Climate change or poor design?

07 September 2011 | Blogs

Twice this summer I’ve had to evacuate our third-floor bedroom because a small tsunami of rainwater has washed in from the balcony following heavy rains. This is the first year we’ve been flooded out and my first thought was “climate change.” Indeed, heavier downpours are more likely under a warmer climate. Upon inspection, however, it turns out that the drain that’s meant to stop the balcony from flooding is so small that it was blocked by a few small leaves. A contributing factor was the leaking gutters that poured water from the top floor onto the balcony.

So is this a case of climate change or poor design?

I ask this question because it reflects some of the current discussion on climate change adaptation Vietnam. These days, it appears that every environmental problem  - urban flooding, saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, species loss, etc. - is the result of climate change. In many ways, climate change is the perfect culprit: it’s all encompassing, can’t talk back, and crucially, may allow government to tap into vast sums of climate change adaptation money. As Vietnam moves to middle-income status and donors leave, climate change offers a new and important funding stream.

But it appears that climate change is being blamed for problems that are the result of bad design and/or poor management. For example, much of the urban flooding in HCMC is due to the encroachment of housing into drains and waterways. The catastrophic flooding that hit Hanoi in November 2008 was caused by a drainage system that couldn’t keep up with the rainfall. In response, the government is now digging out and rehabilitating some of Hanoi’s biggest lakes.

The risk, however, is that the government will use climate change to displace attention from design and management failures. It also risks encouraging its preference for hard engineering solutions that often make the problems worse. For example, the government has tried to get donors to pay for a mega-dyke to protect the Mekong Delta from sea level rise. But a 2009 Science paper showed that the effects of groundwater pumping and reduced sedimentation caused by extensive river dyke construction on sea level rise far exceeded the effect of global warming.

Similarly, while climate change will gradually force wild plants and animals to shift their range in response to higher temperatures, by far the greatest threat to their survival is illegal hunting and habitat loss. More effective law enforcement is a much higher priority than another workshop on climate change and biodiversity conservation.

Which brings me back to our blocked drain. I have no doubt that the climate is changing. But the immediate cause of the flooding was an inadequate drain. Rather than point the finger at climate change and demand compensation, it would be more effective to get a drill and expand the drain. In the same way, the government needs to actively prevent the loss of wetlands and waterways that act as natural sponges. Better design and more responsible management will go a long way to mitigating the risks posed by a changing climate.

Jake Brunner, IUCN Vietnam