Inter Press Service (IPS) Articles

POPULATION-VIETNAM: Hanoi Faces Potential Future Food Crisis

An Inter Press Service Feature

By Kunda Dixit

CAIRO, Sep 9 (IPS) - Rapidly improving living standards and limits to food production have forced the government of economically emerging Vietnam to go on a war footing to slow population growth.

This is in spite of the fact that over the past 20 years Vietnam's rice production has been running neck-and-neck with population growth.

Vietnam also has a high literacy rate and extensive primary health care. However, Vietnam's population of 72 million is still going through a post-war boom -- growing at 2.2 percent a year.

''Vietnam's population growth is now becoming a serious obstacle to the development of the country,'' Mai Ky, the minister in charge of population in Vietnam said here Friday at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The privatisation of agriculture and a new pricing policy in the mid-1980's led to a dramatic boost in Vietnam's rice production. Today, Vietnam has become the world's number three exporter of rice after the United States and Thailand. But harvests are plateauing.

''Our agronomists tell us it is not easy to increase our cereal production much more,'' says Mai. ''So we have no other solution but bring down the population growth rate.''

To reduce the risk of population growth outpacing food production and derailing Vietnam's economic reforms the government has launched a 20-year crash plan to reduce fertility rate from the present 3.7 children per woman to a replacement level of two per woman.

If this is successful, government planners hope that Vietnam's population will stabilise at 135-140 million by the year 2050.

The Communist Party of Vietnam launched its population programme with the slogan, 'Stop at Two', and millions of party members nationwide are expected to keep to the norm. But it is not as strictly enforced as China's One Family Once Child policy.

Population experts say Vietnam's initial success in bringing down its fertility rate from 6.1 in 1960 to 3.7 in 1994 is due to past investments by the socialist government on education and health care.

But the reason it is stuck at 3.7 and the growth rate is still at 2.2 has more to do with war and the economic stagnation that followed the end of the Indochina War in 1975.

With the Communist Party's policy economic reforms, 'Doi Moi', Vietnam has thrown open its doors to foreign investors and private enterprise. Vietnam is poised for economic takeoff, and this could mean that the country can repeat Thailand's recent success in cutting fertility to 2.4.

Recent surveys have shown that 57 percent of the women interviewed in Vietnam wanted to limit births. Vietnam's contraceptive prevalence rate is 53 percent, compared to only 36 in the Philippines.

Vietnam is unique among South-east Asian nations in having a high use of IUDs, but condoms, sterilisation and the experimental use of injectibles and Norplant are now being pushed, Mai said.