Adapting to climate change in Vietnam and the Philippines

By Bryan Walker 27/04/2011

I stumbled across a documentary programme on BBC World during the weekend, Nature Inc. It visited two Asian regions where the impacts of climate change are being experienced and described the active local measures under way to cope with them. It’s the sort of programme we ought to be seeing a great deal more of as the evidence of climate change effects accumulate around the world. The narrator presumably felt obliged to mention in passing that sceptics dispute the impacts of climate change identified by the local people, but that kind of disputing will surely wither in the face of the realities such populations are facing. Facing with energy and purpose in the two cases covered by the short documentary.

The first section of the documentary went to the region of Albay in the Philippines. In the office of the Governor, Joey Salceda, preparations were under way for the evacuation of some tens of thousands of residents from beach areas which might have been at risk from the tsunami following the Japanese earthquake. In 2006 a typhoon of enormous force had hit the region with the loss of 600 lives. The governor now has a zero casualty policy, and the successful evacuation in advance of the possible tsunami was an evidence of this.

Weather-related disasters are common in the region, and the people are in no doubt that they are being worsened by climate change. The protestations of the sceptics are not for them. A fisherman commented simply on the observable change from thirty years ago:

’Today the typhoons are getting stronger. The weather is very erratic. It’s very dangerous now to go fishing.’

The governor speaks of the investment that is being made in disaster risk reduction. It is not only making people safer, but also better off. The local economy has grown while the national economy has been stagnant. The price of doing nothing, the governor says, is more than triple the price of doing something. Food for work programmes for low income families have resulted in canal clearing and reforestation and the restoration of mangroves as a barrier to storm surges. An ambitious resettlement programme is under way to move people from areas vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges to new housing built on higher ground. Sweet potato cultivation, much less vulnerable to storm damage, is encouraged to take the place of rice.

But the governor in his busy office acknowledges that these are band aid solutions. The only long term solution he sees is for the world to agree on an international accord.

’Every day I pray for a psychic shift in the world view of the national leaders of the world. Adaptation is not the only answer, although adaptation is very critical at this point for us. It is our imperative, but mitigation is now very definitely the global imperative.’

The second section of the programme went to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Already a million hectares of rice paddy fields have been contaminated by salt water. The Vietnamese government has begun planning for a one metre rise in sea level by the end of the century. The consequences of doing nothing would see more than a third of the Mekong Delta flooded by then.

A spokeswoman for the Tra Vinh Commune People’s Committee was direct:

’I can tell you climate change is having a big impact on agricultural production and on the lives of the people because of the intensified drought, the saline water coming in, as well as the stormy weather. They’ve all had a very negative effect on agriculture and as a result on the income of the farmers.’

Mangroves are the first line of defence, forming a natural barrier against sea erosion. However half of Vietnam’s mangroves have already been cut down, mainly for shrimp farming. The documentary recorded the work of a German international aid organisation working with villagers in the group management of mangrove replanting programmes. The villagers are finding many benefits from better storm barrier protection, less sea water contamination of rice crops, and the harvesting of the sea life which inhabits the mangroves such as crabs and clams. Their daily income has increased.

One rice farmer has adopted adaptive measures against salt water intrusion which have produced a big improvement in his yield. He floods his fields from the canal, but then straight away pumps the water out again instead of leaving the fields flooded as has long been normal practice. The ensuing problem of weeds he deals with by planting the rice in rows and weeding between them, an operation which improves the rate of growth.

Biotechnology research is also under way in laboratories with the intent of producing rice varieties which will better cope with such problems as salinity. The scientist who spoke with the documentary crew wanted to make the point that that the scientists spend time talking with and learning from the farmers, a feature which is often emphasised in studies of adaptation.

It’s heartening to see adaptation under way in such vulnerable areas of the world, and good to know that it can even bring some improvements in living conditions. But I have no doubt that the Vietnamese working on these issues would echo the sentiments of the governor of Albay who prays for global attention to the mitigation of what can only be the worsening effects of climate change.