I began interning in the IUCN Hanoi office in May of 2009, while on leave from my Master’s of Environmental Management at UC Santa Barbara in California. I first became engaged in Viet Nam and the environmental challenges the country is facing while teaching English in Saigon in 2006.
Just a few years ago the potential impacts of climate change on Viet Nam and throughout Southeast Asia were not well known or widely discussed. I was able to incorporate an environmental focus into many of my classes and my students and I discussed air and water pollution, flooding, deforestation, and coastal erosion, but there wasn’t very much awareness about climate change. Since then several studies have concluded that Viet Nam is one of the countries most vulnerable to sea level rise, increasingly intense and unpredictable tropical storms, and so on. The tens of millions of people that live in Viet Nam’s vulnerable coastal and delta areas are among the people least responsible for the anthropogenic causes of climate change and yet physically and financially most at risk. Regardless of mitigation efforts, sea level rise and other climate related environmental changes are already happening in Viet Nam, and increasing in severity. There is a pressing need for strategic adaptation planning and implementation. I want to work on climate change adaptation in Southeast Asia after I complete my Master’s and this is why I felt fortunate to have the chance to spend the summer working in the IUCN Viet Nam office on these issues.
My first week I was able to travel with IUCN’s environmental change team, as well as government staff from the pollution control agency, to a climate change awareness building workshop in Nam Dinh – a coastal province near the mouth of the Red River Delta. While there I met some of Viet Nam’s top climatologists working for the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. IUCN has been partnering with these organizations as well as the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to conduct vulnerability assessments in the area and work to increase local awareness about climate change. Being situated on the coast, Nam Dinh is already vulnerable to tropical storms, storm surges, and flooding, and now mangrove destruction for aquaculture operations and increasing coastal development are exacerbating these risks. Before we returned to Hanoi we were invited to visit the Xuan Thuy National Park – a 12,000 ha area along the Red River where they are conserving and protecting mangroves and wetlands and the aquatic species and migratory birds that depend on them.
Over the course of the summer I had two main tasks. The first was to write a draft proposal to partner with SIDA to increase the role of civil society in climate change adaptation efforts in order to build local capacity and increase awareness and participation. SIDA is entering into a new funding cycle and their priority focus areas are human rights and climate change. The proposal focused on facilitating locally owned planning and capacity building processes in vulnerable coastal areas, and increasing communication and collaboration between local residents, regional and national authorities, and the scientific community; establishing effective links between vulnerable populations, the national government and the international financing community. Government officials, scientists and national level NGOs can help with planning, capacity building, and technical assistance, but it is local people who have to carry out changes on the ground, and provide feedback on whether or not these changes are increasing their resilience. If local actors are going to take ownership of implementing adaptation efforts they need to be given more information and influence over the process of analyzing local conditions, identifying problems, and proposing solutions.
My second task was to complete a literature review on climate change vulnerability and adaptation assessment methods and indicators relevant to the Viet Nam context. This paper focused on the increasing need for sub-national, bottom-up assessments that provide practical, actionable, policy-relevant recommendations, particularly for the most vulnerable communities that are already struggling to adapt to a changing climate. In the past many vulnerability and adaptation studies have failed to seriously engage and encourage participation of local stakeholders and institutions. This is a major challenge moving forward.
At the end of August I moved back to California to finish my Master’s degree. I miss Viet Nam and I am looking forward to my next opportunity to go back and work in this part of the world!