I was part of the Vietnamese group that attended the first EU-funded Building Coastal Resilience (BCR) Coastal Forum that was held in Chanthaburi, Thailand on February 29-March 2, 2012. Throughout the three days, I was impressed by the high level of participation, the high quality of most of the presentations, and the amount that the three BCR countries - Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam - can learn from each other. Several things struck me from the forum.
First, thanks to a large and growing body of research, we have a good idea about where coastal erosion can be slowed down and reversed (and where it’s not worth trying) and how to do it. A GPS-tagged video monitoring system developed by James Cook University has been used to classify coastal conditions and identify what’s driving erosion along Kien Giang Province’s 300-km coastline. In Soc Trang Province, GIZ used a sophisticated computer model to come up with the optimal design of bamboo wave breaks that can trap sediment and form new mud flats that mangroves can colonize. In Samut Sakhon Province in Thailand, a local community came up with a similar wave break design through trial and error. In Kien Giang, AusAid showed that once the sediment is trapped, natural regeneration results in relatively diverse mangrove flora and low mortality.
Second, having demonstrated the feasibility of these solutions to serious coastal erosion, the challenge is to get them adopted and this is where problems may emerge on the demand side, particularly in Viet Nam where the incentives still favor hard engineering solutions to coastal protection. While provincial leaders may understand intellectually the benefits of bamboo or melaleuca wave breaks, political imperatives may constrain uptake. For example, in one province, government-managed mangrove plantations still produce one species (Rhizophora) because, allegedly, that what Hanoi tells them, despite being well aware of the need to plant a mix of species that can adapt to changing coastal conditions.
Third, Thailand appears to be distinguished by a greter willingness to experiment and to take risks. We saw this during a field trip to a fishing community on the Gulf of Thailand that had taken the initiative to ban commercial fishing boats from its traditional waters, a ban that government has backed up. On another field trip, participants saw concrete pillars that the local community had installed to keep out trawlers. And in Samut Sakhon, the village installed wave breaks without any international assistance. Such local initiative is very rare in Viet Nam where communities tend to be much more passive. This perhaps reflects the fact that the government system in Viet Nam is highly top down and largely impervious to local feedback. This probably means that practical solutions to common problems (such as coastal erosion or over-fishing) are more likely to emerge in Thailand than in Viet Nam.
Finally, the best question during the coastal forum was asked by Dr. Nguyen Chu Hoi, Vice-Administrator of the Viet Nam Administration for Seas and Islands (VASI), a BCR partner, who asked: After all this research and new information, what advice will you give policy makers? Or to put it another way: If you had 10 minutes with the prime minister, what would you say? My own response would be “Do no harm”. Experience in Viet Nam and Thailand (not so much in Cambodia because of the lower level of development) shows that when you start to manipulate highly dynamic and complex ecosystems, there will be unexpected negative outcomes. For example, parts of the Kien Giang coastline started to erode rapidly after canals were cut in the early 2000s to drain water from An Giang Province as part of the government’s rice intensification policy. Government policies in Viet Nam and Thailand, whether they involve cutting canals, building dykes, or converting wetlands, have inadvertently increased public exposure to climate change. While much can be done at the local level to reduce sensitivity to climate change, these changes are overwhelmed by policies that in effect put more and more people in harm’s way.
When you read the newspapers, climate change is often blamed for floods, droughts, and other extreme weather phenomena. The 2011 flooding in the Mekong Delta was attributed to climate change but the river discharge was barely above average. What had changed was the construction of high dykes (needed to grow a third or even fourth rice crop a year) that raised the river bed and displaced floodwaters into populated places. In Kien Giang, officials blame coastal erosion in climate change. Yet the video monitoring showed that the leading causes of coastal erosion are canal construction, mangrove cutting, and smothering of mangrove saplings by plastic bags. And in HCMC, a journalist observed, politicians blame flooding on climate change not urban expansion into wetlands and other low lying areas. All governments like to blame environmental problems on climate change because it absolves them of responsibility and (in the worst case) encourages mal-adaptation, which is investment in infrastructure that can make things even worse. The latest proposal in Viet Nam involves the construction of a 23-km long, $2.4 billion sea dyke to “protect” HCMC from flooding.
It was good to see the Coastal Forum start to address these politically sensitive issues. The next forum will be held in Viet Nam in 2013.
Based in Hanoi, Jake Brunner is IUCN’s Program Coordinator: Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. From 2000 to 2008 when he joined IUCN, he directed Conservation International’s Indo-Burma Program. From 1992 to 2000 he worked for World Resources Institute, an environmental policy research center.