Photo by Nguyen Duy Nhiem/CIAT

Representatives from both public and private sectors lament that water-related challenges, including those that later affect the quality of coffee, are the biggest threats to Vietnam’s coffee industry, which fulfils approximately 40 percent of global Robusta demand. As if that weren’t bad enough, the industry is facing a new threat related to pests and diseases.

This information comes from a series of interviews with coffee roasters, traders, input suppliers, and representatives from government and research organizations. As part of a Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung-managed initiative to develop a participatory national strategy for the coffee sector to collectively respond to climate change, researchers at CIAT sought to find out the primary threats to sustainability of the sector.

When it rains, it pours

Which, in the case of coffee, could be either good or bad, depending on when the rains come.

An earlier study in Dak Lak province, a major coffee-producing zone in the country’s Central Highlands, showed that coffee needs approximately 132 mm of water per hectare per year. Rainwater fills up reservoirs and replenishes groundwater, which, in the dry season, is severely depleted due to excessive irrigation by many of Dak Lak’s coffee farmers. Fearing decrease in yield volume or quality, farmers often use two to three times more water than is necessary.

The importance of groundwater cannot be overstated in the Central Highlands, where coffee production accounts for 90 percent of water use, and where drought occurs more frequently than in any other region in Vietnam. An earlier study and position paper developed by CIAT and partners described the country’s 2015-2016 drought as the most prolonged in the past 90 years, causing approximately 400,000 households in the Central Highlands, South Central Coast, and Mekong Delta to be without sufficient water for household consumption and irrigation. The study predicted that the same areas will be exposed to longer and more frequent droughts as a result of climate change. Models predict the dry season to extend beyond the current endpoint of March, into May or June – the period when cherries go through the crucial bean formation stage. This does not bode well for coffee, which, together with other perennial crops planted on some 60,000 hectares of land, got affected by the 2015-2016 drought. In addition, precipitation is projected to decrease by as much as 20 mm in the Central Highlands during the dry months.

Irregular and late rains extending into the dry season make drying the berries difficult and affect the volume of berries for sale. Photo by Nguyen Duy Nhiem/CIAT

When rains do come, they tend to do so with irregular timing and volume. Irregular and late rains extending into the dry season make drying the berries difficult, affecting the volume of berries for sale, while heavy rains in the wet season prompt farmers to harvest early, compromising coffee quality.

In addition, the increased amount of rain in the wet season creates a favorable environment for an increase in diseases – such as fungal diseases – that affect coffee plants.

On the other hand, stress from droughts and higher temperatures, combined with poor soil quality due to mono-cropping and use of chemical fertilizers for an extended period, have made coffee trees vulnerable to insects such as berry borers, mealybugs, and cicadas. Weakened by drought, coffee trees in the Central Highlands are also increasingly vulnerable to certain nematodes, as noted by previous studies. These nematodes cause maximum damage to crops in the first few years of growth, and while this has not affected Vietnam’s 20 to 30-year old coffee trees, it is expected to cause problems when new trees are planted a few years from now.

Photo by Nguyen Duy Nhiem/CIAT

The road to a national coffee and climate strategy

“If you look at the rise of Vietnam as the world’s top Robusta coffee producer, you will realize how different actors all played a role,” says Tiffany Talsma, CIAT’s Climate Strategy Expert in Asia. “In the beginning, the government played a role when migration of farmers from the lowlands to explore the opportunities in the highlands was formalized as government program to promote coffee production. And then global buyers encouraged more and more farmers to cultivate coffee because of the strong coffee price. And so it is just fitting that all these actors come together now to help ensure the sustainability of this very important crop and livelihood.”

Pulling together coffee sector stakeholders is not new to coffee&climate (c&c), a global initiative founded in 2010, under which this current work falls. C&c brings together players from the private, development, and research sectors to address challenges posed by changing climatic conditions to the entire coffee value chain. Currently operating in the world’s key coffee producing areas – Brazil, Tanzania, Trifinio (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), and Vietnam – the c&c approach was developed with more than 4,000 farmers and demonstrates that incorporating climate change adaptation practices into existing cropping systems could help make coffee production more profitable.

In Vietnam, the national strategy currently being developed will address interconnected challenges to the coffee sector brought about by both climatic – drought, irregular precipitation – and management factors, including unsustainable farming practices. The strategy is set to be completed by the end of this year.

The interviews among coffee stakeholders contribute to a master’s thesis by Orla O Halloran of the National University of Ireland Galway.

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