Climate Change Adaptation in the Mekong Delta

In Vietnam's Mekong River Delta, the effects of a changing climate could trigger destabilizing economic and political forces, their domestic impact altering regional geopolitics, international trade and more.


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"Can Tho Floating Market." Photo Credit: Flickr/Janne HellstenCAN THO, VIETNAM – I arrived in this hub of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region to a steady rain and a swift wind pushing waves just up to the edge of the sidewalk that lines the Can Tho River. The city of Can Tho is similar in size and style to Virginia Beach, with a typically  slower coastal pace than the much larger and denser Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Its sense of tranquility almost masks that this town and the region surrounding it are among those locations most vulnerable to climate change.


In the Mekong Delta, the effects of a changing climate  could trigger destabilizing economic and political forces, their domestic impact altering regional geopolitics, international trade and more. 


Standing on the banks of any Mekong tributary, it is impossible to ignore the inherent problems of being located at or just slightly above sea level. Elevation through most of the delta region rises to less than 1.2 meters, worrisome given that many sea level rise projections would put most of this land under water in the coming decades. With weather trending more extreme – one local expert tells me that the delta has experienced three of what used to be 100-year disasters since the 1950s – both floods and droughts are major concerns. As sea levels rise and storm surges increase, salt water intrusion is a growing risk to agricultural production, hastened by upstream damming and mangrove decline.


These conditions are already apparent around the Delta, and the world’s best climate change models indicate that the worst is yet to come.


At risk is the steady economic development Vietnam has enjoyed over the past 15 years.  The Delta provides 90 per cent of rice exports, and Vietnam is one of the world’s top suppliers of this staple. It meets more than half of the country’s fruit and seafood needs, and the majority of seafood exports. This food production adds up to about 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. Looking ahead to increasingly saline soil, and the disruption to agricultural production caused by changing weather, experts in the Delta region expect many farmers to turn to fishing, as often happens to compensate for poor yields. Yet fisheries are also strained, and trawlers are increasingly targets of China’s maritime aggression as it works to protect its claimed territory in the South China Sea. 


For Western audiences, the risks associated with climate change are most oftend discussed in terms of the impact on agriculture. But while agricultural conditions are extremely worrisome, they don’t do justice to the extent of the region’s vulnerability. In Can Tho and its surrounding areas, extensive new construction characterizes the landscape. Massive sewer pipes and steel piles line roads, awaiting placement. Housing construction is a common sight – though rarely elevated or on stilts (as the government is now encouraging as a hedge against flooding). Local and provincial officials are also actively encouraging diversification in the economy. A subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines just initiated a new route from Can Tho to Con Dao Island, for example, with the hopes of encouraging a broader trade profile. 


Such development can offset the costs of climate change adaptation by diverting people to new jobs when their fields are lost to salt water intrusion and rebuilding infrastructure lost to disasters. But the region’s new construction raises the real financial costs and insurance risks of potential losses as well. 


With this fuller picture of the region’s potential vulnerabilities in mind, it becomes clear just how important adapting to the effects of climate change in the Mekong Delta will be for Vietnam’s prosperity and stability. A primary topic of my own research here has been how this adaptation is going. 


Prognoses vary widely depending on whether you ask local officials, central government representatives, NGO experts or academics. My overwhelming sense is that many of the first steps needed for adaptation are happening, and that with the proper resources, the prospects are fairly good that Vietnam can avoid some of the most destabilizing conditions that climate change could trigger.  


More so than in many other vulnerable countries, central government and local officials appear to be laying a solid foundation for adaptation. First, levels of knowledge and scholarship on climate change are significant, with many researchers contributing to UN reports, independent impact studies and forming cooperative partnerships with universities in Europe, Australia and the United States to enhance the country’s indigenous capabilities. Second, several cities, including Can Tho, have spent the past few years integrating projected climate change impacts into their infrastructure planning and engaging local communities in education and outreach programs. Additionally, international and domestic institutions are focusing on developing new strains of rice and other plants that can better withstand flooding, drought and salt water intrusion. Finally, I’ve seen much evidence that local, provincial and central government agencies are beginning to share information and coordinate plans. 


These positive signs should be music to the ears of developed countries focused increasingly on funding adaptation rather than (or in addition to) overcoming the steep political hurdles of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet there is much critical work left to be done. The extensive planning in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere must be implemented, and it will require funding. The central government reshuffled its agencies to handle climate change on a few occasions, but these structural changes must lead to policy changes as well. And while there is coordination within the country on projections and plans, it will be even more important to focus on the implementation that must follow.


Overall, the Mekong Delta holds both peril and hope as it faces the daunting effects of global climate change. Can Tho and Vietnam broadly show signs of what may – and must – happen globally as countries work to adapt to these changes. 


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Christine Parthemore is a Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., where she directs the Natural Security Program. She writes its Natural Security Blog, and can be found on twitter @clparthemore