Localized knowledge: Learning from the everyday experiences of farmers in the Mekong Delta

Water-related issues are complex across time and space. The Mekong Region is subject to multiple challenges that are often closely intertwined. This piece provides insights into localized knowledge gained during a 5-day on-site Burma/Myanmar-Vietnam co-learning visit to Sóc Trăng province, Việt Nam.

During our trip to Sóc Trăng province, SUMERNET project team and participants had the pleasure of visiting two local families’ homes to discuss water-related issues in the community and to gain insights into their daily lives. This piece provides reflections by the members of this exchange visit.

Farmer using groundwater for irrigation. (Photo: Vương Khả Tú)

Generally, the most popular livelihood model in Vĩnh Châu are shrimp farming, red onion crops – a typical crop of Vĩnh Châu – and vegetable growing. During warm conversations with two local families in Vĩnh Châu, SUMERNET participants learned more about the many issues local farmers in the research area have to face, including water shortage, extreme weather events, and livelihood difficulties.

The water source used for livelihood activities and farming is mainly from groundwater, except the drinking water, which stems from packaged water bottles. Local people in the village also drill wells to collect groundwater for use. Currently, the groundwater resource is decreasing.

Ms. Dot, one of the two interviewed women, said: “About 15 years ago, drilling a well down to 1 m deep would have water, but now the well at home must be drilled up to 160 m deep.”

Because of the fluctuation in product prices, getting a loan from the government bank is a way to help farmers cover their cash demands. Ms. Dao’s farm suffers from seasonal flooding. Therefore, Dao’s family had to stop their red onion farming activity for one year.  Ms. Dao could not build a dyke to prevent flooding because the garden area was too large.

On a regional scale, Vĩnh Châu comprises nearly 90% ethnic Khmer population. It is usual practice for people to migrate to find jobs. Men seem more likely to migrate for work, while women usually stay at home to take care of children. Generally, for blue-collar workers, men are paid more than women. However, the tasks between men and women are different, with men mainly involved in heavier physical activities. For those working in the government sector, the salaries are said to be balanced. (Contributed by group 1)

Lessons we learned from the visit

Situated in close proximity to the coast, Vĩnh Châu district experiences direct impacts from socio-environmental outcomes, such as storms and salinization, which have profoundly affected residents’ way of life. Through the visit, we were able to witness first-hand the daily lives and livelihoods of local residents in Vĩnh Châu. Among these, the most striking experience was encountering Ms. Dot's family, members of the Khmer community.

The family's main source of livelihood is farming; the family grows onions, rice, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and various vegetables. However, due to shifting weather patterns this season, they were only able to plant peanuts and sweet potatoes.

Farming is undertaken by Ms. Dot and her husband alone partly due to the limited land available. While this makes the labour of two individuals sufficient, the income generated through farming is not substantial. As a result, the family's two daughters have left to seek higher-paying jobs in larger cities. Many of their neighbours face a similar situation. With low agricultural earnings coupled with excessive weather-related risks, many families have sent their children far from home to urban centres in pursuit of employment opportunities. Notably, this is not exclusive to Ms. Dot’s family but resonates throughout the region.

Furthermore, issues of salinization have led to a scarcity of water for both agricultural and daily usage. As relayed by Ms. Dot, about 15 years ago, the community could simply dig wells of one to two meters depth to access sufficient water. Presently, however, wells need to be as deep as 100 meters and necessitate the use of air pumps to extract water. This incurs substantial costs, which their meagre agricultural income cannot cover.

As a result, families are compelled to resort to bank loans, amounting to millions of Vietnam Dong, to sustain their households. They face little choice as they need to provide for their families and ensure their children’s education, so that their children may have less arduous occupations.

Insights shared by friends from Burma/Myanmar reflect similar challenges. However, their situation is further exacerbated by the lack of electricity and limited access to borrowing facilities. This realization underscores the ongoing struggle faced by many individuals in confronting the adversities of socio-environmental changes. Consequently, we are committed to enhancing our knowledge and skills. This will empower us to continue contributing to future community projects, supporting those who grapple with climate change challenges while striving to minimize the risks they encounter. (Contributed by group 2).

Discussion with local people to understand current water issues. (Photo: Vương Khả Tú)

Initial insights for exploring future Mekong water politics

Throughout our trip, we have jointly explored questions of water (in)security within the Vietnam Mekong Delta specifically and – through knowledge sharing – within the Mekong Region more broadly.

Policy-making and reporting in recent decades have shown a tendency of overly simplistic and deterministic explanations between climate change, water insecurity, and social issues such as human migration or the abandoning of agricultural praxis. However, first insights from our workshop have indicated that these issues are often more complex than they appear at first sight.

Approaching these issues through a bottom-up process of co-creating knowledge allows local farmers, policymakers, and academia to jointly challenge top-down policymaking and explore opportunities and challenges of a democracy-in-the-making from below.

The future of Mekong water politics certainly remains complex and highly disputed and processes of co-creating knowledge need sustained commitment as well as the ability to scale up knowledges, values and processes. We believe that our project is a small, yet important step to foster solidarities across the Mekong Region.

After many days of sharing, learning, and exploring, we part with new insights. Importantly, we have made new friends, explored the overlaps and differences regarding socio-environmental issues across the region, and believe that despite the many challenges ahead, a different, more just Mekong Region is possible.

Over the next months, our Vietnam team will advance their localized co-creation process through collaborative research, a policy-engagement event, and close communication with the rest of the team so that we may further our co-learning process.

Some open questions emerging from our visit include a better understanding of gendered relations and the role of Unions within the Vietnam Mekong Delta’s water politics. The communication of our findings will also importantly include a film-making component that additionally advances our co-learning process.

Beyond that, we hope the very near future will also allow us to all meet in Burma/Myanmar and to put into reality this part of our co-creation process.



This article is based on a 5-day on-site Burma/Myanmar-Vietnam co-learning visit to Sóc Trăng Province, Việt Nam during August 2023. The workshop is part of the SUMERNET project entitled ‘Co-creation of knowledges as a process to respond to water injustices of marginalized communities in Mekong Region water politics.’ The blog article was co-written by the members of the project team and the participants of the workshop and field visit some of whom chose to remain anonymous.

This is part of a two-series blog post. For Part I ‘Co-creating knowledge in Mekong water politics’ see here and a full, extended report here.


You may be interested in our podcasts on knowledge co-production. Please visit the links below:

Podcast – Co-creation of knowledge(s) for water governance

Podcast – Epistemic injustice in water governance with Karen Delfau

Sustainable Mekong Research Network

Building research for policy towards sustainable development in the Mekong Region

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