Climate change threatens economic progress

Rice farming in Ninh Binh Province, northern Vietnam.
(Wikipedia)

When Hai Trai was growing up in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, his family eked out a living on collective farms under the socialist system. While the soil was rich, Trai's family, like most Vietnamese, lived in poverty.

Today, Trai, who is reaping the benefits of free market reforms and rapid economic development, owns 10 hectares of rice paddy in Dong Thap province and produces three crops a year, which he sells to the highest bidder. He has a house, a new motorcycle, sends his children to school and puts a little money in the bank. But as the country braces for a new typhoon season, Trai fears all he has worked for could be blown away.

Across Vietnam, farmers such as Trai are feeling the effects of climate change. The typhoon season is lasting longer and storms are stronger. Flooding last year killed nearly 500 people and submerged 215,000 hectares of agricultural land, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Low-lying fields have been inundated with salt water, destroying crops. Rising temperatures have even encouraged a plague of pests.

"The warm weather has favoured the growth of the brown plant hopper," said Trai, referring to the tiny insect that feasts on rice seedlings. "The pests have eaten up the plants and destroyed the crops."

Flood damage

Flooding, contaminated fields and pests are increasingly making life difficult for farmers in the Mekong Delta, said Nguyen Chuoc Minh, director of natural resources and the environment in Dong Thap province. There have been dramatic shifts in weather patterns in the country's rice bowl, said Minh. The rains are coming earlier and staying longer. The annual flooding is necessary to bring in alluvia and enrich the fields, he said, but now water levels are rising to dangerous levels because the land cannot drain fast enough. Ponds throughout the entire Mekong region are polluted, affecting food production.

''Vietnam is one of the countries hardest hit by natural calamities and global climate change. We need to have a plan.''

"Vietnam is one of the countries hardest hit by natural calamities and global climate change," said Minh. "We need to have a plan."

This week, President Nguyen Minh Triet warned the population to prepare for the effects of global warming. He called for better dyke and flood management and ordered all ministries to beef up infrastructure to mitigate the damage. Officials in the 34 coastal provinces were also told to step up disaster preparedness, including stockpiling food and medicines.

Development agencies are also sounding the alarm.

Threatening progress

In its new Global Monitoring Report issued on 19 May in Vietnam, the World Bank warned that climate change, and the environmental damage it wreaks, threatened to undo many of gains achieved over the past two decades. Vietnam has made breathtaking progress on everything to improving literacy to lowering infant mortality. The poverty rate fell to 16 percent in 2006, down from 58 percent in 1993, according to the report, Millennium Development Goals and the Environment. In a single generation, some 34 million people have been lifted out of poverty.

Despite these gains, the report named Vietnam as the developing country most vulnerable to rising sea levels. With its low-lying deltas and 3,200km of coastline, a 1m rise in sea levels would render agricultural land unusable and flood coastal communities. "[W]ithout adaptation efforts, more than 10 percent of Vietnam's population would be affected, and the country would lose 10 percent of its GDP and 29 percent of its wetlands."

While scientists forecast different environmental scenarios - some far more ominous than the World Bank's - all are in agreement that poor countries such as Vietnam will suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately.

Softening the blow

The science is incontrovertible, said Koos Neefjes, senior adviser for sustainable development with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Hanoi. Neefjes said now was the time to step up efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable populations.

International aid agencies have started to work with governments to help communities analyse risk levels and brace for extreme weather, particularly typhoons and flooding. Communication systems are being beefed up so villagers get enough notice to reach permanent shelter or evacuate to higher ground. UNDP has distributed thousands of radios to fishermen so they can receive storm warnings. Programmes are under way to improve housing construction along the coastline and elevate schools and homes in the Mekong Delta so they are less vulnerable to flooding, said Neefjes.

"The fact that Vietnam is one of the most affected countries is not in doubt," says Neefjes. "We can see the effects. [We know that without swift measures] Vietnam's human development - education, income, health - will be undermined by these vulnerabilities."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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