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FEATURE STORY

Making Room for the River

August 29, 2014

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In the Mekong Delta, leaders at all levels face tough decisions about how best to protect the delta, its farmlands, waterways, and coastal zones from flooding, erosion, and salt water intrusion. The infrastructure costs of defending the delta are high, and there is a need to look for “soft” solution.
  • The government of Vietnam is working to mobilize more of its own resources to finance climate relevant activities, is setting emissions targets, and has put in place a green growth action plan. It is also taking important strides to mainstream climate policies into sector planning and to coordinate climate responses at senior levels of government.

Nguyen Tan Dung, Prime Minister of Vietnam, is grappling with climate change.  He is not alone.  This month, leaders like Mr. Dung are coming together to share their leadership experience and challenge others to join them to scale up climate action.

The government of Vietnam is working to mobilize more of its own resources to finance climate relevant activities, is setting emissions targets, and has put in place a green growth action plan. It is also taking important strides to mainstream climate policies into sector planning and to coordinate climate responses at senior levels of government.

But Mr. Dung is still worried about growing water scarcity, declining water quality, and the country’s capacity to grow enough rice to feed the population and contribute to global food security. He recognizes the real vulnerability of the people, their livelihoods, and their assets in the Mekong Delta. He is looking for expertise and resources to help his country manage its climate risk and build its resilience.

Across Vietnam, stronger storms and increased floods and droughts are having an impact. Sea level rise and coastal erosion are generating significant economic and human costs, and natural hazards have resulted in an estimated average annual economic loss of between 1 and 1.5 percent of GDP in the last 20 years. 

In the Mekong Delta, leaders at all levels – local, provincial and national — face tough decisions about how best to protect the delta, its farmlands, waterways, and coastal zones from flooding, erosion, and salt water intrusion.  The infrastructure costs of defending the delta are high, and there is a need to look for “soft” solutions, such as mangrove rehabilitation, that are cost-effective. For every option or combination of options, there are complex cost-benefit analyses to be conducted and trade-offs to be understood.  Perhaps the only certainty is that the longer action is delayed, the higher the costs become.  

Open Quotes

A long-term development strategy for this region will require a sustained effort in adaptive delta management based on sound science and bringing different sectors and provinces together to think, plan, prioritize, and implement resilient investments. Close Quotes

Anjali Acharya
World Bank Senior Environmental Specialist

The Mekong Delta is the food bowl of Vietnam, producing 50 percent of the country’s rice and 70 percent of its aquaculture produce. Almost 20 percent of the country’s poorest people live in the delta, home to about 18 million people who are feeling the impact of climate change. The population is growing and the land sinking while the sea level rises.  This is leading to more frequent flooding.

Upstream hydropower and irrigation are affecting water flows, natural sedimentation patterns, and fish migration. The change in fresh water flows affects the delta’s ability to flush the ever intruding saline. The delta’s balance is tipping.

These mounting pressures are unlikely be reversed any time soon. Studies indicate climate change is set to exacerbate these land and water use challenges.  Sea water levels are set to rise, storms to become more severe, and farmers’ rice yields are expected to decline up to 12 percent due to salinity intrusion. Aquaculture production will also be affected.  The costs of adaptation for aquaculture alone could reach $130 million - $190 million per year.

Government agencies and communities must now decide how to defend the delta, when to make room for the river, where to let the salt water stay, and why it might need to adjust the communities livelihoods and agriculture or aquaculture practices in response to a new reality. 

To address these challenges, the World Bank Group is working closely with other development partners to help design and deliver knowledge and financing for addressing challenges in provinces of the Mekong Delta in a long-term program.   

The bid to support resilient planning in provinces like Bến Tre province is founded on a decision support framework which will overlay existing data and analysis commissioned by different government agencies and development partners together with GIS maps, sectoral master plans, local expert experience, and available climate modeling.

With this, lower cost solutions can be identified. These may include decisions to build dikes, create sluice gates, or plant mangroves. Mapping which farmland or homes are likely to flood when, or which rice fields would be subject to salt water intrusion, would help guide investments and planning processes.

The decision support framework will enable government officials and community leaders to better understand the impact of the choices they make, weigh the options they have, and collectively assess the inevitable trade-offs that result. 

 “A long-term development strategy for this region will require a sustained effort in adaptive delta management based on sound science and bringing different sectors and provinces together to think, plan, prioritize, and implement resilient investments,” says Anjali Acharya, a World Bank senior environmental specialist who is leading a multisectoral team on this work.

Leadership in the Mekong Delta will provide lessons for Vietnam’s neighbors, as well as for the Ganges, the Okavango, the Mississippi and other complex delta systems.

Mr. Dung will be attending the September Climate Summit. He hopes to share his experience and help mobilize global action and inspire others to step up to the climate challenge.