Hydraulic bureaucracy in a modern hydraulic society -€“ Strategic group formation in the Mekong delta, Vietnam

Hans-Dieter Evers
Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, Germany hdevers@uni-bonn.de
Simon Benedikter
Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, Germany sbene@uni-bonn.de

ABSTRACT: The Mekong Delta in Vietnam is among the largest river deltas in Asia and one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, in particular paddy cultivation. People in this area have traditionally been exposed to an environment shaped by the ebb and flows of water and have lived and adapted for generations to their natural surrounding without much human interference into the complex natural hydraulic system of the delta. However, the last three decades have seen dramatic changes as increased hydraulic management has become the key to the development of the lower Mekong Delta especially for its agriculture.

Nowadays, a dense and complex network of hydraulic works comprising human-made canals, dykes and sluices provides flood protection, prevents salinity intrusion, and controls irrigation for agriculture and aquaculture in the delta. This transformation from a society adapted to its natural surrounding into what Wittfogel describes as a "hydraulic society" started to take place just after the end of the Second Indochinese War in 1975, after South Vietnam came under centralised socialist rule. The new regime'€™s economic policy for the development of the Mekong Delta have centred on rapid agricultural extension based on technological progress in agricultural production and intensive hydraulic management. This whole process has not only had significant impact on the delta'€™s environment and ecology, but also has triggered social transformation in a way that new social groups have appeared, negotiating and struggling for increased access to resources and power.

Among these strategic groups, the hydraulic bureaucracy and hydraulic construction business are the most crucial in terms of the specific role they play in the hydraulic landscape of the Mekong Delta. Both groups exert considerable influence on water resources management and strive for the same resources, namely public funds (including Overseas Development Aid) that is directed to hydraulic infrastructure development. This paper illustrates how both groups have emerged due to the growing need for water resources management in the delta and how they have set up alliances for mutually sharing resources in the long run. Furthermore, it is shown how both groups have adapted their resource-oriented strategies and actions to respond to the changes in the economic and political environment in Vietnam's recent history.