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Perilous life in the north

Released at: 11:08, 12/12/2017

Perilous life in the north

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The harsh reality of climate change is acutely felt in Vietnam's northern mountains.

by Hoang Ngoc Xuan Mai

The Lunar New Year is not a happy time in Kep A village, a rural community with 60 households in northern Ha Giang province. While most Vietnamese relish the festivities of the year’s biggest holiday, the ethnic Dao and Hmong peoples in Kep A huddle together to fight against the cold. It has gotten worst in the last ten years; due to the changing climate, temperatures have dropped so low that cattle and domestic fowl have died of cold. Robbed of their usual supply of meat, many go for days without food, and the fact that decreasing rainfall has also hindered rice cultivation adds to their woes.

All of Kep A’s 375 inhabitants live below the poverty line. None have received a high school education, and as members of different ethnic minorities, some of them don’t even speak the Vietnamese language. Isolated by high mountains and sloping narrow streams, the villagers find it hard to scrape a living together even when the climate is conducive. With low education, limited mobility, and no access to markets, they are at the mercy of nature.

And nature is not merciful. The region’s steep topography, coupled with low forest coverage, enables floodwaters to sweep down the hills and mountains unobstructed. They send down rocks and soil into populated areas, filling up rivers while causing cracks in the land where they once lay. With six major cracks, Kep A harbors an immense risk for landslides - avalanches of earth and rock catalyzed by uneven mountain slopes that are easily lethal. The villagers live in fear; their traditional methods of predicting natural disasters are no longer effective, due to erratic rainfall and high occurrences of flash floods.

Their experience is hardly unique. Vietnam is one of the five countries most affected by climate change, due to inadequate mitigation systems and unfavorable geographical features that make it more prone to natural disasters. Highlands with remarkable degrees of steepness, similar to those in Ha Giang, make up three-quarters of the country’s total area. According to a report from the Center for Research Resources and the Environment (CRES), extreme flooding and other natural disasters in mountainous regions cost Vietnam 1-1.5 per cent of GDP every year.

Due to historic patterns of migration, the northern highlands are now home to 50 of the country’s 53 ethnic minorities, excluding the Hoa, Kho Me, and Cham, who crowd into urban areas with more opportunities for economic growth. Despite the government’s efforts to build support systems, these mountainous ethnic groups still struggle with high poverty rates, at 70 per cent of the population, compared to 15 per cent in all of Vietnam, according to recent World Bank data. Their livelihoods still largely revolve around slash and burn agriculture - the local norm for thousands of years. However, they are living in a changing world.

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Using Scenario B2 in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios as a reference, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment forewarns a 0.7C increase in average temperatures, with prolonged droughts and extreme temperatures in both highs and lows in the northern region. Unfortunately, while enormous attention has been drawn in recent years to climate change’s effects on the Mekong Delta, which is threatened by high sea level rises, not much research has been done on the loss and damage suffered by ethnic minorities scraping a bare subsistence in the northern mountains.

Ms. Hang Dang Amuikeo, a Dao woman living in Bac Son, northern Lang Son province, spoke about the difference between climate change’s impact on the Dao and Kinh communities. “The Dao depend more on nature for cultivating crops on rocky terrain,” she said. “Our access to resources is already limited; over-exploitation of land, forest, mines, and the resulting climate change makes everything so much worse.” Lang Son’s status as a hub of aquaculture has also been marred lately, and she believes that fish and shrimp are dying from extreme changes in pH levels and salinity; the result of temperature increases.

Echoing these sentiments, Mr. Cao Phan Viet, a former member of the Center for Sustainable Development in Mountainous Areas (CSDM), stresses the disadvantages borne by ethnic groups during natural catastrophes. “Ethnic minorities in Vietnam always face many difficulties,” he said. “After disaster hits, it is hard for them to obtain food, they have little electricity available, low mobility, and roads are blocked, so Kinh people in the center cannot help those higher up in the mountains even if they want to.”

CSDM has worked with ethnic communities in Lang Son, Hoa Binh, Son La, Phu Tho, Ha Tinh, and Hanoi’s rural areas to “preserve and pass down their cultures” in the face of natural calamities. Mr. Viet thinks that among the groups he has worked with, the Hmong are the ones most affected by climate change, because they live “on the top of the mountains,” within close proximity of rivers and streams. Even if the local government warns them of impending danger, they don’t want to move. “If they do, that means no water, no livelihood,” said Mr. Viet. Perennially faced with inclement environments, the Hmong experience an 80.95 per cent poverty rate, according to the 2010 Northern Mountain Baseline Survey.

Mr. Vu Pat Ly, an ethnic Hmong living in Song Ma, Son La province, tells of his story growing up with floods. “My family and I have been in Song Ma for 29 years,” he said. “Multiple times, our houses were swept away by the water, along with the animals and the crops. By now people are so used to it, it is regarded as normal.” Ly saw many cows and buffalos die due to the unbearable cold. His father, who depended on buffalos to pull the plough, suffered great losses in productivity, and had to struggle to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, 326 km to the north, in the frontier town of Sapa in Lao Cai, educator Mr. Ta Van Thuong lives with his wife and three children. He still trembles when speaking about the flood this past August, which killed three people in the town of 9,000. But the flash flood in 2013 was the worst in recent history. “It came sweeping down on a school in town. There were no students there but the teachers were carried away. At least 15 people died,” he said. “Only by living here can you see the impact of climate change on the ones around you, the people you love.”

Aside from the floods, unpredictable precipitation in Sapa has also caused extreme droughts in the dry season, resulting in conflicts between villagers over access to water for personal use and irrigation. As Mr. Thuong recalls with some hint of pride, Sapa used to be famous for its ideal resort-worthy weather, a popular hideout for tourists seeking refuge from the tropical climate of the Vietnam’s plains. In 2011, it had its first ever drought. The five ethnic communities in Sapa - the Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu, and Tay - had always been able to plant their crop precisely after the first rainstorm of March. Since then, however, families have been starting earlier and earlier to beat their neighbors at claiming the available water. “People would pull out weapons,” he said. “Rice is the quintessential crop in Sapa. Everyone has it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What are we to do without it?”

The other visible effect of climate change is on human health. “Breakouts of tropical diseases like malaria and viral hemorrhagic fever usually coincide with swift changes in rainfall or temperature,” Mr. Thuong said. “I see children and old people go down. Healthcare here is not good, and people usually resort to ‘traditional’ methods of treatment.” The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment attributes this to the increased growth of viruses and disease-transmitting insects. When the weather is uncommonly hot children will often get sick after playing in dirty water. If their parents want to get proper medical treatment, they will have to bring the children down from the mountains to the provincial hospital. The cost of travel, hospitalization, and treatment are usually prohibitive.

The Vietnamese Government is aware of these issues and of the relationship between human activities, climate change, and natural disasters. In September 2002, Vietnam approved the Kyoto Protocol, putting a cap on its annual carbon emissions. Since then, the State has put effort into generating laws and regulations, including the National Strategy on Natural Disaster Prevention, Response and Mitigation to 2020, widely regarded as the most comprehensive document issued on disaster management, which it defines as “preparedness, response to and recovery of consequences caused by disasters in order to ensure the sustainable socioeconomic development and national security and defense.” In line with the strategy, the government has implemented programs related to disaster mitigation such as planting protective forests upstream of the flood flow, creating reservoirs for flood drainage and drought resistance, and reinforcing dykes.

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In collaboration with CSDM and climate specialists, the local government in Ha Giang ran a three-year program from 2008 to 2010, funded by the Embassy of Finland in Vietnam, to install early forecast techniques in weather forecast stations, upgrade existing equipment, and provide households in two danger zones with jackets, mobile phones, food, and clothes, among other things. Mr. Viet, the Senior Project Officer, shared his joy in seeing their efforts pay off.

“The people in the most remote places remember us,” he said. “I was very moved.” The project also included education programs on rocky mountain resource management and sustainable agricultural practices, specifically designed for ethnic minorities. Mr. Viet and Mr. Lam Thai Duong, then head of the Ha Giang Provincial People’s Committee, presented the results of their projects at multiple conferences, including the Global Summit on Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples, the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Regional Summit on Climate Change, and the 8th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

However, despite its many mitigation efforts, the Vietnamese Government is unwilling to hold certain organizations accountable for actions that could have directly or indirectly caused climate change, due to economic considerations. “Vietnam is among the top producers of petroleum and coal; the government has recently even increased its investment in building new thermal power stations all over the country,” said Ms. Nhi Thoi, the Program Manager at Change.vn, a non-government organization involved in climate advocacy. Though it is a ready source of cheap energy, coal has been decried by the UN’s Environmental Program and Greenpeace, among other organizations, as the gases emitted from burning it are some of the leading causes of global warming.

Ms. Thoi questions the effectiveness of pooling money into “cleaning up the mess” after disaster strikes while the root of the problem is still not solved. “I see the future in alternative sources of energy,” she said, while acknowledging that the technology as well as the financial resources needed to make this transition are not yet available in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Change.vn works hard to ameliorate the situation by having stakeholders, both domestic and international, divest from activities that would cause even more deleterious emissions.

The issue of environmental change and its impact on northern Vietnam’s mountainous regions is a multi-faceted one; any solution to preventing further damage and helping ethnic minorities recover from past grievances should come from within the country, spearheaded by organizations like Change.vn, with intimate ties to the people who are living here.

However, the international community does have a very crucial role to play. Policymakers at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment would benefit from training on best practices when it comes to balancing economic growth and environmental preservation. And as the collaboration between CSDM, an NGO, the Ha Giang Provincial People’s Committee, and the Finnish Embassy shows, foreign organizations, including governments, the UN, and environmental NGOs, can bring about the most positive outcomes through creating grant programs alongside workshops on project management, while leaving the actual design and implementation to local actors.

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