Issues in integrated watershed forest and river basin management in Vietnam: what are the next steps?

On May 23-24, 2011, participants from across the Mekong countries and beyond met in Da Lat for a conference about forests, watershed management, and IWRM. The conference was organised by the Centre for Biodiversity (CBD), Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD), a Finnish-funded and IUCN-coordinated initiative, Bioforsk, a Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research, Vietnam River Network (VRN), a local NGO, and Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park.

Participants visited and exchanged at Bidoup - Nui Ba National Park Photo: BAYLYSTARK Jason - IUCN Vietnam

On May 23, participants visited the national park, which supplies clean water to tens of millions of downstream users, and heard about the challenges park managers face protecting the forest and water supplies. Participants learned about an innovative payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme, which collects payments from water users who benefit from forest protection and pays local communities to protect the forest. The scheme now makes up to 60% of an average family income from payments of up to US$400/ha/year for protecting between 17 and 50 hectares of forest from illegal logging, poaching, and degradation.

On May 24, presentations by speakers from Vietnam, China and Norway covered a range of river basin management issues. Hydropower was an unavoidable topic of discussion. Dr. Dao Trong Tu, a member of VRN and chair of the Vietnam chapter of MWD, gave a summary of hydropower development in Vietnam and called for a stop to the unsustainable expansion of hydropower in the Dong Nai River Basin. Likewise, participants learnt that as much as 55% of the economic benefits attributed to hydropower development in China are “lost” because of environmental problems, as witnessed by the government’s recent admission of “serious problems” associated with the Three Gorges dam. The costs and benefits of large dams are being increasingly called into question.

Dr. Per Stalnacke from Bioforsk talked about the Sesan River, summarising a detailed study on environmental flows, water quality, and hydropower operation in relation to local livelihoods and poverty reduction. The presentation by Dr. Le Anh Tuan of Can Tho University put the impacts of large dams into a regional perspective with specific reference to the Mekong Delta.

A key message from the hydropower discussion was: “Who is seriously looking at power alternatives?” From the debate over the proposed Xayaburi dam, we know that the Vietnamese government recognises that the environmental impacts of hydropower development are real and cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, there has not been a thorough assessment of future power supply and demand options and the opportunities for power savings that would give decision makers viable and less harmful alternatives.

Community forest management and biodiversity conservation was a major theme. Prof. Dr. Cao Min from China demonstrated the relevance of soil seed banks for forest restoration in the Mekong Region. He called for consistent trans-boundary monitoring of ecosystem health and biodiversity as climate and forests continue to change. CBD’s Dr. Vu Ngoc Long gave a passionate talk on community forest management near Cat Tien National Park. Disturbing photos of failed community forest protection schemes led Dr. Long to call for a stop to the expansion of rubber plantations and tighter controls on access to forestland from outside investors. There is a pressing need to improve livelihoods and incomes by giving incentives to protect forests. The discussion of practical solutions, involving pepper, cocoa, and PES schemes, reflected learning from the previous day’s field trip to Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park.

At the end of the day, the participants were presented with the hardest question of all: “We have succeeded in identifying the problems and solutions. Now when we leave this room, what is the next step?” This led to the acknowledgement that while the science is becoming clearer, policy implementation is exceptionally difficult. There has been over 10 years of talk about IWRM but virtually no progress on the ground. As the Vice-President of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Prof. Duong Ngoc Hai, said “Your question is our headache”. IUCN’s Nguyen Duc Tu urged each organisation to use the power and influence available to them to push forward, share resources, and test solutions.

The meeting ended on positive and passionate note. There was a belief that despite the challenges cooperation between organisations can empower communities, influence government, and offer a better future for Vietnam’s forests, water, and people. For workshop report, please click HERE.

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