Climate change heat is on
  • | VIR | November 26, 2009 11:19 AM

Extreme weather is posing great challenges to many ordinary people in Vietnam. Many have no other choice, but to take their own adaptive measures to respond to such challenges.

Typhoon Ketsana’s aftermath underscores the urgent need to address climate change

Ho Khong squatted on the yard of his house drying wet stockpiled rice, which was drowned by sea water in a typoon a month earlier. In late September, Thua Thien-Hue province’s Phu Loc district was hit hard by Typhoon Ketsana of force 13, which brought severe flooding to central Vietnam. Khong and many of his neighbours had to witnessed their houses smashed.

His house in Dong Duong hamlet, Vinh Hien commune, between the Tam Giang lagoon and the eastern sea, is less than 100 metres from the sea. Though it is surrounded by bamboo bushes and propped up by many wooden stakes, it was unable to bear the strong wind.

“My family was luckier than many others. They lost every thing ,” Khong said. For 350,000 local residents, sea water attacking houses in the area has been a normal thing during the past few years. But during Typhoon Ketsana, “sea water rose suddenly with strong waves. We could do nothing, but rush outside to higher places in the heavy rain,” the 53-year-old farmer recalled.

Tam Giang covers 22,000 hectares and is the biggest coastal lagoon in South East Asia. Geographically, it is a partly closed lagoon system and touches the sea through the Thuan An and Tu Hien estuaries.
Much of Vinh Hien’s population resides on the lagoon’s eastern boundary and many households are engaged in near-shore sea and river fishing, brackish aquaculture and trading of aquaculture products. However, some families still plant rice, like Khong’s.

“Droughts have even occurred and Thuan An and Tu Hien estuaries have been widened due to the sea intrusion,” said Nguyen Van Loi, vice chairman of Vinh Hien People’s Committee. “In the past, there were many rice fields here, but the sea has gradually eaten up them. About five years ago, sea intrusion was only two metres per year, but the figure has increased to 20m over the past three years,” Loi said.

Khong’s household is a typical example of how climate change has threatened once prosperous livelihoods. “We feel frightened by the sea. It has eaten up some 40 per cent of rice fields here within three years,” said Le Thi Suong, Khong’s wife.

The 49-year-old woman said the family’s rice field was only 150m from the sea. Over the past three years, the family’s rice output has decreased from 600 kilogrammes to only 400kgs due to saline intrusion.

Threats looming large

According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) draft survey conducted in Thua Thien-Hue province, Vinh Hien commune will see 70 per cent of its 1,470ha inundated by seawater by 2100, including a large part of the Tam Giang lagoon.

The UNDP survey said that many communities in Thua Thien-Hue gave particularly detailed accounts of the changes in the frequency and intensity of floods.

“It can be seen that silt deposits have increased. The small flood in May is becoming stronger in intensity and apparently occurring earlier and the major flood season is extending over a longer period [August-November instead of September-October], to the extent that communities even expressed confusion about present flood patterns,” the survey stated.

In another case, Tien Phong commune in Quang Nam province’s Tien Phuoc district is also home to many victims of natural calamities. Nguyen Thi Ut, 49-years-old, saw her brick-made house lose its roof and kitchen totally destroyed by Typhoon Ketsana.

“We have never suffered from such a terrible storm. My son and I were staying in the house. Rain poured in heavily. Then we heard big sounds from the roof. We found ourselves standing in the rain, with the roof having been thrown 15m away.

“Extremely panicked, we rushed outside in fear the storm would smash the walls and bury us. But, when we just got outside, the kitchen collapsed. Then we rushed to our neighbour’s house,” Ut said.
At present, her most valuable assets are two piglets she bought after the storm. “I will need some VND30 million ($1,666) to make a new house,” she said.

She said her plight was also shared by some 20 other households, whose incomes depended on rice, maize and acacia plantations. Doan Thanh Huong, Ut’s neighbour, said many households in the commune were bogged down with debts due to Ketsana, which caused landslides and knocked down hundreds of hectares of acacia trees.

“My family’s 5ha of acacia were totally damaged. Pulp producing factories refused to buy the trees as they are too small and unable to be processed. Thus, we lost VND50 million ($2,777) in investment capital,” he said.

“Families’ capital for acacia plantations come from loans. I don’t know when we will be able to pay off the debts,” he said. Huong said there used to be no droughts, floods or heavy storms in the locality. According to the UNDP, Vietnam is one of the countries most prone to extreme weather events. The country is regularly suffered from typhoons, tropical storms and depressions.

These give rise to lowland inundation, river floods and storm surges. In upland areas heavy rains cause flash flooding, often resulting in landslides that increase sedimentation loads in rivers, leading to more extensive lowland flooding. As well as these weather-related shocks, Vietnam also experiences slow on-set weather hazards. Drought and seawater intrusion into estuaries affect agriculture and aquaculture livelihoods.

It has been recently estimated that the total damage caused by natural disasters, particularly typhoons, floods and landslides, costs the country in the region of 1 per cent of its gross domestic product.
“Vietnam’s north central coastal region is one of the areas most at risk from climate change hazards and is one of the regions with the highest incidence and severity of poverty, which may in part be due to the historical impact of natural disasters,” the UNDP survey said.

UNDP climate change expert Michael Parsons said the vast majority of the population in the region was involved in the agricultural sector or dependent upon natural resources such as water, forests and fisheries for their livelihoods.

“The rural poor and near-poor living in coastal areas are some of the groups most susceptible to adverse climatic events, as agriculture and fisheries are sectors which are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts. The already difficult situation in these communities is likely to be further compounded over the long term,” he said.

Sadly, most of the affected members of the population are in the dark as to what has caused the changes. “We don’t understand why the weather has worsened. We have never been notified by local authorities about weather developments to cope with natural calamities,” Ut said. Like many other families in the commune, her family has no TV or radio.

“I know how to read and write, but I have never read a newspaper,” Ut said. Huong added that many households had no electricity. “We use kerosene-fired lamps in the evening. I think it is also necessary for us to have a TV, but earning money to ensure our livelihoods is more important,” he said.

His wife Nguyen Thi Huan said once a year, Tien Phong People’s Committee organised a meeting about exchanging agricultural production experiences. “But, we never talk about what we should do to protect our houses and crops from bad weather,” Huan said.

Nguyen Van Lam, a local resident, simply attributed the disasters to heaven’s anger. “We cannot understand what we have done to irritate heaven. Perhaps we have done something wrong,” said Lam, whose ancient house was seriously damaged by Ketsana. Many in the commune share Lam’s views.

“Since the storm occurred, I have always prayed for better crops and there will be no more storms in my locality,” Lam said. However, Ho Khong attributed the saline intrusion in his hamlet to sea level rises.
“I have learned from the media that industrial development coupled with massive emissions of greenhouse gases have increased the earth’s temperature. This has heated the earth, melting land ice in the North and South Poles and flooded coastal regions,” Khong said.

Instinctive responses

“Thua Thien-Hue’s provincial officials admitted that they could cope with worsening floods and typhoons. But, what they could not cope with now was the increasing suddenness of the changes,” the UNDP survey said.

However, the more recent climate trends which have been experienced have prompted communities to adapt to the trends with their own inventions.

In Thua Thien-Hue, farmers have modified the timing of rice transplanting and harvesting and have adopted short-term rice varieties to minimise the impacts of the various climate hazards which can affect rice crops such as droughts, floods and typhoons, depending on where they reside. They have also shifted to upland crops such as peanuts and sweet potato, which do not require much water.

Many people in Vinh Hien commune said they often used traditional methods of forecasting hazards such as bamboo growth patterns along with the monitoring of weather forecasts relayed by radio and other media.
“When there are any signs of storms, villagers stabilise dykes, secure boats, store fishing gear and other property on hung beams, consolidate houses and chop down any dangerous trees,” said Pham Hoang Ha, who lives next to Khong’s house.

“In the case of an impending drought, drinking water is stored, households eat less salt, more soup, vegetables and fruit,” Ha said. He said all houses were fixed with heavy sand bags on their roofs to stand strong winds.

Nguyen Thi Nguyet, a resident in Area1 hamlet in Can Tho province’s Bui Huu Nghia quarter, said over the past five years, water level from the Hau River had risen visibly. “I feel that the weather has become hotter than before, so we have had to change the way of taking care of the fruit trees so that they can blossom and fruit in season,” she said.

However, UNDP climate change expert Koos Neefjes said the measures taken by the farmers were just situational. “People in natural calamity-hit areas will need more support to cope with climate change’s aftermath. The government will need a comprehensive measure with more money invested,” Neefjes said.