When it comes to climate change, Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Sarah Piccini discovers how Delta farmers are working to safeguard their crops and prevent further damage to the environment. Photo by Vinh Dao.

As one of the twelve provinces that make up Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’, the past four decades have seen a productivity boom for Ben Tre’s once famished communities. Today, Vietnam is one of the top rice exporters in the world, not to mention a major producer of shrimp for American and European markets. In 2014, these industries alone earned the country USD $3.8 billion. However, for all the benefits that these products have brought to rural communities, such heavy farming has come at an environmental cost. Rice paddies and shrimp ponds have replaced mangrove trees to such an extent that environmental groups estimate over half of Vietnam’s natural mangrove forests have been destroyed. This has a dangerous effect on local communities, leaving Delta residents open to extreme weather and climate change. Along the coast, mangrove forests provide a thick natural barrier against floods, storms and seawater, as well as a habitat for wild fish and clams. Mangrove forests absorb CO2 from the atmosphere across Southeast Asia, a region that is increasingly polluted by modern technology.

In May 2014, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s designated Vietnam the world’s second most vulnerable country to climate change, behind only Cambodia. Storms, flash floods and droughts cost the Mekong Delta 9,500 lives and extensive property damage in the first decade of this century alone. The Vietnamese government estimates that average temperatures have already increased 0.5-0.7 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years.

At this rate, Vietnam may experience a temperature increase of two to three degrees Celsius over the next 85 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science.

IPCC experts also predict a shift in seasonal rains and a sea level rise of 75–100 cm (1 metre) by the end of this century. For context, 40 percent of Ho Chi Minh City sits lower than 1 metre in elevation.

In the Mekong Delta, rainy season floods are common, as is the salinisation of the soil and waterways during the dry months. In 2012, seawater reached so far inland around Soc Trang that farmers couldn’t find fresh water for their fields, losing an entire dry season crop and vital income.

This is not a new problem. Over the past seven years, the Vietnamese government and international aid groups have pledged millions of dollars to reverse environmental damage and help rural communities become more resilient to climate shocks. Last November, however, the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) unveiled a new program to promote food security and climate resilience called Climate Smart Villages. While targeting individual communities, the project will focus on weather, water, carbon, nutrients and pests, energy and agricultural knowledge.

Climate Smart Villages already exist in South Asia, Latin America and West and East Africa. There, the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) project has successfully helped rural communities boost their productivity, increase incomes and build resilience to extreme weather events like floods and droughts. In 2013, CCAFS chose to expand to Southeast Asia, a global hotspot for greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation and deforestation. In addition to the three villages in Vietnam, which will be located in the northwest, north central and southern regions of the country, CCAFS plans to build two in Laos and one in Cambodia. According to Leo Sebastian, regional program leader for CCAFS-Southeast Asia, each village will address the unique challenges of its location, from increasingly severe hot and cold periods in the north to unpredictable rainfall and rising temperatures in the south.

“The sites selected represent different agro-ecosystems and landscapes with different climate change impacts,” says Sebastian. Throughout the course of the program, Sebastian aims to improve food security and boost local incomes as well as reverse environmental damage and build each community’s resilience to the effects of climate change.

“In the coming months, we will be designing the specific interventions based on [assessments of resident’s needs] and further interactions with the community,” Sebastian explains. These interventions could take many forms, such as publishing more frequent weather forecasts and farming recommendations, teaching better water management or enrolling farmers in insurance programs to protect their land.

In the early stages of the Climate Smart Villages project, there will be plenty of trial and error.

“We have climate smart rice cultivation practices, we have climate smart aquaculture practices, we have climate smart forest management practices,” explains climate change specialist Dr. Ole Sander. “We want to bring them together to see how they work together. What does work together and what does not, and in which contexts you can use which climate smart practice.”

While the program is still in its infancy, some of these initiatives are already being implemented in Vietnam. Sander, who is affiliated with the International Rice Research Institute, a CCAFS partner, focuses on Alternative Wetting and Drying (AWD) rice cultivation, a method that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30-70 percent. By pumping water into rice fields periodically instead of continuously flooding the crop, this technique helps farmers to grow rice while reducing the release of greenhouse gases and saving water, time and energy costs.

Projects that strengthen rural communities while fighting climate change are critical to create real win-win solutions that last in the long term.

“The other aspect of this is to create a kind of lighthouse region,” say Sander. “We want to show where [these methods] have been practiced…and then the idea is that climate smart practices would spread out from those villages.”