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GSSC Seminar Series May 24, 2022


Commercial Shrimp Farming in the Mekong Delta: Commodity Frontier and Hydro-Social Lives

Yu-Kai Liao (Department of Geography, Durham University)



The Mekong Delta is a new commodity frontier for commercial shrimp farming. Due to climate change and salinity intrusion, farmers in the Mekong Delta are shifting from growing rice to breeding shrimp, which requires carefully managing salinity levels to match the life cycle of shrimp. In Vietnam, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, shrimp aquaculture is increasingly over-taking traditional rice farming and has the potential to lift farmers out of poverty because of promising markets and higher prices of shrimp. The geographical expansion of commercial shrimp farming is once more reshaping the biophysical characteristics of shrimp, delta ecolo-gies and social lives in the Mekong Delta.
This presentation examines the operation and influences of commercial shrimp farming within the Mekong delta. It develops the notion of hydro-social life to capture how shrimp farming is underpinned by the materiality of shrimp production, capitalist, and more-than-capitalist relations. It compares hydro-social lives in the four kinds of shrimp farming from three aspects: (1) ecological productions of shrimp farming, (2) the alignment between the life of shrimp and the everyday life of farmers, workers, and investors, and (3) shrimp disease management. In the 12 months ethnographical fieldwork, I worked with (1) farmers and an international NGO in integrated mangrove-shrimp farming, (2) scientists and technocrats in rice-shrimp farming, (3) a Cambodian Vietnamese farmer family in intensive shrimp farming, and (4) farmers, urban elites, sales agents, and a Taiwanese aquaculture company in super-intensive shrimp farming. This research argues that the development of shrimp farming in the Mekong Delta is multidirectional and heterogeneous owing to the spatialities and temporali-ties of delta itself. Shrimp farming is facilitated and sometimes impeded by the wetness, rhythms, and volatility of the delta. Farmers, capitalists, and local governments shape the delta by installing devices or infrastructure to alter water quantity, quality, and ecology.
This research contributes to the discussion of hydro-sociality in delta studies by ob-serving four kinds of shrimp farming with various actors in different parts of the delta. In ad-dition, it links together water research and delta studies by examining the characteristics of the amphibious deltaic environment and the management of freshwater and saline water, which shape the operation of shrimp farming.