Indian Queen Basmati Rice by Bhara Industrial Enterprises Limited
Indian Queen Basmati Rice by Bhara Industrial Enterprises Limited

According to Philippine Confederation of Grains Associations (Philcongrains), the reported plan of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) to pursue a 40-year campaign to end the rice sufficiency policy is ill-considered and ignores realities not just in the country but the region as well. The era of abundant supply in Vietnam – one of the country’s top sources of rice imports – is now at risk as Vietnamese farmers feel the impact of high salinity that has affected up to 500,000 hectares of contiguous, fertile rice farms in the Mekong Delta. At least 50 percent of Vietnam’s rice for export comes from that area. Earlier, NEDA economists led by Director General Ernesto Pernia and other economists have criticized the rice self-sufficiency policy pursued since the republic was established. Dumping rice self-sufficiency for an import-based policy is a quick fix that may spark social unrest among Vietnamese farmers

The Vietnam’s rice import trade is only 5 percent of the total global output and with drought now hitting Thailand and Malaysia due to El Niño; the supply will be even thinner. As 11 hydroelectric dams are being built in China, Laos and Thailand to tap the water flowing into the Mekong from the snow in Tibet and other areas, Vietnam would be adversely impacted. Its rice production would suffer from less irrigation water supply, higher salinity in the Mekong Delta battered by saltwater intrusion due to the low water flow in the Mekong River, forcing a shift to high-value crops by Vietnam farmers. These factors would limit Vietnam’s capacity to maintain its three cropping seasons, especially now that the average temperature in the Mekong countries has risen by 0.5 degree Celsius from 1999 to 2009. All these factors would prevent Vietnam and Thailand from exporting rice in increasing volumes.

The dam-building spree has become a huge worry to harness the river’s resources for the best interest of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The new dams being built at a fast and furious pace would impede soil nutrient flow so vital to rice growing in the four countries. In 2014, countries along the Mekong produced more than 100 million metric tonnes of rice, about 15 per cent of the global total. Vietnam, as the lower-most riparian, is likely to be most impacted by the changes to the river’s natural flow. The country’s rice growers have faced mounting challenges in recent years, from the growing strength of regional competitors to the rising salinity and declining nutrient content of Vietnamese soils. Dams on the Mekong will trap greater amounts of the silt and sediment that is vital for replenishing soils. Rice crops will suffer without the nutrients provided by this silt and sediment. Many Vietnamese farmers have shifted from growing rice to producing black pepper, which is not as severely affected by high salinity as rice. Vietnamese farmers estimate that it would take 30 years to remove high soil salinity. The Mekong delta region, in the country’s south, is home to 18.6 million people – about one-fifth of the total population – and accounts for more than half of the country’s rice and fruit production. Sediment from upstream is vital for rice production in the delta as it replenishes soil nutrients. Dams block this sediment from flowing downriver, potentially damaging fertile rice growing areas.

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