Tram Chim National Park is an ornithological paradise. Spread over seven villages, this sleepy Vietnamese haven lies 19km east of the Mekong Delta in the ‘Plain of Reeds’ in Dong Thap province, a mere stone’s throw from the Cambodian border.
Established as a provincial-level Natural Reserve in 1991 and a National Park in 1998 by governmental decision, Tram Chim provides the perfect home for over 200 types of wonderful birds. Tourists flock to the park to see the towering red-headed crane, a rare but beautiful bird which, at an impressive 180cm high, stands taller than the average adult person. The park is also renowned for its mangroves, nurseries for marine life and the surrounding landscape of farming plots for rice and shrimp.
This colourful corner of Vietnam has become crucial to the country’s economic and nutritional provision, with 70% of the total population reliant on the agricultural areas where rice, now a major global cash crop, is grown.
Since the early 1990s, farmers have slowly developed the number of crops per year to keep up with the rising quotas to feed national and global demand for rice. Once upon a time there was just a single rice crop each year. The locals, however, soon started to realise the potential for extra production increasing the crop cycle to twice a year thanks to the construction of shallow and temporary dikes, designed to be washed away in the post-August floods to ensure the rice paddies wouldn't be inundated in the early rains.
With demand still exceeding supply, the production increased to three or more rice crops per year. Higher and more permanent dikes were now necessary to prevent the rice crop from being submerged. Worryingly for the global economy, the increased production of rice in Vietnam has led to the downfall of rice prices globally as well as threatening the local biodiversity, increasing flooding risks and the chance of health problems.
As the production of three or more crops a year becomes a permanent option, dikes are being used as roads and non-traditional concrete houses are now being constructed on floodplains. Naturally, this increases the risk of human casualties due to the possible collapse of dikes during the monsoon season.
The integration of permanent dikes has also cut off freshwater floods, creating problems with the water quality, infiltration of invasive species (e.g. snails and hyacinth) and a decrease in the number of fish species. People now see floods as the enemy, rather than as the pulse of the Delta, washing life and fertility into the plains and wetland reaches of the Mekong Delta.
With the support of IUCN's Global Protected Areas Programme (GPAP) and Environmental Law Centre, a project will be implemented by the IUCN Vietnam office and local partners to help connect policy discussion with practical demonstration in and around the Tram Chim National Park on moving back to a traditional flood management regime.
Although this project will be a huge social and economic challenge, especially in the short term, the rewards in the long term will be more productive and sustainable. The effects of climate change cannot be ameliorated through infrastructure and technology at the expense of environmental degradation and if nothing is done, it will only result in less resilience and more costly, and unnecessary, options to tackle the problems at hand.
In terms of future solutions to be integrated within the next years, the IUCN GPAP project will aim to lower the intensity of rice crops and to maintain the traditional methods of flood management and drainage such as the seasonal 'August' dikes. Tram Chim National Park will again be connected to the critical flooding of the Plain of Reeds, ensuring longer-term protection for its valuable biodiversity.
By Naomi Young and Peter Sanderson