles) into the basin, the furthest distance recorded in history.

The drought is being blamed partly on El Niño, the weather phenomenon, which produces drier and hotter weather in Asia, and also on climate change, according to Reuters.

“In the context of climate change, this kind of crisis [in the Mekong Delta] is forecast to happen more often,” Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent expert on the Mekong Delta’s ecology, told the international news agency. “For example it could be once in 20 years instead of once in 90 years.”

Reuters pointed out that in addition to the naturally occurring disasters, the river is subject to hydropower development upstream. At least 39 hydro-electric dams are being built or are under development in China, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to meet the industrial demands of their developing economies. These dams not only reduce water volume, but also retain alluvial soil needed to consolidate subsidence in the sinking Mekong Delta.

Environmental groups have waged campaigns for years to stop the dam construction, but to no avail.

“The dams are killing the Mekong Delta,” said Duong Van Ni, a lecturer at Can Tho University. “A shortage of fertile soil is the unavoidable death.”

Pianporn Deetes of International Rivers, a U.S.-based advocacy group, agreed.

“The region is being held hostage by hydropower development,” Deetes said, adding that China has “absolute control” of the Mekong.

In recent days, the drought has been eased somewhat with some much-needed rain. But the totals are not nearly enough to return the region to its normal state, and with no immediate solutions to any of the issues exacerbating the problems affecting the delta, there is doubt as to whether it will ever get back to full production.


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