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More for less: improving groundwater use for increased coffee production in Vietnam

Vietnam’s coffee boom and the threat from water insecurity

Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of Robusta coffee. In 2016, around 1.8 million tonnes of coffee beans worth more than US$ 3.0 billion were exported, supporting the livelihoods of 2.5 million Vietnamese across the supply chain. In economic value, coffee ranks amongst the country’s highest valued export products.

Around 40% of Vietnam’s Robusta coffee comes from Dak Lak province in the Central Highlands.  Most coffee is produced by individual smallholder male and female farmers using intensive farming methods. Dak Lak’s rich, well-drained volcanic soils are prized for growing coffee and other high-value cash crops. Coffee farms extend across 260,000 of the province’s 480,000 hectares of agricultural land.

Irrigation is essential to achieving the high yields that make coffee cultivation profitable, especially during the driest summer months from January to April. Almost 60% of the water used for irrigation in Dak Lak is pumped from the underlying basaltic aquifers.

However, the long term sustainability of coffee production is being seriously threatened by groundwater depletion. Wealthier farmers resort to constructing boreholes to supplement or replace the traditional shallow wells that are prone to drying out. This comes at a high cost and risk, due to the depth and variable productivity of the basalt aquifers. Borehole drilling is particularly rampant in dry years, as highlighted by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) during the most recent El-Nino drought.

The threat to water security in Dak Lak and other provinces in the Central Highlands is likely to increase in the future as irrigated areas expand and climate change impacts increase. Insecure water supplies could not only affect the livelihoods of farmers in Vietnam - it could also have repercussions for the coffee sector in Vietnam and beyond. As Dr C.T. Hoanh from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) sums up, “Levels of groundwater development are reaching their limits, and thus improving agricultural water use efficiency is the key to achieving sustainable management of groundwater resources in the region.”

Coffee plantation in Dak Lak during the last El Niño Drought.
CT Hoanh/IWMI

Understanding the water requirements for coffee

In the early 2000s, research indicated that the amount of water used to irrigate coffee in Dak Lak significantly exceeded the amount indicated in the guidelines provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), indicating an opportunity to improve water use efficiency. At that time, coffee farmers in the province were typically irrigating at a rate of 1,050 litres/plant/application over three applications during the summer months. According to Dr Dave D’haeze, a locally-based expert from the Foundation Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, “Farmers have a deeply-engrained view that using more water and fertilizer will serve their interests best, which is not necessarily the case.” Follow-up assessments by IWMI showed that through improved irrigation scheduling and careful management of other inputs, coffee yields could increase from 2.4 tonnes on average to 4.0 tonnes per hectare. Furthermore, the study found that some level of water stress from reduced irrigation has a beneficial effect on yields by stimulating the flowering and fruiting of coffee trees.

Farmer irrigating coffee trees with groundwater.
Alisher Sharypau/Hanns R Neumann Stiftung.

Scaling up improved agricultural practices and policies

Based on the research findings, optimal water use was found to be around 400 litres/plant/application; 60% less than what farmers were applying. MARD, supported by the national agricultural extension services (NAEC) have been helping to raising awareness and building capacity amongst farmers to make more efficient use of water and other agricultural inputs. This is done through on-farm demonstrations across different agro-ecological zones across the Highlands, supplemented by updates to capacity building programs in the areas of water and agronomic management. The mass media in Vietnam is also playing a role by helping to overcome entrenched views on water and fertilizer use.

The study findings will require time and effort to translate into action. To quote Mr Huynh Quoc Thich, Deputy Director, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dak Lak, “We’ve been implementing a program for sustainable coffee development to 2020 and vision to 2030. This model (of applying less water to coffee) has brought about successful initial results.”

To lend further weight to on-going initiatives, a project titled More coffee with less water - towards a reduction of the blue water footprint in coffee production is currently underway. Supported by Nestlé/Nescafe and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and implemented by the Foundation Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, in collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel - Centre of Hydrogeology and Geothermics, Switzerland, Hanoi University of Science, and the International Water Management Institute, it aims to reach out and benefit 50,000 marginalized farmers in the five main coffee-producing provinces. Mr Carlo Galli, Nestlé’s Technical Manager of Water Resources, says, “The knowledge being provided to farmers for saving water is mainly about doing the simple and affordable things and not necessarily about applying high-tech approaches.”

Monitoring data are being collected to establish the efficacy of improved irrigation practices and to make clear the link with changing water resource conditions, whilst accounting for climate-related influences. One part of the project involves a detailed study of a micro-watershed, which has been equipped with a climate station, groundwater level and surface water discharge recorders, and flow meters on groundwater pumps. At the regional scale, training programs are being linked with new climate advisory services to provide timely information to help farmers make decisions.

Farmer Field School involving training of farmers in improved water management and agronomic practices.
Alisher Sharypau/Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung

With additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), the project also seeks to test and demonstrate the role of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) to capture runoff for underground storage. This makes farmers even more pro-active in addressing water-scarcity related risks by converting their irrigation wells into recharge structures. As Paul Pavelic from IWMI states, “By working on approaches that improve the groundwater resources from both the demand and supply sides, the project is aiming to develop a holistic set of solutions that enable groundwater to be used sustainably for the benefit of all coffee farmers in the Central Highlands.”