Floods in Mekong River Delta Bog Down Vietnam's Economy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE flood waters in the Mekong Delta aren't the highest they have ever been, but this year's inundation has been one of the most costly since the Communists took control of southern Vietnam in 1975.

In some parts of the huge delta, says Vo Thien Hoang, a flood-control official in Vietnam's Ministry of Water Resources, the water has seemed deep enough ``to park a navy.''

Almost 300 Vietnamese have died since the Mekong River, flush from rainfall in mainland Southeast Asia, began to flood three months ago. Approximately 250,000 acres of crops, mainly rice, were damaged, and an estimated 300,000 homes were under water. Mr. Hoang estimates losses due to the flooding at $100 million.

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This is partly the result of progress. The rice farmers of the fertile Mekong Delta have taken especially well to the introduction of free-market reforms in Vietnam. Since the government began to back off from collective agriculture in 1989, allowing farmers to keep or sell most of their harvests and leasing them land, the Delta has once again become one of the world's most productive rice-growing areas.

Last year Vietnam was the third-largest rice exporter in the world after the United States and Thailand, selling 1.885 million tons of rice abroad.

So far this year, Hoang says, 1.5 million tons have been exported. There have been reports that the government has curtailed further shipments until later this year, but Hoang says exports will continue.

The Mekong Delta ``is a vital economic zone,'' the official adds, ``and the government has invested a lot.... That is why the flooding has been especially destructive.''

In the late 1980s, low rice harvests in northern Vietnam led to mass hunger, embarrassing the Communist government and forcing it to change its agricultural policy. Rice from the more productive Mekong Delta was shipped to the north.

The flood waters come at a bad time for the government, which is trying to upgrade infrastructure in order to draw more foreign investment. The flooding ``will hamper the spread of our economic development,'' Hoang says, ``but it won't change the policy.''

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