The Social Nature of Salt: Competing Perspectives on Salinity in the Mekong Delta

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 9:30 PM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Timothy GORMAN , Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
The Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam is currently undergoing a massive and far-reaching environmental transformation. As the seas rise and as an increasing volume of fresh water is diverted from the upper reaches of the river, both for hydropower and for irrigation, waterways and soils along the coast have become increasingly saline. Driven by the rising tides, water from the South China Sea now penetrates for dozens of miles inland, up the mouths of the Mekong and its distributaries and into the irrigation canals that crosshatch the delta, posing a mounting threat to rice production and to agricultural livelihoods in the region. This change, however, is not seen by all actors as a negative one; instead, many residents of the region have abandoned rice farming for saltwater aquaculture, turning their rice paddies into saline ponds and cultivating farmed shrimp for international markets.

This paper examines the contentious politics of salinity in the Mekong Delta, paying particular attention to the competing perspectives towards salinization that exist within both the Vietnamese state and in rural communities in salinity-affected areas. Drawing on interviews with Vietnamese officials and reviews of policy documents, I first look at the competing interests - such as export-oriented development and national food security - which drive tensions over salinization at the policy level. I then turn my attention to differing perspectives and attitudes towards salinity at the local level, drawing on focus group interviews and ethnographic observation to examine the reasons - ideational and material - for which some social groups in the Mekong Delta have embraced salinization and salt-water shrimp farming, while others have sought to persist with rice farming even in the face of mounting salinity pressures.