Mekong Development Plan: the value of public participation

30 September 2013 | Article

In 2010, the Prime Ministers of Vietnam and the Netherlands agreed to support the preparation of the Mekong Delta Plan (MDP), a 100-year vision for the Mekong Delta, an area of very high natural productivity that is vulnerable to rising sea level downstream, dams and water abstraction upstream, and dikes, sluice gates, and other water resources management infrastructure within the delta itself.

The MDP was modeled on a plan that was prepared for the Rhine-Meuse-Scheld Delta in the Netherlands in 2008. That exercise was based on extensive stakeholder participation because of the impacts that different development and conservation options would have on the delta residents. Similarly, the MDP makes recommendations that imply winners and losers. Public consultations were intended to get feedback on these recommendation from those who would be most affected by them.

In September 2013, three consultation workshops were held in Can Tho and Phu Quoc. Participants included farmers from provinces representing different zones and different livelihoods in the delta; leaders of provinces in the delta and of the South West Steering Committee (SWSC); and scientists that know the delta well. The workshops were sponsored by Mekong Water Dialogues, a regional program coordinated by IUCN and funded by the government of Finland, and facilitated by a group of three consultants: Dr. Duong Van Ni and Dr. Le Anh Tuan of Can Tho University, and Nguyen Huu Thien, a wetlands ecologist based in Can Tho.

The participants appreciated the approach taken by the MDP, which is to integrate multiple sectors, recognize trade-offs, and address risks and opportunities over the long-term. This is a departure from the traditional planning approach that tends to be sector or province-specific, highly prescriptive, and focus on short-term benefits while discounting (or ignoring) long-term costs. The participants acknowledged that there are growing conflicts over water in the delta: upstream vs. downstream, inside vs. outside dikes, rice vs. shrimp farmers, and local vs. delta-wide interests.

The MDP recommends that structural measures should only be built when the need is absolutely clear. There was uniform support for the recommendation that closing the river mouths using sluice gates would be a measure of last resort in the 2050-2100 timeframe because of the high costs and the bad experience from Ba Lai sluice gate in Ben Tre. Participants encouraged policy makers “to go to Ba Lai” to see the problems. Participants were also opposed to cement sea dikes, which cost over US$2 million/km to build. If coastal dikes are built, they should be built 1-2 km inland because according to one participant, dikes increase wave energy and exacerbate coastal erosion. Sand dredging, which results in river bank collapse, was also criticized. In general, participants were opposed to structural measures because of the high costs, negative environmental impacts, and cases where infrastructure was built and never used. In line with the MDP, they preferred “soft” measures, such as mangrove conservation, that can be locally managed and meet local needs.

In the official discourse, the annual Mekong flood is usually described in negative terms that imply the need for protection. The participants emphasized the crucial importance of the flood in replenishing soil fertility, sustaining fisheries, and flushing out sulphuric acid and other toxins from the soil. In fact, the benefits extend well out to sea because the nutrients in the Mekong’s coastal sediment plume support a productive off-shore fishing industry.

The participants supported the MDP’s recommendation to use the Plain of Reeds and Long Xuyen Quadrangle in the upper delta as flood retention areas. Since the early 1990s, these areas have become dominated by rice triple-cropping, which the participants considered uneconomic and environmentally unsustainable. In the words of one participant: “Are we exporting rice to make us rich or poor?” In fact, rice farmers in the delta are among poorest people in Vietnam. When it comes to rice, yield and profit are not correlated. Allowing the Plain of Reeds and Long Xuyen Quadrangle to regain their historic function as natural “sponges” that absorb water during the wet season and release water during the dry season implies a dramatic change in land use. In effect, this means abandoning the third rice crop, on one hand, but reduced flooding risk in the wet and reduced saline intrusion during the dry, on the other.

The participants pointed out that the delta’s farmers are highly adaptable to environmental changes and as conditions become saltier in the coastal areas they are comfortable shifting to aquaculture and other high-income activities. Salt water should be seen as a resource not as an enemy. As one participant said: “We don’t need to hold tight. If life becomes impossible, we can retreat.”

The delta is divided into 13 provinces that often compete with each other for resources and investment projects. Since the delta is a hydrological unit, participants recommended the establishment of a regional body, such as the SWSC (which was created to oversee development in the delta but has no executive power), to coordinate development across the delta.

The consultations provided valuable feedback to the MDP, which will be submitted to the Prime Minister for approval in December 2013. This will, hopefully, mark the start of a development planning process in the Mekong Delta that is more participatory, more effective, and more efficient.

Mr. Jake Brunner - Mekong Programme Coordinator (Viet Nam, Cambodia and Myanmar)