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Mekong River Delta Sustainable Development: Fundamental Shift in Paradigm Needed

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2017

As a key region of Vietnam, with a population of 18 million, the Mekong Delta plays an important role in the country's socio-economic successes. However, the Mekong Delta is also witnessing more climate change phenomena than other regions.

In the past two years, people's livelihoods in the Mekong Delta have been severely affected by drought and salt water intrusion. This year alone, heavy flooding in coastal areas and coastal erosion has affected the lives of high risk communities across the Mekong Delta.

Mr Ousmane Dione, Country Director of the World Bank in Vietnam, said that the Mekong Delta’s development needs a fundamental shift in paradigm – from a farm and provincial perspective to an inter-provincial, delta-wide and trans-boundary one; from a short-term sectoral perspective to a long-term, multisectoral and climate-resilient one.

Regional economic development, climate change adaptation and regional infrastructure development require the “Government as a whole” approach. This means close cooperation between the Mekong delta provinces, central government and the private sector for an efficient and sustainable use of available financial and natural resources.

According to Ousmane Dione, Vietnam needs to apply four principles to further consolidate the foundation for the long-term sustainable development programme in the Mekong Delta.

First, Factor in Vulnerabilities and Uncertainties: In the low-lying Mekong Delta, climate change and its impacts (too much water, too little water, too dirty water and its consequences) will further exacerbate issues relating to water and land-use. Factoring in uncertainties –from upstream and downstream impacts as well as those from climate change impacts is no longer only a necessity. It is an imperative. Specific vulnerabilities across sectors, and provincial boundaries – need to be modelled under different scenarios to inform long-term planning, adaptation pathways, and investment choices.

Second, Build on Efficiencies and effectiveness: With Vietnam’s strong commitment to better manage fiscal constraints, increasing efficiency and effectiveness of financial resources will become even more critical. Current fragmentation of budget and investments and the lack of effective enabling environment are limiting the potential of the delta’s collective growth. This calls for bold actions that rationalize scarce resources, enact policies to align production patterns with natural conditions, strategically locate infrastructure and optimize investment choices. In the Mekong Delta, taking a regional perspective to investments and policies will help to improve productive, distributive and allocative inefficiencies. The proposed Mekong Delta Water Security Project under the auspices of the Ministry of Construction to bring several provinces together for a sustainable water supply against water salinity and shortage and the proposed Southern Waterways Logistics project under the Ministry of Transport point to the right direction and set the path for more effective solidarity in finding a joint solution to common challenges. Each of these projects is being prepared with a broader, integrated and delta-wide perspective.

Third, Value Provincial Interlinkages: To fully unleash the development potential of the Mekong delta, optimizing provincial interlinkages is clearly needed particularly on shared land management, water resource use and connective infrastructure. If not well coordinated, decisions and investment choices taken at the provincial level may have unintended negative impacts on the development potential of other provinces. Finding win-win opportunities and working to synergize investments could have spill over benefits beyond a province boundary. One model to follow are the recent efforts initiated in the Dong Thap Muoi area with the provinces of Dong Thap, Long An and Tien Giang on joint planning and undertaking of strategic infrastructure. 

Fourth, Capitalize on Comparative Advantages: With different hydro-ecological sub-regions and varying natural capital endowments, the delta’s sub-regions also face specific challenges, emerging from their spatial, historical and vulnerability contexts. The upper delta’s move towards rice intensification has come at the loss of benefits from a shrinking floodplain, while coastal areas are facing growing salinity intrusion and severe erosion. Livelihood transitions and infrastructure requirements in the upper delta will need to focus on flood-based agriculture and flood retention. On the other hand, those in the coastal areas need to expand to brackish livelihoods to adapt to the growing salinity. By capturing economies of scale, sub-regions can become more competitive –integrating into global value chains –thereby increasing incomes and sustainable livelihood opportunities for the local populations.

Mr Ousmane Dion said that the key elements needed to make the transition to the Mekong Delta adaptable to climate change and sustainable development requires four key areas: institutions, information, investments and implementation.

It is difficult to say the full importance of cooperation in the region between 13 provinces of the Mekong Delta if they want to pool resources, complement one another and take advantage of the scale. Cooperation in this area is necessary to break away the local old planning style and towards a more coherent, spatial, integrated approach. This will improve efficiency, overcome the problem of overlapping powers among departments, clarify the functions and responsibilities of the parties.

In parallel, as one of the most studied delta areas in the world, the Mekong Delta must have a reliable, integrated database with efficient unified sharing processes. At the same time, due to the large investment demand, developing the Mekong River Delta should closely follow the steps of identifying, programming and prioritising investments to ensure efficiency, taking into account uncertainties, trade-offs, integration into the research process, thorough analysis. This will incur costs and require the mobilisation of resources. Vietnam could consider setting up a Mekong River Development Fund, have a clear management mechanism to mobilise urgent funds for each purpose, in line with the general principles on sustainable management and regional adaptation. Vietnam can raise capital from investment for infrastructure; mobilise private capital, mobilise capital through innovation, research - to make a difference in livelihoods, and reduce poverty, support vulnerable communities.

Success indicators for the changing development model of the Mekong River will not only be determined based on model design but will be more specifically identified from actual activities with specific results. The necessary innovation for the Mekong Delta will be a long way, but one thing is clear: The longer waiting time before implementing such innovations, the higher the cost of not taking the necessary action.

Anh Mai

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