Dateline Southeast Asia

Low-cost tools to solve large-scale water problem

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Low-cost tools to solve large-scale water problem

Related tags Water Irrigation Vietnam

Climate change and the overuse of water in agriculture means water scarcity poses a growing threat to farmers, households and industry in Vietnam. 

On average, coffee farmers use 60% more water than they need to during the dry season that runs from November to April, across the three to four necessary irrigation rounds, according to research.

Beyond the environmental cost this brings, and the risk water scarcity poses to Vietnam’s coffee industry, farmers also face financial and labour costs. They don’t pay for the water they pump from wells, but must buy petrol to run the pumps, and then spend unnecessary time watering their fields.

Pham Phu Ngoc, the local head of Nestlé’s agri-service team, says that one way to tackle this large-scale water problem quickly is by using low-cost tools that farmers find easy to understand, which they can train their neighbours to use.

In Vietnam, the world’s second-largest coffee producer, 2.6m people rely on the sector for their livelihood. Agriculture in the country’s central highlands, where most of the coffee is grown, accounts for around 96% of the region’s water usage.

But in the coffee fields, everyday objects that are often thrown away are getting a new lease of life, as tools to help farmers save water by scheduling irrigation more effectively. 

Empty condensed milk cans in the fields can be used to measure rainfall. Upturned plastic bottles in the ground can measure soil moisture. These tools are simple to use and cost almost nothing, making it simple to scale-up their use among the nation’s coffee smallholders.

Coffee in Vietnam grows on smallholdings of two to three acres, so large-scale management techniques are hard to implement, but innovative tools inspired by the coffee farmers themselves, show real potential​,” Ngoc says.

It’s a concept that Ngoc has helped disseminate among Nestlé’s almost 20,000-strong Farmer Connect network in the country, which supplies the company with coffee directly.

By inserting a plastic bottle upside-down in the soil and observing condensation levels in the bottle, the coffee farmer has an instrument to measure soil water content. When water droplets become scarce, he knows it is time for the first dry season irrigation.

After this irrigation, the farmer can use an empty condensed milk can to show him how much rainwater his trees are receiving—this helps him adjust the amount of water he uses to irrigate throughout the rest of the dry season. 

For example, if a standard milk can is one-sixth full of rain water, he knows his trees nearby have received around 100 litres of water.

The bottle and the can work,” Ngoc says. “It’s more effective than using more complicated tools that could be too scientific for the farmers to master​.”

Vietnam’s coffee farmers traditionally used 700-1,000 litres of water per tree for each watering, he explains, but now achieve the same coffee yield using only 300-400 litres – thus, they effect savings of more than 50% in many cases.

While farmers in more developed countries may employ more sophisticated tactics to reduce water use, grassroots activities and education are proving effective in rural Vietnam. The milk can and plastic bottle are good examples of straightforward tools with significant impacts.

The bottle and the can are simple tools to gauge soil moisture content, which tell farmers when it’s the best time to irrigate​,” says Carlo Galli, of Nestlé’s water resources team at the company’s head office in Switzerland. “This Vietnam case is not about high tech, it’s mainly about common sense and doing the simple things​.”

Vietnam toughening stance of food safety violations

Vietnam’s national food safety department fined seven companies for violating food safety regulations between August 7-14. 

Department head Dang Thanh Phong, said inspectors have been ramping up inspections to implement food safety and hygiene regulations. More businesses caught committing violations repeatedly would have their licenses revoked, Dang said. 

So far this year, 119 companies have been found violating regulations and made to pay total fines of over US$100,000. 

Dang has also expressed his fears about fake and unhygienic functional foods, which he believes are rampant in the country. 

He cited one functional food line from Ho Chi Min City as an example which was found to be made largely of sugar and salt during an inspection, in addition to failing to meet hygiene standards. 

The Ministry of Health is co-operating with the Ministry of Public Security to deal with the problem, Dang said, and health departments at localities have been ordered to tighten management and shut down companies that flout health regulations. 

Singaporeans getting more responsive to healthier food options

With 2,500 products now displaying the Healthier Choice symbol on Singapore’s shelves—up from just 300 in 2001—the country’s Health Promotion board now plans to increase this number by 15-25% by 2020.

Packaged food products tagged with the red pyramid logo are usually lower in total fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. Some contain more dietary fibre and calcium, compared with similar products in the same food category.

To achieve this, the board has been working with manufacturers to devise healthier products. It is also partnering with retailers to give these lines greater prominence, especially as Singaporeans are getting increasingly healthier when dining out, according to government figures.

In May, almost 1m healthier meals were sold under its Healthier Dining programme, which encourages food outlets to include healthier options on their menus. This equates to a substantial increase over the 525,000 healthy meals sold in June last year, when the programme began with 18 partners.

Vietnam: Parents should take more responsibility for children’s nutrition

The Vietnam government has told parents and guardians that they are responsible for ensuring their children grow up strong. 

But many don’t currently pay enough attention to their children's health, said Tran Huong Duong, deputy director of the Family Department, at an event in Ha Noi. 

"With industrialisation and urbanisation, parents spend less and less time on their children​," he said.

Figures from 2013 show that one in every four children under five suffered from malnutrition.

The government’s latest survey on Vietnamese families showed that 25 per cent of fathers and 7 per cent of mothers did not pay attention to their children because they were busy with work.

Vietnamese are shorter on average than those in other Southeast Asian countries, which suggests health issues, Tran said. 

Men are 1.64m tall on average, while Thai and Malaysian men are 1.67m and 1.68m, respectively. Vietnamese women are 1.53cm on average, whereas Indonesian and Thai women are 1.55m and 1.57m.

"Factors that affect height include genes, nutrition, exercise and living conditions. The three last factors are closely connected to how parents care for their kids​," Tran added.

Philippines releases dietary guidelines

The Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology has released dietary reference intake guidelines, which includes recommendations for cutting down on sweet, salty and processed food, and eating more fruits. 

According to a department official, Mario Capanzana, the new guidelines reflect current nutrition trends and to give the public and other industry stakeholders a more nuanced perspective on nutrition. 

Capanzana said the recommendations take their cue from the rising incidence of various ailments, especially non-communicable diseases, in the country.

The guidelines state that free sugars should be should be kept to less than 10%, or about 10 teaspoons, of total energy intake in children or adults per day, while sodium should be limited to one teaspoon a day.

Potassium, which is found in bananas, avocados, and dark leafy greens, should be increased to 3,510mg per day.

Capanzana also urged food manufacturers to change their formulations to produce more healthy snack products.

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