Many rice farmers in Ben Tre Province have started harvesting their immature rice plants after little rainfall and no flooding for the first time ever exposed their crops to river-borne salinity early.
Without water, the rice seeds cannot grow any bigger, they said.
“It’s my worst year ever,” Nguyen Van Nhan, who has been growing rice for dozens of years, told Tuoi Tre newspaper.
The Hau and Tien Rivers, tributaries of the Mekong and the main source of fresh water in the region, have become unfit for irrigation after salinity levels – due to encroachment by seawater -- exceeded 5‰, way above the level of 1-2‰ at this time last year.
Many farmers have left their fields fallow since they were not able to get much freshwater during what has been the strongest El Nino year in two decades, even stronger than in 1997 and 1998.
Meteorologists have warned that the intense conditions will continue into spring next year and could wreak havoc, especially in East Asia-Pacific countries.
Nhan said he only managed to harvest a 10th of the normal crop.
Pham Thi Thiet, 80, of Tien Giang Province said she has never seen such early or severe salinity in the area.
This level of salinity is not reached until March or April, she said.
She might harvest just 40 kilograms from her 7,000-square-meter field this time, less than a 20th of the normal yield, she said.
Nguyen Tan Hung, the chairman of a commune in Tien Giang, said farmers in his commune have planted 620 hectares of rice, but 400 hectares have dried up or been destroyed by salinity, and the rest could go the same way.
Freshwater is gold
People living in coastal areas in the delta are worried they might not have enough freshwater for a long time since the next rainy season is at least another five months away.
The Southern Institute of Water Resources Research has said salinity in the area could persist until June.
Ben Tre residents said while the water shortage is not a new story, it has been unusually intense this year.
One woman said that during the dry season, her family usually has to buy fresh water from boats at up to VND400,000 a cubic meter, or more than 20 times the price of tap water in Ho Chi Minh City.
“There’s little rain for us to store this year. We’re not sure we’re going to survive the coming drought.”
An official in the Ben Tre agriculture department said more than 345,000 people in the province lack freshwater since salinity has affected supply to water pumping stations.
Dr Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Can Tho University, said the delta has not adopted long-term measures to deal with drought and salinization, which are expected to worsen due to global warming.
People should save freshwater for their own use first before irrigating rice fields, and consider switching to plants that survive dry conditions better.
He said in the long term authorities should allocate more funds for research into water-saving measures in cultivation.
“You need to save water as it is no longer a blessing from the sky,” Tuoi Tre quoted him as saying.