Deep Rooted Solutions

How Mangrove forests can protect the coastal areas and rice fields of the Mekong Delta from storms and flooding

It seems like the time of dramatic pronouncements of climate forecasts: a United Nations report released in October said humans have just over a decade left to reverse the course on climate change, and this should be a time of strong action to avoid complete disaster.

Similarly, strong action is needed to reduce the risks of climate change in the Mekong Delta, which will lose a third of its land area within the next century if nothing changes, according to water researcher Joep Janssen. “The Mekong… is one of the world’s most threatened deltas. If drastic measures are not taken, one third of the delta may be wiped off in 100 years,” he wrote in an email response to questions on the subject. It’s not a warning that’s gone unheeded. Janssen has studied ways Vietnam is preparing for climate change both through national effort as well as through international partnerships, including an ambitious project to use large scale mangrove restoration projects to act as an ecological ballast for the area.

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In fact, this project dates back to the 1990s when Vietnamese authorities, alarmed by the rate at which the trees had been lost due to harvesting, began to restore the forests. The mangrove trees’ deep roots make it a perfect tool to prevent erosion, Germany’s international aid arm Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) wrote in a brief describing their ongoing partnership with Vietnam that formally started in 2011. Together with financing from Australia, the international partnership has led a mangrove restoration project that currently involves fives provinces. The GIZ has found that the resurgence of mangroves has created a larger stream of fish and crabs sold commercially as well as growth of other native sea life and bird populations.

Janssen has taken personal visits to the sites that are playing a role in climate change abatement projects. There are 10 sites about the Mekong Delta area southwest of Ho Chi Minh City where the mangroves restoration is occuring, including the Mangrove restoration project in Bac Lieu, where locals had realized the trees would flourish to an even greater extent with the benefit of bamboo trees.

Much of Janssen’s work has been in translating the rich body of scientific evidence that has been created in studying the Mekong Delta’s future in an increasingly carbon-rich atmosphere. One of the findings that’s caught his attention is the three-millimeter-per- year sea level rise that’s expected due partly to ice melt at Tibetan Plateau. Often referred to as “The Third Pole,” the Tibetan Plateau is expected to recede greatly as will all of Asia’s glaciers; a third are expected to disappear by 2100.

But in the near term, Janssen’s analysis shows that water levels may actually fall first due to upstream dams in China that feed the Mekong Delta’s waterways. Janssen said this is expected to cause a range of effects including reduction in commercial fishing and landmass loss. The mangrove tree project aims to mitigate the latter specifically, Janssen said. But without intervention, Vietnam’s coastal people will be the first to feel the effects of climate change due to massive ice melts. Or it could be the industrial groundwater extraction and subsequent rapid erosion, about 3 centimeters annually, that compromises the Mekong Delta first.

Janssen expounded upon a range of different threats—including one in which weakening soil fertility and crop production foments greater soil erosion—but each has a similar outcome if left unchecked: the steady disappearance of the Mekong Delta region.

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An architect by training, Janssen worked primarily as a developer for urban landscapes in the Netherlands specializing in using water to increase the aesthetic value and liveability of Dutch cities. Janssen decided to shift his work’s focus after watching the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth and refocused himself on studying the changing relationship humans would have with water as the Earth absorbed the effects of carbon emissions.

Both Janssen’s native Netherlands and Vietnam share similar obstacles as low-lying lands, he noted. He began studying the country and a central question began to emerge: “I was curious if the Vietnamese people are able (and resilient enough) to tackle the challenges now and in the near future.” He took a journalist’s approach to the question and took it upon himself to travel the country to personalize and deepen the scientific research he was reading on the matter. In 2015, he produced the book Living with the Mekong reporting his findings. Part history and part climate analysis, the book is a document reporting both the findings of extensive research and conversations with the affected Vietnamese populations.

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Janssen said projects like the mangrove tree restoration effort will have a large, positive effect on the region, but greater efforts are needed due in part to the sheer complexity of the problem. For example, the dams may tame the rising stream waters as Asia’s glaciers melt, but a river sentiment-starved Mekong Delta will surely sink, “which is bad news for all delta citizens,” he observed. The effects of climate change will be unevenly distributed, and the Vietnamese people living at the nation’s southern tail are in the direct line of fire. “Coast people are facing the consequences first, because villages will slowly disappear in to the sea” unless immediate, forceful action is taken.

Images provided by Ngoc Tran and Les Rives

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