Amidst the global challenge of climate change, agricultural regions like Vietnam’s Mekong Delta stand at the intersection of high productivity and significant vulnerability. The delta, home to over 18 million people and contributing more than 50% of Vietnam’s rice production, plays a vital role in ensuring food security across Asia and beyond. However, rising sea levels, excessive groundwater extraction, and saltwater intrusion threaten its survival. In response, a coalition of Vietnamese and Dutch experts have established the Mekong Salt Lab, dedicated to helping farmers in the Tra Vinh Province adapt to increasing droughts and salinization. Funded by Partners of Waters, we shed light on this ongoing innovation through a series of interviews. In our first episode, Gregor Van Essen and Bich Tran (Bica) update us on the current challenges and forthcoming steps.


Image: Mekong Salt Lab – Location of Tra Vinh Province in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

About Salt Lab

Salt Lab addresses the impact of saline intrusion on farmers’ livelihoods in Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam. The project tackles issues such as reduced crop and fish yields, scarcity of fresh water for irrigation and household use, and the socio-economic consequences of salinity. It provides practical solutions and training through a Centre of Expertise, such as blended learning platforms, hydroponics, water treatment, and constructed wetlands. Adopting Farmer-to-Farmer and Public-Private Partnership models, Salt Lab will initially implement and integrate seven promising adaptive and scalable interventions, enhancing resilience and sustainable agriculture in the Mekong Delta. These are the 7 solutions part of the pilot project:

  • Hydroponics: an open-field, low cost, and low-tech hydroponics system designed to grow crops in saline-affected areas.
  • Freshwater Collection and Retention: techniques such as water bags, retention ponds, and lining irrigation canals to maximise availability of freshwater
  • Water and Wastewater Treatment: innovative nanofiltration methods using hollow fibre (HF) membrane modules for treating polluted water sources efficiently and sustainably.
  • Constructed Wetlands: artificial wetlands at the farm level to retain fresh water, treat polluted water, and promote groundwater infiltration.
  • Salinity Data Farming Platform & App: a unique platform and mobile app that provides real-time salinity data, helping farmers make informed decisions.
  • Asia Raincraft: a serious gaming-based approach for community and stakeholder participation, fostering collaboration in addressing water and climate adaptation.
  • Salinity Blended Learning Programme: equips farmers with practical knowledge about salinity and how they can respond or adapt to it.

Project team

The Mekong Salt Lab project is managed by a team of four members, including Gregor van Essen from The Water Agency and Bich Tran from Tra Vinh University, Vietnam. Gregor, as project director, oversees strategic operations and engages with key stakeholders like Partners for Water and the Dutch embassy. With over two decades of experience in the Mekong Delta, Bica, responsible for operational models, is deeply committed to enhancing farmers’ livelihoods in the region.

Empowering farmers: the crucial role of Mekong Salt Lab

Vietnam faces severe water deficits, worsened by intense droughts. During extreme dry seasons, the lack of freshwater forces many farmers to abandon their crops, a situation worsened by rising salinity levels. Farmers often lack the practical support needed to combat salinization. While they witness the negative impacts, such as failed crops, they lack the data, tools, and knowledge to respond effectively:

  • Practical salinity data: Farmers need timely and useful data to assess the quality of various water sources and monitor changes in salinity levels over time.
  • Practical knowledge and tools: Farmers require practical knowledge and tools to adapt to salinity, including methods for freshwater retention, water treatment, and the cultivation of salt-tolerant crops.
  • Actionable and affordable support: Farmers need support and solutions that are both practical and affordable.

The services of Mekong Salt Lab are specifically targeting these gaps and the urgency of doing this for farmers cannot be overstated. Gregor emphasises its significance, stating, “For Mekong farmers, this project is not a nice-to-have; it is a matter of survival.” Despite the challenges, engaging local farmers in education and changing their practices is a formidable task. Bica underscores the importance of patience and cultural understanding, noting, “We must listen to local farmers and adjust our model to meet their needs.” Experimenting and upscaling present significant challenges during the initial phase, making the role of the Salt Lab crucial in addressing these issues and ensuring the sustainability of local agriculture.

Consortium Partners

The Mekong Salt Lab project thrives through the collaboration of a diverse consortium of Dutch and Vietnamese partners, including The Water Agency, Tra Vinh University, Kim Delta, The Salt Doctors, Saxion University, HZ University, SkillEd, and Acacia Water. Each partner brings specialised expertise in areas such as hydroponics, freshwater retention, saline agriculture, soil management, blended learning, stakeholder engagement, aquaculture, and wastewater treatment. Co-funded by the Partners for Water programme, this consortium benefits from regular guidance and oversight. As Gregor stated, “The collaboration with Partners for Water goes beyond funding. They connect us with other initiatives and partners in the Mekong Delta that can strengthen our project” This partnership aims to create sustainable water solutions tailored to the Mekong Delta’s needs.

Collaborating with local partners

Working closely with local partners is indispensable for the success of the Mekong Salt Lab project. Through comprehensive needs and gap analyses, the team ensures that their solutions align with local realities. “We’ve consulted local authorities and farmers extensively during the proposal phase to understand their needs and explore potential solutions,” explains Bica. Engaging influential “champion farmers” has proven pivotal. “We’ve carefully selected farmers who can effectively represent the issues we’re addressing and actively contribute to the project,” notes Bica.

Currently, two champion farmers are piloting integrated systems that include water collection and retention for agricultural activities, water treatment for household use, vertical hydroponics, and deep-water hydroponics to address salinity and water scarcity. The challenge lies in adapting these Dutch systems to the local context and ensuring the farmers learn how to operate them effectively. “We need to educate these farmers thoroughly while determining the best practices for them. This will help us develop a general approach for broader implementation of these systems”.

The interest among local farmers and government officials is evident. The local government, having already visited three times to assess the project’s progress, underscores their commitment and enthusiasm. The governments of the neighbouring provinces of Soc Trang and Ben Tre have also shown interest. By leveraging local expertise and fostering continuous dialogue, the project is well-positioned to achieve long-term success and make a significant impact on the community.

In the field and next steps

Currently the project is in its first phase, in which innovative solutions are being implemented at two champion farms and soon to be expanded. “With these farmers, we set up a model with hydroponics for vegetable planting. The deep water culture helps save water for farmers. The next step is integrating solutions effectively,” Bica says. Looking ahead, Gregor envisions broader success, stating, “We want the Mekong Salt Lab to become a one-stop support centre for farmers. Farmers can come to us for practical advice, solutions, and training.” The ultimate measure of success lies in the project’s ability to sustainably improve farming yields and enhance farmers’ livelihoods.

Innovation in progress series

During the Partners for Water programme 2022 – 2027, several projects that received the Partners for Water subsidy will be followed from start to finish. Over the next few years, they will take you with them on their transformative journey. You’ll be able to gain insights into their promising solutions, innovative processes, and collaborations with local partners, as well as their struggles, challenges, and valuable lessons learned. Stay tuned and follow their journey through the Partners for Water website and our LinkedIn page!

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