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VIETNAM: Heeding Climate Change Warnings

Helen Clark

HANOI, Sep 28 2008 (IPS) - With a predicted sea level rise of one metre by 2100, Vietnam may end up being one of the nations worst hit by climate change. Such a rise would affect five percent of the land area, 11 percent of the population and seven percent of the agriculture.

With worsening storms and flooding already lapping at its shores, this South-east Asian country is heeding the dire warnings.

A report released by World Vision on Sep. 18, ‘Planet Prepare’, focused on the multi-faceted climate change issues facing coastal communities. Bangladesh is one of the nations studied in detail. With the highest population density in the world, low-lying flood plains and a massive river delta, that nation faces severe devastation. But so does Vietnam, for similar reasons.

“It’s not just Bangladesh that is under threat,” leading climate scientist Nguyen Huu Ninh told IPS. Ninh, part of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director of the Centre for Education Research Environment and Development, has been instrumental in forming the new Vietnam Network for Civil Society and Climate Change, a network of Vietnamese NGOs connected to local business and government bodies.

Though a Climate Change Working Group already exists, it is made up of foreign NGOs. “Only the Vietnamese can tell the Vietnamese people what to do. They understand the traditions, the habitation. We can share and help, possibly more than foreign NGOs. Vietnam has a lot of international organisations; it leads to dependence,’’ Ninh said.

This is but one step of many recently taken by the Vietnamese government and local organisations in response to threats of devastation from a rise in sea level, and the short term threat of increased storms and flooding.

“Vietnam has really picked up the ball in the last six months,” Bernard O’Callaghan, Vietnam Programme Coordinator for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told IPS. “Sea level rise will be the highest priority, which is reflected in the national target programme.”

Before year’s end the ministry of natural resources and the environment is expected to table suitable legislation in the National Assembly.

The recent World Vision report states that poor countries will bear the brunt of years of emissions from more developed nations. Vietnam is no different. “We hope the governments of these large countries take responsibility for climate change,” said Ninh. “Our pollution is not so high. It’s one tonne per capita per year. Compare that with the West.” Whilst true, emissions are steadily rising in this fast developing communist nation.

Though Vietnam signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, climate change efforts are centred on mitigation and adaptation, not curbing of emissions. Motorbikes and cars are one of the leading causes of pollution in Vietnam’s cities.

“They’re focused on adaptation as one of the worst-affected,” said Nathan Sage of Indochina Carbon, based in Hanoi. “They [Vietnamese government] want to be seen as a good neighbour. But as a small, developing country trying to promote economic development, they see that if lack of environmental protection is part of it and protects foreign investment, they will do it.”

A rise in sea level would affect the Red River and Mekong Deltas, both rice- producing areas, the worst. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest rice exporter, after Thailand, but the world’s largest producer. Forty five percent of the Mekong’s land could be under water.

“Maybe we need to choose higher technology over agriculture,” said Ninh. “Agriculture, fertilisers, pesticides: they destroy the environment. We need to think about the transition.”

Vietnam may need to think about more than long-term transitions. The recent World Bank city profile of Hanoi mentions that though Vietnam’s climate change legislation is increasingly comprehensive and sound, implementation can lag behind.

Sea level rise is a long-term problem and one which optimists in Vietnam hope will be stabilised by around 2050. In the short term, Vietnam will have to brace for storms and flooding. Neither of these are new phenomena in a country with a tropical monsoon weather; there is evidence of dykes having been built over one thousand years ago.

But for the past few years Vietnam has been suffering storms more frequent and vicious than in previous years. As previously reported by IPS, the government has instituted a strategy called ‘Living With Floods’ as a response to worsening weather. One of the aims of the programme is early warning of floods.

Early storm warnings failed in Lao Cai and Yen Bai during August floods precipitated by Typhoon Kammuri, which killed 129 people. This is not the first time Vietnam’s storm warnings have been off the mark. In May 2006, hundreds of fisherman perished during Typhoon Chanchu after none was advised to return to land.

Nguyen Thi Mai Loan, of Lao Cai, told IPS via phone: “The storm came too quickly to be avoided. My family was fine, but others really suffered a lot.” She believes the storm warnings were useful, but others disagree.

“It’s not effective,” said Lam Ngoc Vinh from Bac Can. When asked about his thoughts on climate change he confessed he had never heard of it.

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