Back Society » Environment » WWF-Viet Nam’s Support of Mekong Delta Farmers Combating Climate Change in the Mekong Delta with Floating Rice, Fish-traps, and Lotus Seeds

“Compared to 10 years ago, for every 10 fish we once caught, we now only manage four or five,” explained Nguyễn Văn Dê, a lifelong resident of Vĩnh Đại commune in Long An Province.

He blames a decrease in water quality from pollution and agricultural chemicals and the construction of dikes that disrupt natural water levels for causing the decline. While noting that advances in technology and modern infrastructure have improved life in the 4,200-person commune, he said that earning a living from traditional fishing and farming practices has become more difficult.

The hardships experienced by Vietnam’s Mekong Delta residents aren’t necessarily apparent at first glance. When invited into local homes, residents routinely offer sweet jackfruit, guava and bananas fresh from their gardens along with invitations to join for fried fish and beer sessions that promise to go long into the night. This generosity, however, is a reflection of the community’s character and not a sign of prosperity. Livelihoods are precarious and there are ample reasons to be concerned about the future. 

“The Flood Season is the Money-Making Season”

Simple strips of wood held together with intricate netting rest in piles behind Trần Văn Nghĩa. The 53-year-old farmer whose grandparents first cleared the forest land where his home now stands slowly lifted a trap to show off its craftsmanship while explaining how making them contributes to his family’s income. Together with his wife, they can make between 10 and 15 traps per day that sell for 50-60,000 VND and bring in a profit of approximately 15,000 VND a piece. Thanks to a strong word-of-mouth reputation boosted by some coverage in local media, Nghĩa doesn’t need to advertise them via Zalo or other social media platforms like other people in the area. They craft the traps for catching cá rô (perch), cá chốt (Mystus catfish) and cá lóc (snakehead) throughout the year, but only during the flooding season do people buy them. “The flooding season is the money-making season,” he explained.

Trần Văn Nghĩa shows off a completed fish trap (left) while his wife, Nguyễn Thị Thiều, demonstrates a step in the construction process (right).

When waters in the region rise due to seasonal rain patterns, the nutrient-rich sediment that supports much of the Delta’s famous fertility arrives. The flooding coincides with the time to gather fish. Nghĩa, for example, nets around forty-five million VND per year. However, the flood season has serious implications for the rice harvest as well. Unlike the region’s dry periods, to grow conventional rice during this time, farmers must use extensive amounts of chemicals and pesticides and erect dikes. Doing so disrupts the seasonal flooding which naturally rejuvenates the soil, contributing further to its degradation while damaging native fish populations. Unfortunately, a drastic increase in the market price of rice in recent years means more farmers are looking to cultivate rice during this third season. Nghĩa says, simply: “If everyone converts to three conventional rice harvests, there will be no more fish.”

Nature-Based Solutions Come in Many Shapes and Sizes

Last year Saigoneer traveled to Long An to understand how WWF-Viet Nam’s Climate Resilient by Nature - Mekong Project (CRxN Mekong) offers a more sustainable approach to rice cultivation via the introduction of an ancient variety of floating rice alongside environmentally mindful fish-raising practices as part of wide-reaching nature based-solutions in coordination with broad education initiatives. We returned at the start of this year to talk to some community members for a more complete understanding of the challenges they face due to climate change and environmental degradation and the varied efforts they are taking to safeguard their futures. 

Rice farming is certainly the most important source of money in the area, but it cannot provide enough income on its own. In addition to fishing, community members supplement their incomes in a variety of ways. Võ Thị Kim Hai, Nguyễn Văn Dê’s wife, for example, brought us to the large pond behind their home where she grows lotus plants. She had previously used the area to plant floating rice with financial and logistical support from CRxN Mekong, but because she had removed some of the underlying soil to establish a garden for jackfruit and durian, it wasn’t suitable for floating rice cultivation. Instead, she harvests lotus seed pods that fetch 20-25,000 VND per kilo for processing into snacks and candy. She hopes that one day her family will have enough capital to erect a simple homestay as part of a greater ecotourism sector that may develop in the area.

Meanwhile, Nguyễn Thị Phượng leads Vĩnh Đại Commune’s all-women lục bình weaving group. One of CRxN Mekong’s many education programs involved inviting a consultant to the community to teach them how to take advantage of the abundant water hyacinth clogging the waterways. The expert taught the women how to prepare and process the plants and connected them with the local company Artex Đồng Tháp to facilitate the production of household objects. What was once an onerous weed that could only be collected and sold as raw material has become a valuable income source.

The lục bình group underscores CRxN Mekong’s commitment to empowering women. A special rotating fund provides zero-interest loans to women for business operations, such as the purchase of equipment for cultivating land or simple technologies for handicraft production. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that men and women alike reported that the program’s gender equality courses were amongst the most helpful. Touching on topics such as sharing household tasks, establishing equal roles for husbands and wives in domestic decision-making and general women’s rights, the practical courses helped foster “more peace at home,” as one local put it. These free, expert-led classes are joined by courses on basic home finance that offer guidance on calculating expenses, estimating profits and setting budgets. Together the education initiatives reflect the need for simple, practical solutions within the seemingly loftier aims of environmental stewardship. 

Finding Stability in Turbulent Markets

The importance of flexibility extends to the sale of floating rice. Cultivated without pesticides, chemicals, or dikes, the strain of rice that was reintroduced into the province four years ago after having disappeared in the 1970s is at the core of the CRxN Mekong’s initiative. WWF-Viet Nam invited experts from Cần Thơ to teach Vĩnh Đại’s farmers how to plant and harvest it, as well as explain its larger environmental benefits. But even with that support, ensuring its widespread adoption is a fraught endeavor. 

Recently planted field (left) and rice ready to harvest (right).

“It’s very easy to cultivate floating rice, however, it’s difficult to navigate the market,” explained Nguyễn Văn Nghỉ, a Vĩnh Đại resident who has planted 3.5 ha of floating rice in each of the previous four years. He told Saigoneer that he understands that floating rice is safer to eat than conventional rice because it is produced without dangerous chemicals and has natural health benefits, but ultimately its tough texture and the time it takes to cook makes it difficult for locals to enjoy. Thus, he is relying on outside support to reach foreign markets interested in purchasing it while developing creative products with the grain. 

Floating rice harvest (photos via WWF-Viet Nam).

On January 3, the Vĩnh Đại community cooperative held a signing ceremony with Khải Nam and X-Shipper, two Vietnamese rice export companies. They both agreed to assist in the logistics of collecting, processing and distributing floating rice to markets in Europe while stressing the need for farmers to meet the high standards demanded by foreign consumers. By achieving these high standards while also adding additional products such as bún and phở noodles made from floating rice, the companies hope to expand distribution and marketing to the US as well as Japan.

Without this market expansion and creative product development, harvesting the floating rice may prove untenable because bottom-line economics ultimately determine the local farmer’s behaviors. Nguyễn Ngọc Điền, chairman of the local cooperative's management board, explained to Saigoneer that the farmers will only plant floating rice if they deem it a financially prudent move, which is at the mercy of market fluctuations. The importance of rice to their livelihoods makes farmers hesitant to commit fully to new ideas or unfamiliar practices. Điền noted that the farmers consider the floating rice a gamble and they will only consider it and other nature-based solutions that WWF-Viet Nam and government programs suggest if they are confident that the support will continue in the future. 

Điền stressed that it's more than just the individual farmers’ livelihoods that are at stake and the health of the entire community depends on rice thanks to interconnected market chains. The profits from rice harvests are re-distributed via purchases in the local market as well as construction and development plans. If the farmers fail in their rice crops, because of the effects of climate change or the failed adoption of a new technique or product, the entire commune suffers.

Risks and Successes Shared with the Environment

Much like the interconnected fates of Vĩnh Đại residents, the future of the entire commune is intrinsically linked to the health of the greater ecosystem, which includes a large protected wetlands area. Established in 2004, the 5,000 ha Láng Sen Wetland Reserve borders the commune and was recognized as Vietnam’s seventh Ramsar site in 2015 with assistance from WWF Viet Nam. It provides an essential oasis for migrating birds as well as mammals, fish, reptiles and native plant species. In addition to preserving the region’s unique ecosystem and allowing for important research, it also holds value as an ecotourism destination for bird watchers and nature lovers. 

Unfortunately, the wetlands are at risk due to illegal poaching, forest fires, and general environmental destruction caused by trash, chemicals and pollution. Its preservation depends on the people that surround it. “The local community is the safeguard of the wetlands itself,” explained Nguyễn Công Toại, deputy head of the Láng Sen Wetland Reserve.

To empower locals to protect it, residents must first be educated about its importance. Thus, in collaboration with WWF-Viet Nam, the reserve holds classes for Vĩnh Đại citizens that explain the intrinsic value of the natural area as well as its effect on their lives including its potential for ecotourism and its impact on fish populations. Once people value the wetlands, they become interested in its preservation. Courses, therefore, provide information for safe garbage disposal and sustainable agriculture practices. Moreover, local people are trained to prevent and combat forest fires as well as identify and report illegal poaching. Recognizing the role of young people, the reserve is active in outreach to students, sponsoring not only educational visits but also providing books, bicycles and insurance. While much progress remains to be made, when asked to assess the impact of the CRxN Mekong program as it relates to the wetlands, Toại noted: “Local people now know how important it is to protect the wetlands.”

The Mekong Delta is a tangled landscape. Rivers, streams and channels snare, branch, cross, and entwine like the gnarled knots of tree limbs and roots. Human communities in the region encounter challenges as complex and enmeshed as this topography. No single solution can address them all. Varied responses such as the nature-based solutions supported by WWF-Viet Nam’s CRxN Mekong program buoyed by practical, ground-level education and community decision-making represent the best approach. If successful, generations of visitors to Vĩnh Đại will continue to be welcomed with delicious fruits and tables filled with fresh fish by warm and friendly residents in nature-based farms surrounded by the Delta’s natural beauty.


Climate Resilient by Nature (CRxN) is an Australian Government initiative, in partnership with WWF-Australia, advancing high-integrity, equitable nature-based solutions to climate change in the Indo-Pacific. Funding for this project in Vietnam is provided by the Mekong Australia Partnership – Water, Energy and Climate.

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