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Deep-rooted migration cycles challenge green growth in Vietnam

While most of Vietnam's natural forests were destroyed since the 1960s, the country is now one of the rare examples of a developing nation that has seen an expansion in forest cover since 2000. Photo by Rhett Butler

While most of Vietnam's natural forests were destroyed since the 1960s, the country is now one of the rare examples of a developing nation that has seen an expansion in forest cover since 2000. Photo by Rhett Butler

  • Vietnam’s large population is one of the reasons it is consistently highlighted as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.
  • Roughly two-thirds of Vietnam’s population still resides in rural areas and the trend of urban-migration persists, adding pressure to often dated infrastructure.
  • In 2016 Vietnam furthered its green growth agenda by launching a series of campaigns aimed at increasing environmental awareness and promoting green products.

Walking in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is not for the faint of heart. Motorbikes whiz around pedestrians on sidewalks; foot paths are often turned into parking lots; and crossing the street requires calm nerves and unfaltering steps.

Vietnam is the 15th most populous country in the world, with over 94 million people. That’s close to a third of the population of the United States living in an area roughly the size of California—but without the same economic resources or stability. And while about two-thirds of Vietnam’s population still reside in rural areas, as populations continue to grow and migrate, more pressure is being added to already dated city infrastructure.

Vietnam’s large population is also one of the reasons it is consistently highlighted as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.

Climate troubles

To add to the challenge of accommodating the masses, urban developers in Vietnam must now also factor in looming threats posed by climate change—like sea level rise, storm damage and drought—while also attempting to meet the country’s commitment to green growth and sustainability.

In 2016 Vietnam furthered its years-long commitment to the idea of green growth by launching a series of campaigns aimed at increasing environmental awareness and working with businesses to promote green products.

In late August, government leaders hosted a national forum on sustainable urban development and climate change resilience. Despite the passion for sustainability, the price tag that comes with many of Vietnam’s proposals is daunting.

Motorbikes are the preferred method of transportation in across Vietnam. As the popularity of motorbikes and cars grows, the air quality within the city is rapidly declining and infrastructure is becoming more stressed. Photo by Shanti Johnson

The country’s appeals for assistance in adapting to climate change are something United States-based environmental ethicist, Dan Spencer, believes wealthy nations must heed.

“I really do believe that there is a notion of ecological debt, climate debt,” Spencer said. “First-world nations have a moral obligation to assist in the transition. It’s really necessary, particularly because we have benefited so much from the greenhouse gases and fossil fuels that generate climate change—we continue to.”

Spencer, who is also an environmental studies professor at the University of Montana, has been bringing students to the Mekong Delta to study climate change since 2011. For him, the United States in particular has a deeper obligation to help Vietnam in its adaptation efforts, given its past political and military involvement.

“It makes Vietnam very different from somewhere like Bangladesh, which has equal need, but we don’t have the same history,” he said. “I would say the same thing about Central America, versus places like Paraguay—we have a history there that I think obligates us to pay attention.”

Funding partners

Plans for climate change mitigation often hinge on the generosity of private donors and foreign funders for success. That includes those proposed at the green-growth forum in August and submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Vietnam’s green growth agenda was bolstered by a $90 million promise on credit for policy reforms from the World Bank in June. The changes come against the backdrop of an historic visit by President Barack Obama to Vietnam’s strategic partner country, Laos. It is the first time a U.S. president has visited the tiny communist country. Laos has close ties with Vietnam and its hydropower plans could significantly impact Vietnam’s section of the Mekong River, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The connection University of Montana’s Spencer draws between Vietnam’s war-torn history and its current environmental predicament rings true for researcher Duong Van Ni, director of Can Tho University’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources Management in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.

Ni, who has been internationally recognized for his work on climate change adaptation, links the cycle of urban migration back to the country’s decades of civil war, when many people were forced to move and lost their connection to the land. Those who were plunged into extreme poverty began to see the environment as a resource to be exploited, rather than cultivated.

Internationally recognized for his work on climate change adaptation in the Mekong Delta, Duong Van Ni explains that any environmental response in the region must be linked to economic stability. Photo by Shanti Johnson

“For those people who are living like this,” Ni explained, “they have to survive. They have two choices for their survival—the first, they migrate to the city. And the others, they migrate to exploit the environmental resources.”

Ni goes on to explain that many who move to the city looking for work have a hard time adapting to urban life. In a matter of years, they often return to the countryside and resort to harvesting timber, fishing and other exploitive endeavors in order to support their families. It’s a cycle that has made an already at-risk environment even more vulnerable to climate change. And the trend persists.

As Vietnam continues to focus on expanding industry as a way of boosting economic growth and alleviating poverty, Ni cautions that the country must do all it can to break the patterns that led to climate change in the first place. He points to Vietnam’s powerful neighbor, China, as a lesson to be learned.

“During the last ten years or twenty years, they earned a lot of money,” Ni said. “But now they have to spend that money on the environment. So that’s why, when you develop, you have to balance, you have to select how to balance between development and conservation.”

Until people are able to meet their basic needs, he says, the environment will take a back seat.

Multi-pronged approach

Ni is one of many researchers who believe that Vietnam must first address economic weaknesses before any real progress toward sustainable development can be made. But there are voices who caution that the environment can no longer be seen as a separate problem—it must been seen as something integral to all other parts of life in Vietnam.

This integrated approach is showing up in national media articles, research projects and in conferences like the green growth forum held in Vietnam this past August.

Vietnamese representatives hope to highlight the country’s commitment to environmental sustainability and its progress toward the COP21 commitments made in Paris during the upcoming UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development to be held in Quito, Ecuador, this October.