Through my visit to Southern Vietnam, I have learned that communities along the Mekong River Delta in Southern Vietnam know a lot about adapting to natural disaster. As the traditional saying goes, people have always Song chung voi lu, or “lived with flood.” In An Phu District in An Giang Province, flood is a common, expected, seasonal event. Therefore, through experience, communities have developed extensive local knowledge related to flood management at the community level.
For example, farmers and villagers living along the Mekong River observe the color of the river to predict the start of flood seasons. When the color of the river turns from blackish to reddish color, it means that the flood season is about to start. Also, they observe the behavior of insects and animals, such as ants, to predict the arrival of the flood season. When the ants start crawling up the tree, rather than crawling down the tree to the ground, villagers need to start preparing for the flood season. There is also a traditional way to predict the magnitude of the flood that may occur during the season by using a local plant. When cutting the wheat-like plant by hand, if the stem breaks at a high position, that means that the flood level is likely to be high that year; if the stem breaks at a low position, it means that the flood level is likely to be low.
However, despite the wealth of traditional knowledge and experience related to flood management, consequences of climate change, such as sea-level rise, seasonal change in temperature and rainfall, and emergence of extreme events, can potentially impact the resilience of these communities to flood and other disasters. National and local governments in Southern Vietnam are trying to enhance and adjust their current disaster management efforts in the face of climate change.
Designing and implementing effective solutions for climate change adaptation and disaster management at the community level is extremely complex. The most certain way to eradicate flood disaster is to eliminate flood. In An Giang Province, one of the large-scale solutions to flood management has been to construct dikes in order to prevent flood damages.
However, while flooding of fields and households cause tremendous loss to farmers and residents, as communities have learned to live with flood throughout the years, people realize the benefits of floods, Floods are now part of the local culture and life. Some farmers would agree that flood is good to their rice productivity as it brings in nutrients to the field. Although a whole rice production season may be sacrificed due to flood, farmers have managed to fish or plant flood-resilient crops. Also, some local schools have boat races and other school events that take advantage of the flooded rice fields as a place for learning and fun. Economically speaking, perhaps it’s best to prevent flood from happening as much as possible. However, is there a possibility that something important, culturally or socially, that can be lost in midst of ‘adapting to disaster and climate change’?
As an outsider, I am in no position to impose my views on what the local culture should be, but perhaps this is why establishing a forum for community members to talk about the disaster management/climate change adaptation options and weigh the pros and cons becomes crucial.
Shoko Takemoto is a Masters in City Planning student at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, focusing on environmental policy and planning. Shoko is working in Bangkok this summer with the Asia Disaster Preparedness Center where she will examine the link between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in communities in the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia. Her main interests include food sustainability, climate change, and community engagement, and she was also a member of the Cartagena Practicum.