As sea levels continue to rise and the destruction of mangrove forests in the Mekong Delta persists, millions of Vietnamese may soon be affected. But there are solutions on the horizon. Photo and story by Katie Jacobs.

Ankle deep in mud, I gripped firmly to the wiry tree beside me, hoping desperately that a leech wasn’t going to lodge itself between my bare toes. Stalking through the dense mangrove forests of Soc Trang province was a completely different Mekong experience to the casual bike rides and lazy boat tours I had enjoyed a few days earlier. Over the past five days I had come to appreciate the delicate balance waged between human livelihoods and the unpredictability of rain, river and sea. The Mekong Delta may be one of the most fertile areas in Vietnam, supplying fruit, rice and seafood to the country, but it is also one of the most vulnerable.

Marvelous mangroves
Carrying water from the highlands of the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong River runs for more than 4,000km before annually sending more than 450 cubic kilometres of water into the East Sea. Down in the Delta, tributaries peel off into a messy entanglement of crisscrossing canals, fertile fields, dense population settlements and, finally, mangrove forests, the coastline’s natural defender.

To the average observer, mangrove forests might not seem like a big deal, but to those living in low-lying areas and coastal communities, the absence of these forests can be life-threatening. Without the protective characteristics of the average mangrove tree, coastlines and ecosystems around the world would look very different.

According to Mangroves for the Future, a partnership-based initiative promoting investment in coastal ecosystems, mangroves are crucial for the health and protection of coastal communities around the world. Mangrove forests act as nurseries, providing sheltered, nutrient-rich waters for many marine species to breed. They also form essential stabilising barriers between the sea and land, preventing erosion and controlling salinity.

“Mangrove forests are the life and livelihood of those who live among them. However, people rarely realise the importance of mangrove forests,” says Vorapol Dounglomjan, head of the Upper Gulf Conservation Network, a Thailand-based organisation that promotes mangrove conservation.

In addition, mangrove forests can save lives. A 2006 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) compared the death toll from two Sri Lankan villages in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The village with dense mangrove and scrub forest lost two people while a similar nearby village without this vegetation lost nearly 6,000. The mangroves act as a wave break, dispersing energy and sheltering areas and settlements farther inland.

The Mekong dilemma
A couple days earlier, enjoying the usual tourist trail of the Delta, I had been drifting along the river when the precarious relationship between life and water became clear. Passing a new house teetering on the riverbank, my guide shook his head. “They have built too close to the water,” he said. “It will soon be taken by the river.” He seemed baffled by their seeming stupidity.

Water can be an underestimated force and it was clear that Delta residents adapt to live with, rather than against, the flow of the river. In one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to rising sea levels, it is easy to envision the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s prediction that, in the coming years, more than one million Delta residents will be directly affected by coastal erosion and land loss.

Flooding is already a yearly concern in many low-lying parts of the Mekong, and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) predicts this will only worsen as natural coastal barriers, such as mangrove forests, are cleared in favour of increasing development.

Humans are already feeling the effects of the changing climate and rising sea levels. But the outlook does not have to be so bleak. Strengthening the resilience of coastal communities ensures they are prepared to physically and socially deal with environmental change and uncertainty.

In October, IUCN and its partners organised the Coastal Forum in Soc Trang. The forum brought together government agencies, NGOs, academics, and community representatives from across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia to share and discuss nature-based strategies for reducing community vulnerability to climate change.

Speaking at a press conference during the forum, Dr Robert Mather, head of IUCN Southeast Asia, said, “Development based on bottom-up planning and soft solutions provided by natural ecosystems are instrumental in bringing about desired solutions.”

Two examples of this are community co-management and integrated mangrove shrimp farming.

Using a co-management strategy between government and communities, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) is rehabilitating mangrove forests while also ensuring local people have access to nearby mangrove and coastal resources. As bamboo wave breakers are being built to halt erosion and allow natural reforestation, community projects are ensuring local people have the power and tools necessary to protect and sustainably use their local resources.

Integrated mangrove shrimp farming is another viable solution. This method offers a sustainable and profitable alternative to intensive shrimp farms, which are one of the greatest threats to coastal resilience and sustainable development in the Mekong. Intensive shrimp farms not only use artificial feed, antibiotics and chemicals, which pollute the water, but also require extensive mangrove deforestation. Integrated mangrove shrimp farming, however, utilises the natural shade and nutrients provided by mangrove forests. Farmers are also able to diversify their income by simultaneously raising other species such as crab and oysters.

Although yields are smaller, the natural system makes the shrimp population healthier and more resilient to disease so farmers are less susceptible to stock mortality. The growing international market for organic shrimp is now allowing farmers to sell these shrimp at a higher price.

With mud-caked but leech-free feet, I emerged from the mangrove forest with a new appreciation for these trees, which harbour responsibility for the health and security of the Mekong Delta. Most scientists agree that low-lying coastal areas such as the Mekong Delta will be the hardest hit by climate change. The challenge now is to support the natural ecosystems, such as the mangrove forests, and encourage sustainable, forward-thinking initiatives, so communities and the environment will be able to change and adapt for whatever the future holds.

Katie Jacobs is a Hanoi-based writer and environmental consultant.