Climate change wreaks havoc on shrimp, salt harvests

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Salt farmers working in a field in the central coastal region. Scientists say that today's severe and unpredictable storms have significantly impeded traditional salt harvests.

A close-up look at losses and damages to shrimp and salt farmers in Ha Tinh and Ca Mau provinces aims to persuade international donors for a national program in response to climate change.

Unpredictable storms have been murder on Tran Van Tinh's shrimp crop, literally.

"In the last five years, shrimp yields have become about 30 percent lower. In 2007, storms came very late, so most of the shrimp in my pond died, even though it was almost harvest time," said the 28-year-old farmer of Thach Bang Commune in Ha Tinh Province's Loc Ha District said.

Salt farming [a traditional practice of pumping seawater into enclosed fields for natural evaporation] has also been hit hard by changing weather patterns.

Le Thi Van, a salt farmer in Loc Ha, said floods have shortened the harvest season from around seven months to around four over the past five years.

She's spent a lot of money trying to upgrade her salt fields.

"My family usually repairs and refurbishes the field once every two to three years," she told researchers. "Recently, we've had to do it every year due to rapid degradation. This year we spent VND2 million (US$103) on upgrades alone."

Tinh and Van are among farmers in the coastal region whose livelihoods have been affected by the climate change. Vietnam, which has more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, is expected to suffer some of the most severe and immediate economic consequences of those changes.

Last week ActionAid Vietnam"” the local chapter of a South Africa-based non-governmental organization"” released a report on the toll shifting weather patterns are taking on poor Vietnamese communities.

The researchers focused on farmers in Ca Mau Province in the Mekong Delta and the north-central province of Ha Tinh.

The study, entitled "Losses and Damages: Research on climate impacts on poor communities in Vietnam and their responses," was co-authored by the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at the Vietnam National University-Hanoi.

No farmer interviewed in the report could explain why excessive and unseasonable rains caused heavy damage to shrimp farming.

The researchers, however, say that the farming is a delicate balance. According to the report, shrimp thrive in brackish waters with salinity levels between 12 percent to 25 percent. Too much or too little fresh water can throw these ratios off, leading to shock, slow growth or death, the researchers said.

 Many respondents also complained that unusually severe storms had burst pond banks killing whole crops. Researchers found that rising sea levels have lead to disastrous saltwater intrusion in ponds near coastal regions.

Farmers in Ca Mau Province's Lam Hai Commune have been very worried about rains in the last few years. "In 2009, for example, rains were heavier and lasted longer than usual, leading to a decline in output and a two-third drop in their income," according to the study.

In troubled waters

Truong Quoc Can, food rights coordinator for ActionAid Vietnam, said that in Ha Tinh's Loc Ha District heavy and irregular storms cut into salt and crop yields.

"Losses and damages to salt-producing households in Loc Ha have forced many people, especially women, to abandon their salt fields and migrate to other places in search of work," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. "Climate change has serious consequences for disadvantaged groups, including the elderly, women, children and poor households because they don't have the financial and working capacity to recover and reinvest."

According to the study, Vietnam's average temperature, rainfall and sea levels have all risen over the course of the past five decades.

The average temperature in Vietnam rose about 0.5 to 0.7 degrees Celsius, and the sea level has risen about 20 centimeters during 1958-2007, the researchers found.

Climate change has increased the severity of seasonal typhoons, floods and droughts, the team said.

The report authors expressed concern that a rise in sea level will significantly affect the low-lying Mekong Delta in general and Ca Mau in particular, which could be almost completely inundated with seawater during certain parts of the year. According to the report's authors, Ca Mau Province has one of the longest coastlines in the country.

The report cited Ca Mau's Office of Flood Prevention and Mitigation as saying that the province is addled by dozens of serious erosion points and that "people and property could slip into the sea or river at any time."

According to the World Bank, a one-meter rise in the sea level would affect ten percent of Vietnam's population, while a rise of three meters would affect 25 percent of its population as well as 12 percent of its land area and 17 percent of its agriculture, mostly in the Mekong and Red River deltas.

Who's responsible?

ActionAid's Can said the study aims to move the issue of compensation for losses and damages for climate-affected communities to the political fore.

"On an international level, ActionAid believes that countries with developed industry, who cause pollution, are responsible for offering financial support to developing countries victims of climate change to help them cope with the issue," he said. "On a national level, the [Vietnamese] government is responsible for applying related policies and programs."

He added that the organization hopes to produce a case study on the issue and develop a series of adaptive strategies for affected states.

He acknowledged the recent actions that local authorities have taken to cope with climate change but insisted that a more active, community-based strategy would be needed to effectively improve people's awareness of the issue.

Can further described the majority of the adaptive measures being taken by rural residents as "passive."

"[The current strategies] focus more on coping with natural disasters rather than actively adapting," he said.

Effective coping methods will require a fundamental shift in the daily rhythms of affected farmers like changing the timing of crop harvests or developing a secondary source of income, he said.

Can suggested that shrimp farmers in Ca Mau's Nam Can District may want to consider breeding crabs and planting vegetables to prevent the possibility of total crop failure in the event of a natural disaster.

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