A Retired Doctor’s Green Revival: Revitalizing Grasslands and Livelihoods in Vietnam’s Salt-Affected Mekong Delta

Dr. Duong Van Ni, a renowned scholar and conservationist, has dedicated nearly three decades of his life to studying and addressing the impacts of climate change in Vietnam's precious Mekong Delta region. At 68 years of age, Dr. Ni serves as the president and director of the Mekong Conservancy Foundation (MCF), and his work focuses on adapting to the challenges posed by saline intrusion through the utilization of grass species as a source of sustainable livelihood for the region's residents.

Dr. Duong Van Ni introduces grass species at a craft village in Nga Nam Town, Soc Trang Province, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. Photo: Tieu Bac / Tuoi Tre News

The Mekong Community Foundation (MCF) was established in 2019 with a focus on research and problem-solving in the fields of livelihood, education, environment, and natural resources, all contributing to the long-term development of the Mekong Delta.

With a dedication to climate-related solutions and sustainable poverty reduction, Dr. Duong Van Ni, the founder of MCF, has been pursuing a nature-based model since 1996.

This nature-based approach utilizes the region’s natural resources, such as plants, grass, water, and soil, to improve the lives of its residents.

“When Vietnam opened its doors to global economic integration in the 1990s, the price of shrimp was exceptionally high,” recalls Dr. Ni. This led to a rush of local farmers converting rice fields to shrimp farms.

However, uncontrolled shrimp farming had negative consequences, including saltwater intrusion and the spread of diseases.

In 2000, a disease caused the mass death of crabs and shrimp, creating turmoil for local farmers. This prompted Dr. Ni and his partners to study the land and find solutions to benefit both the environment and farmers.

During their first on-site survey, they noticed the absence of grass in the region, which led to Dr. Ni’s determination to restore green coverage.

Implementing this plan proved challenging due to the saline conditions, but Dr. Ni persevered. He transported bulrush seedlings from the border area between Ha Tien City and Cambodia to initiate the process of regenerating vegetation.

A farmer is pictured harvesting bulrush, a grass species that thrives in saltwater, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. Photo: MCF

In addition to the bulrush, Dr. Ni also studied and regrew cattails, which are suitable for wetlands.

Despite initial skepticism and warnings from local authorities, the model gained support when it became clear that these plants could be used to craft housewares for consumption and export.

A cooperative was established to connect with companies, and in 2021, a craft village was set up in Nga Nam Town, employing over 1,000 craftspeople aged 40 and above.

As part of his nature-based model, Dr. Ni is also implementing a project titled ‘Creating Sustainable Livelihoods through Climate-Adaptive Crops,’ funded by the Australian government.

This project, running through 2025, aims to expand the cultivation of bulrush as a replacement crop for mono-shrimp aquaculture, improving soil and water quality, and creating sustainable livelihoods by producing export-worthy housewares.

Harnessing Native Grass Species for Livelihood Improvement

Through thorough research, Dr. Ni and his colleagues selected bulrush and cattail as the most suitable crops for areas affected by saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta.

This strategy effectively combats saline intrusion and establishes sustainable livelihoods for the residents.

The decision was based on biodiversity analysis and the long existence of these natural grass species in the region.

Restoring their presence is essential, especially considering the world’s efforts to address biodiversity loss and the accelerating rate of species extinction.

Dr. Ni emphasizes the importance of native species in economic development, using the example of ST25 rice, which originated from the Mekong Delta and is now recognized as the world’s best rice variety.

A craftswoman is shown using bulrush, regenerated by Dr. Duong Van Ni, to weave a basket in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Minh Khoi / Tuoi Tre

The craft village in Nga Nam Town utilizes bulrush, cattail, and water hyacinth to create diverse handicraft products for local and global markets.

Bulrush, with its durability and softness after drying, is well-suited for low-humidity and dry weather in markets like the United States and Australia.

Water hyacinth, though crunchy, is short and easy to weave into chairs, baskets, and bags.

These native grass species have empowered locals to take control of their livelihoods, from planting and harvesting to crafting and selling their products.

Handicraft products made of bulrush
Handicraft products crafted from bulrush by artisans in Nga Nam Town, Soc Trang Province, located in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Minh Khoi / Tuoi Tre
Craftspeople skillfully weave baskets in Nga Nam Town, Soc Trang Province, located in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Tieu Bac / Tuoi Tre News

A Vision for a Better Mekong Delta

Dr. Ni has an ambitious goal: to replace artificial sponge used in furniture and cushions with natural materials to protect the environment.

He is collaborating with research institutes to study the characteristics of natural materials to achieve this goal.

Additionally, he plans to establish a natural history museum for the Mekong Delta, providing new generations and tourists with knowledge and insights into the region’s history.

The Consulate General of Australia in Ho Chi Minh City organized a media tour from March 18 to 22 to showcase Australia’s commitment and activities in the Mekong Delta, including their support for projects like Dr. Ni’s.

Since 2000, Australia has provided over AUD650 million (US$427 million) in official development assistance to the region.

The Mekong Delta faces various challenges, as highlighted by Nguyen Phuong Lam, director of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Can Tho Branch, during the media tour briefing. These include saline intrusion, a shortage of clean water, a high rate of unskilled workers, heavy reliance on agriculture, and low economic growth, among others.

Dr. Duong Van Ni (L) discusses his nature-based sustainable livelihood project with Ciaran Chestnutt (R), Deputy Consul General of Australia in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tieu Bac / Tuoi Tre News
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