Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world and it is the main exporter of Robusta coffee. Abundant rainfall for most of the year makes the climate there ideal for growing coffee. During the dry season, however, water is often in short supply for the inhabitants of villages neighbouring the plantations and for the cultivation of food crops such as rice.
To guarantee their coffee yields when there is less rainfall, many coffee growers irrigate their fields copiously using groundwater. In addition, a great deal of water is wasted owing to dilapidated irrigation systems.
The data available to local authorities is often too patchy to enable them to plan for more equitable water distribution between coffee growers and other water users. Given that climate change is likely to prolong the dry season in Vietnam, the water shortages could eventually affect several million people.
More coffee with less water: an ideal solution
Efforts to improve sustainable water consumption must involve the coffee farmers. Those private companies that buy the Vietnamese coffee have the influence to persuade them to change their practices. In 2014, the SDC concluded a public-private development partnership (PPDP) with food company Nestlé, which purchases over 20% of the robusta coffee grown in Vietnam.
In several provinces, the Swiss company has set up programmes to assist independent coffee growers on small plantations. Around a hundred Vietnamese instructors have trained more than 10,000 coffee growers in how to optimise their water consumption from season to season. Many of these techniques are simple and inexpensive. Growers are able to predict the arrival of the dry season, for example, by planting a capless bottle neck-down in the earth. If the number of water droplets that have condensed inside the bottle becomes less, it means that the dry season is starting.
By combining the above mentioned and other similar techniques, coffee growers lower their production costs while growing the same quantity of coffee by reducing the amount of fuel needed to power the pumps that irrigate the plantations. Their new agricultural knowledge is even allowing some farmers to produce better yields – and maintain the living standards of nearly two million people in Vietnam.
Research in the interests of development
A study on the Dak Lak plateau by the Centre for Hydrogeology and Geothermics at the University of Neuchâtel and consultancy firm Drishaus and Epping has shown that reducing water use on coffee plantations by a third would guarantee sufficient water for all of the other consumers. The two organisations calculated this by mapping the water reserves in the Dak Lak region with the help of funding from the SDC and Nestlé.
At the same time, the SDC and Nestlé financed a weather forecasting system developed by the University of Hanoi at the request of the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The tool is designed to indicate variations in rainfall to allow coffee growers to better plan their water use in anticipation of the dry season. This research is doubly valuable: it allows the authorities to fix quantified targets to reduce water consumption and it has uncovered new water sources in the mapped areas.