Vietnam's famed 'rice bowl' is facing a growing threat from fast-paced development, domestic environmental agencies say. Chemical pollution, deforestation and freshwater depletion are among the side effects of rapid modernisation endangering the lush Mekong Delta, a fertile expanse of wetlands and waterways near the booming business hub of Ho Chi Minh City. 'If we don't quickly develop effective policies ... the environmental problems will directly impact the area's sustainable development, especially regarding natural resources,' said Pham Dinh Don, deputy head of the Southwest Environmental Protection Bureau. A new report by Mr Don lists statistics on the various threats to the abundant delta, which accounts for just 12.1 per cent of Vietnam's land area but more than half of its production of rice. The region's population has grown by more than 10 per cent in the past decade. Not long ago strictly a low-tech agricultural zone, the delta is now home to 75,000 industrial processing facilities that discharge an annual 47.2 million cubic metres of under-treated waste water. And the area used for breeding lucrative aqua-products has more than tripled in the same period. Food production is surging as a result, driven by the economic urge to increase exports as well as serving domestic demands, especially those in Ho Chi Minh City. 'The delta is more a focal area for economic development for the country, rather than a conservation hotspot,' said Hoang Minh Hong of the Indochina programme of the WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund. But the development of environmental protection measures had not kept pace with the breakneck pace of industrial growth, experts said at a special conference on the issue last month in Hanoi. Most of the new technology is employed on the money-spinning production side, rather than such measures as waste-water treatment. And farmers are using increasing amounts of the latest pesticides with insufficient education in how to use them. In addition 113,520 hectares of the area have yet to recover from the use of Agent Orange by the US in the Vietnam war. Those effects might persist in the environment for 'many generations' without greater clean-up efforts, Mr Don said. The Hanoi conference called for more resources for the country's environmental agencies, which often lose the battle against local economic incentives. Existing environmental regulations are weakly enforced, as illegal wood-cutting and shrimp-farming operations proliferate. Funding for more detailed research is also being sought. But such requests will have to take their place in the long list of priorities facing the developing country's modest state budget.