Climate change will hit hard in the Lower Mekong Basin. People in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand will face higher temperatures leading to heat-stressed crops and livestock. Increased rainfall will cause more frequent and severe flooding, and sea level rise and salt intrusion will critically harm livelihoods, especially in the Mekong Delta. Farmers and rural people will bear the heaviest burden.

How people in the Mekong adapt to these climate challenges can make a difference. As part of USAID’s Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change (Mekong ARCC) project, I authored a study that assesses climate adaptation efforts in five sites across the four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin. Based on reports from the field and interviews with project implementers, I highlight three lessons from the implementation of community-based adaptation plans.

Lesson One: What Options to Invest In?

The adaptation plans I reviewed used a variety of approaches but across the sites, communities tend to focus on three main adaptation activities:

  • Crop and Livestock diversification: Most adaptation plans included efforts to diversify crops to reduce climate vulnerability, for example, by breeding heat tolerant livestock and planting saline tolerant crops.
  • Water management: Activities focused on creating water storage and distribution systems help to improve efficiency and reduce water waste—a benefit that will become increasingly important as climate change increases weather variability, including droughts.
  • Forest governance: Improving forest governance to reduce misuse, over-harvesting and illegal forest clearing helps moderate water flows, reduce landslides and improve soil conditions.

Lesson Two: What Factors Lead to Project Success?

Based on interviews with implementing partners, three enabling factors often led to project success:

  • Training and knowledge dissemination. Farmers across all five Mekong sites received formal training from agriculture experts to increase their awareness of new crop varieties and farming techniques. They also learned from weather forecasters how to monitor weather patterns and access early warning systems for extreme weather events.
  • Partnerships between the government and communities.  These partnerships were especially strong when there was a clear alignment between community needs and government policy and planning for climate adaptation.
  • Community engagement. Community members are the most important partners in an adaptation project. Without support and buy-in from communities where adaptation activities take place, adaptation may not succeed.

Lesson Three: Common Pitfalls

Even if the right investments and enabling factors are in place, there are three pitfalls to be aware of:

  • High financial costs and low return on investments. Switching to new crop varieties or livestock breeds is expensive and risky. Even if it works, the return on investment may be inadequate due to low market prices. New approaches must make financial sense to farmers in order for them to take up the activity.
  • Distance and lack of connectivity. Project managers had trouble engaging with farming communities located in remote areas. The high transaction costs of helping people in remote areas adapt to climate change could be a barrier to success.
  • Lack of participation. Farmers are busy people who may lack the time or the means to go to meetings and participate in conversations on how to govern natural resources. Lack of participation was particularly problematic when governing water and forest management. Identifying community champions could be a solution.

Several of enabling factors are at work in Vietnam’s Thuan Hoa Commune on the coastal plain of the Mekong Delta. Thuan Hoa is a low-lying area threatened by up to 30 centimeters of sea level rise by 2050. Already the community is seeing the beginning of salinization of irrigation canals and paddy soils. This is likely to worsen, affecting the rice-shrimp farming system, which is the principal source of livelihoods in this area.

Mekong ARCC supported training on climate resilient rice-shrimp farming techniques and organized farmer access to more robust post-larva shrimp and salt-tolerant rice. Early shrimp yields have been low and in some cases zero due to prolonged heat stress during the shrimp production season because of El Niño. Nonetheless, farmers are hopeful that the improved rice-shrimp system will increase their income in the future, especially since there is a market for shrimp in the area. Investment costs are also low enough for farmers to adopt the activity. The Asian Management and Development Institute that helped implement this activity invited the Government of Vietnam to see the results of the improved system. The Government now supports scaling up of improved rice-shrimp systems at the national level, especially since it aligns with national policies on agriculture. The Government’s support will increase the rice-shrimp system from 100,000 hectares currently under cultivation to up to 250,000 hectares by 2030.

For more such examples, see the full report: Lessons from Implementing Adaptation Plans in the Lower Mekong Basin. To learn how the project worked with communities to develop community-based adaptation plans, see my previous blog post on this project.