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Q&A: How Saigon and the Mekong Delta Can Confront the Threat of Climate Change

Southern Vietnam is one of the most at-risk regions in the world in terms of the potential impacts of climate change. Both the Mekong Delta and Saigon face growing challenges from sea level rise, flooding, and other water-related issues. Saigoneer spoke with Joep Janssen, a Dutch urban delta expert and author of the 2016 book Living With the Mekong: Climate Change and Urban Development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, about climate change, the Mekong River and how Saigon can tackle its flooding woes.

What threat does climate change present to the Mekong Delta?

The Mekong Delta has been listed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as one of the three hardest-hit deltas by climate change according to the population that will potentially be displaced by current sea level trends to 2050. The other two are located in Bangladesh and Egypt.

A small change in global temperatures can have big effects on people in the Mekong Delta. For people who live on the fringe, who invested all of their savings in a rice field that is washed away after a flood, 10 days more or less of rain due to climate change can make the difference between life and death. These people will pay the bill first.

The Mekong Delta is the frontline in the battle against climate change. You will see the impact earlier in this region. That's ironic because these coastal residents often live a very sustainable life. However if rice and fruit crops are damaged by saltwater, floods, droughts, or severe warming, it means a huge loss of income and people are then forced to move to urban centers like Can Tho or the slums of Ho Chi Minh City.

There are three threats to the Mekong Delta which we can't ignore. The first is hydropower development further upstream on the Mekong River, especially in China and Laos. These dams generate electricity and cash, but they will also reduce sediments, water flow and fish migration to the delta.

Planned, under-construction and completed dams along the Mekong River upstream from the delta. Map courtesy of the Global Water Forum.

The second is Thailand's water shortage, as the country is aiming to divert water from the Mekong River. A water crisis looms as this plan may cut supply to Cambodia and Vietnam.

The third is Vietnamese urbanization and the rice intensification policy. The Mekong Delta is urbanizing and agricultural land is being converted into industrial parks, while the natural process of sedimentation is being disrupted by the construction of dikes. These dikes reduce input of river water to delta wetlands, while concrete dikes built along the coast will kill coastal mangroves by cutting off their nutrient supply.

How are residents of the delta responding to these threats?

In the coastal areas, such as Soc Trang, you see a lot of farmers who have turned their rice farms into shrimp farms. They have built small dikes around the ponds for protection against water from the river. When it storms during the rainy season, the dikes manage to stop the water. Farming shrimp is lucrative, but it's also risky, since seafood can easily contract diseases in warm weather.

People are also making T-shaped bamboo fences in order to protect the mangrove forests and reduce coastal erosion, while researchers from Can Tho University are improving saline-resistant rice varieties and a farming method to reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers which farmers use.

Are there steps Vietnam can take at an institutional level in the face of climate change?

Vietnam could raise more awareness about climate change and risks. There is little awareness among local people and farmers. In a way it's similar to the Netherlands: people are not very interested, it's still a very abstract discourse. I noticed that discussions about climate change and the organization of the delta were dominated by scientists, engineers, and policymakers who presented their new ideas at conferences and in delta plans.

Ordinary inhabitants of the Mekong Delta were never present at such conferences; for example, the farmers and villagers who have been developing skills and know-how as to how to cope with the water for generations.

There is a knowledge gap between policymakers and local authorities, ordinary citizens and farmers who have developed a delicate agricultural system step-by-step. These people don't care about a one-meter sea level rise in 2100. They care about their next meal, and that's affected by climate change and urbanization.

The blue-shaded areas would be flooded by one meter of sea level rise. Based on data from the 2013 Mekong Delta Plan by the Vietnamese and Dutch governments. Illustration by Anh H.

People have little knowledge about water-related issues and they have little access to information. The government and journalists are trying to bridge the gap through reports in the media. In addition, if local authorities don't have the knowledge about climate change, how can they implement the adaptation plans imposed from above?

Are local governments prepared to respond to climate change and its attendant problems?

I think the Vietnamese authorities are taking the problem seriously, but lots of progress is needed. For example, there is a lack of integrated water management.

There is no comprehensive strategy and action plan with prioritized projects. There are something like 10 ministries, 15 central committees and several research institutes involved in water management, so solutions are arbitrary and fragmented because the money comes from various funds or departments. This makes water management inefficient and too focused on short-term profit.

There is a lack of sharing knowledge and data, and cooperation between international donors, between governmental bodies and between provinces; researchers and policymakers should be strengthened.

For example, one of the causes of flooding in Saigon is the situation in upstream provinces, which are not under the responsibility of the HCMC People's Committee. This is communicated through different levels, whereby the People's Committee is responsible for coordinating urban water problems and a ministry is responsible for two upstream reservoirs. However they only communicate directly in case of an emergency.

Saigon can expect more severe flooding as sea levels continue to rise and the land beneath the city subsides further. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

There should also be more law enforcement to ensure compliance with regulations. For example, rich people or wealthy wards solve their drainage problems by raising streets, causing surrounding areas to flood quickly. There are rules that restrict individual solutions, but they are not enforced.

At a certain point we will run out of options, and then the delta citizens will have to move. If we don't take action, people will end up in Can Tho and Saigon so investments in other towns are needed.

Given its proximity to the delta, what can Saigon do to mitigate risk from the issues discussed above?

Land subsidence is an even bigger problem than sea level rise. In Saigon, land subsides several centimeters per year, which is a bit faster than the sea level rise of a few millimeters per year.

It would be good if tapping groundwater could stop or be made more expensive for farmers and private parties. By increasing water taxes, large-scale consumption will be discouraged, and the money could be used for smart urban solutions.

Regular citizens and giant companies like Heineken both pay almost the same in taxes for using water. If companies and the agricultural sector had to pay more, less groundwater would be used and, hopefully, in the future the city will stop sinking.

There's a lot of work done together with German, Dutch, and Japanese assistance to make an integrated, long-term vision on water management and urbanization in Saigon. Stick to these plans and include cost-benefit analysis in them.

Flooding on the Thu Thiem Peninsula in Saigon. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

I think it's good that the People's Committee is carrying out parts of a Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development plan to reinforce 170 kilometers of dikes and build nine floodgates against flooding and salinization. This means they are taking it seriously. The people and the government are proactive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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