Andrew Wyatt and partners in the Mekong Delta

In addition to sustainable development goals such as community well-being and women's economic empowerment, water management is one of the activities that Coca-Cola has been doing to maintain natural water sources as well as to supply clean water to local communities.

Over the last 10 years, Coca-Cola Vietnam has collaborated with local authorities and NGOs to implement clean water-related projects with a $5 million investment. Projects such as the ‘Safe-drinking Water for the Community’ program and EKOCENTER centers have successfully brought clean water to numerous households across the country. Not only does Coca-Cola carry out community-based clean water projects, it also undertakes activities to ensure the sustainability of water resources, contributing to the fight against climate change in Vietnam.

Most recently, the pilot project ‘Flood-based Livelihoods in Mekong Delta, Vietnam’ was co-organized by Coca-Cola Vietnam with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to support flood or water storage for Dong Thap, Long An, and An Giang provinces. Derived from the idea of water storage in the ‘Monkey Cheeks’ project sponsored by Coca-Cola in Thailand, this project is also based on the upgrading of water management by local communities. In Vietnam, the same model is applied with adjustments to support flood or water storage and to help mitigate the severity of droughts and floods occurring in the Mekong Delta.

After attending the International Water Week in Hanoi, Andrew Wyatt, the IUCN Mekong Delta Program Manager, shared some thoughts with us about this interestingly named ‘Monkey Cheek’ project.

Could you share more about the challenges that the Mekong Delta is facing as well as some objectives of the project?
Over the years, research studies have recorded both major environmental and climatic changes in the Mekong Delta, starting around the year 2000. There have been major floods with heavy consequences, which cannot be controlled in the way people are used to before. And the locals here are no longer able to ‘live with the floods’ as they did in the past.
Research documents show that between 2000 and 2007, we have lost almost half of the flood storage areas because there are more and more high dykes being built for the unsustainable third rice crop cultivation. We are destroying the ‘Monkey Cheeks’ to store the floods in the long run. In fact, one side of the ‘Monkey Cheeks’ has already disappeared with half of the flood waters needed to be stored naturally. Previously, the floods brought along alluvial plains, with shrimps and fish for people. But when the floods are gone, the ecological balance and those "gifts of nature" are no longer the same.
In recent years, the Dutch government has continuously supported Vietnam to build a strategy for water retention, flood control, and anti-climate change for the Mekong Delta. And the ‘Monkey Cheek’ project that we cooperate with Coca-Cola this time targets to support the Mekong Delta floods management and create livelihood for the farmers here.
So why is this project called ‘Monkey Cheeks’?
This is a metaphorical approach, indicating when we have areas where water is stored in the same way that monkeys store food inside their cheeks.
In the upper part of the Delta, these two "cheeks" are present in two natural floodplain areas: Dong Thap Muoi (east of the Tien River), including parts of Dong Thap, Long An and Tien Giang; and the Long Xuyen Quadrangle located in the western part of Hau River, including parts of An Giang and Kien Giang as well.

Once there are more open ‘Monkey Cheek’ areas for flood storage, we look forward to helping in the preservation & restoration of the original flood absorption rate, and the creation of areas for livelihood models for the farmers.

Location of two ‘Monkey Cheeks’ for flood storage in the Mekong Delta
Could you share more about the livelihood models proposed in the project?
This is a project aimed at preserving and rehabilitating the flood-absorbing functions of the Mekong Delta in the ‘Monkey Cheeks’ area, thereby reducing the risk of natural disasters. In addition, in the project, we will train and support farmers in Dong Thap, Long An, and An Giang provinces to develop budget and cost-effective flood-based livelihood models instead of the current unsustainable third rice crop.
Some of the models can be experimented in this project, such as shrimp – rice (Giant Freshwater Prawn), floating rice, and lotus cultivation models combined with ecotourism.
One examples is the lotus-rice cultivation model in Dong Thap Muoi, Dong Thap province. In this model, farmers plant one rice crop in the dry season and one lotus crop in the flood season.

Model of lotus-rice cultivation
In the lotus-ecotourism model in Thap Muoi district, Dong Thap province, the households grow lotus and earn income from tourists all year round. The water level in the pond is 0.5-1 m deeper than in the flood season. And the lotus species can tolerate droughts and they have survived the last drought season in 2015 - 2016.

Lotus – ecotourism model
Or another model that has been very successful in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Floating Farms, which we find quite suitable for the Mekong Delta and it is being considered for pilot adoption soon.

Floating Farms. Photo: Myanmar explorer

We support flood-based livelihood models, as this is a long-term sustainable solution for farmers. We need to offer them more attractive alternatives if we want them to stop the third rice crop and to let the floods come back.

So how will the project be implemented?
The pilot project "Flood-based Livelihoods Support in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam" was launched earlier this year with the commitment of cooperation and support from Dong Thap, Long An, and An Giang authorities, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Coca-Cola Vietnam.
The first step we took was to study whether farmers were willing to experiment with the flood-based livelihood models. After the study, we found that the products from flood-based farming were more profitable than the third crop cultivation. So we will conduct training sessions and livelihood planning for flood storage and drought management for the selected areas.
Then, we will conduct pilot flood-based livelihood models that are tailored to local conditions, monitor and evaluate more to provide optimal solutions for the expansion of the project.
One of our studies has shown that lotus farming can be a viable option, with many potential alternatives to the current model. One typical example is lotus cultivation in Dong Thap province. In addition, we also implement other projects such as floating rice in An Giang, freshwater shrimp farming in the upper Mekong Delta; shrimp farming with floating rice is also suitable for the current conditions.

Freshwater prawn farming in the Mekong Delta
Did you have any trouble working with the farmers?
We received a lot of support after several meetings and surveys about the farmers’ opinion of the models. Of course, they were cautious at first because they had no experience with these new farming models. We must test and prove the results, analyze the controllable risks, and explain how these risks differ from their concerns.
Currently, the demand for high dykes and third crop cultivation is still high. Our research indicates that farmers are unaware of other livelihoods and through the pilot program, we want to show them that they do not need the high dykes to grow rice along with other models of better returns.
Working with the farmers who are not doing the third crop is easier than with those who have been growing three crops a year. These people are willing to accept the pilot project because they expect another flow of income from the flood-based models. That is also why we decided to work with them in the early stages. We are now planning and training them on the farming model so that they know what to do and about the profit they will receive.

What are the target goals for this project?
This is a long-term project, and we are grateful to Coca-Cola Vietnam for funding our pilot implementation of flood-based livelihood models in the project.
With close cooperation and support from local authorities, we expect to provide technical assistance to the local farmers for the design of their livelihoods, and the plans and management strategies on droughts and floods. We want to strengthen the communal early-warning system against droughts and floods. We also encourage building and sharing technical knowledge on flood-based models, risk management, and expansion potentials.
With the impact of this project, the environment will certainly be better. We will reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers, so the water condition will be improved, and the yield profits will be higher. Products from flood-based farming might also be ‘Organic’ certified. Still, our challenge is to minimize the risks. The flood-based livelihood models probably have higher production costs than rice crops, but they will bring higher returns. This project will also reduce the risk of natural disasters in the Mekong Delta in the future as well.
(*) Andrew Wyatt is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Mekong Delta Program Manager. Andrew has spent 18 years living and working in Vietnam on climate change projects and farmer support.

Several of Coca-Cola's water management and clean water projects in Vietnam:
- $ 1.6 million investment for the provision of 2 billion liters of safe drinking water to 65,000 disadvantaged people in 7 provinces and cities across the country.
- At Tram Chim National Park, Coca-Cola has helped preserve and restore the rest of the wetland ecosystem in Dong Thap Muoi, investing $ 1.7 million annually in a 10-million-liter clean water restoration initiative since 2007 as well as in regional biodiversity rehabilitation activities, contributing to conservation of 130 species of fish and 256 species of birds. In October 2015, Tram Chim National Park is recognized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism as a national heritage.
- $ 1.7 million investment in building 9 ECOCENTER community centers and providing more than 3 million liters of safe drinking water to more than 600,000 people in 9 provinces.