Water problems call for solutions that mix tradition and innovation

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By Danielle Nierenberg and Philip Newell*

Whether fishing on the coast or farming in the fields, the people of Vietnam depend on an abundant supply of water. But as water becomes increasingly scarce, sustainable agriculture will be a key way to improve yields over the long term. In order to avoid massive water shortages, Vietnam will be in the perfect position to benefit from the combination of new technologies and traditional farming knowledge.

Agriculture accounts for over 90 percent of the water used in Vietnam. The on-off rain pattern, traditionally reliable and predictable, has recently become more severe--wetter rainy season, dryer dry season-- as well as more erratic-- arriving early, staying late, otherwise acting like an inconsiderate guest. This seasonal uncertainty will only increase as the effects of climate change become more severe. This means that Vietnamese farmers need to find new ways to adapt to changing rainfall. While the government has set aside massive funds to reduce the impacts of climate change on rain-dependent agriculture, much has already been done by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In order to better prepare smallholder farmers for unpredictable weather due to climate change, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), with Vietnam's National Institute of Animal Husbandry, has launched a project designed to maintain the biodiversity of livestock breeds. Indigenous livestock have been adapting to the tropical conditions in Vietnam for hundreds of years. These breeds tend to be resistant to disease and can withstand high temperatures, traits that are increasingly important as the impacts of climate change take a bigger hold on Vietnam and other parts of Asia. While commercial breeds of chicken, pigs or cattle may produce more meat or milk, they generally require far greater quantities of food and water.

One way for Vietnamese farmers to cope with reduced water supply would be to shift rice cultivation from conventional production to more environmentally sustainable methods. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), for example, is a method of planting that uses less water and fertilizer to achieve greater yields of rice. This is accomplished through a longer sprouting time and less density when planting. By planting more mature rice stalks with more distance between them, SRI has shown to increase yields substantially, while the well-developed roots require less water than traditional rice-patty production. This system is one of the many agricultural innovations featured in the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Through our research for the Nourishing the Planet project, we traveled to 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting innovative approaches that help alleviate hunger, while also protecting the environment. We met with more than 350 farmers groups, government agencies, and NGOs, whose efforts point to low-cost, low-tech projects that have the potential to be replicated and scaled up around the world.

The Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development (WARECOD) is a Vietnamese non-profit that has been protecting Vietnam's water resources since 2006. Their work has focused on raising awareness of water quality, conducting research and training on rational water use, and working with organizations to preserve water resources and improve livelihoods in Vietnam's riverside villages. By working with affected communities, WARECOD is strengthening Vietnam's resilience to the unpredictable costs of climate change.

And to help fight water pollution caused by the overuse and misuse of agricultural inputs, the Vietnamese government is instituting an "environmental tax" on the most harmful products, including herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, the decrease in pesticides doesn't have to mean an increase in pests. Recent research by the International Rice Research Institute has identified a variety of ornamental flowers and food crops that can reduce rice pests in fields in the Mekong Delta, such as garden cosmos, chrysanthemum, sunflowers, peas and okra. By attracting bees to the fields, farmers saved 500,000 VND (24.26 USD) per hectare on pesticides.

The Agricultural Development Denmark Asia (ADDA) Integrated Pest Management project is also helping farmers become less dependent on pesticides. ADDA is working with 11,000 Vietnamese vegetable farmers, allowing them to select sustainable techniques to explore in their fields. The farmers are instructed on their selected topic and apply what they learned to their fields. After harvest, farmers report their findings back to the program. Through this participatory approach, farmers have been able to find the best varieties of seeds, optimized water use, minimized pesticide dependence and improved overall environmental conditions in Hanoi.

Although the vast coastline of Vietnam suggests plenty of water, this may not always be the case. As climate change upsets the monsoon-season rainfall pattern, farmers will be forced to adjust their methods of growing crops. In order to ensure they remain productive farmers, many in Vietnam will rely on their ability to combine traditional practices with modern technologies.

Danielle Nierenberg is project director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project (www.NourishingthePlanet.org). Philip Newell is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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