UN expert says Vietnam needs plan B to combat climate change

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A girl digs in the sand for water in Gia Lai Province, located in Vietnam's Central Highlands, during the ongoing spell of record breaking heat

Vietnam has witnessed extreme weather of late and the government must act faster with determination to protect its people, says a UN climate change expert.

Koos Neefjes, climate change policy advisor of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Vietnam, referred to the worst hailstorm ever recorded in Vietnam which injured 25 people and destroyed more than 8,100 houses in the northern province of Lao Cai on March 27 and the ongoing drought that has been plaguing the central and southern regions for months, as examples of the extreme climate conditions Vietnam has been enduring.

Neefjes was quoted as saying in an April 14 Tuoi Tre (Youth) report that Vietnam is experiencing more heavy downpours, along with harsher droughts, while the rising sea level threatens for example Can Tho, the Mekong Delta's major city.

"The country must increase its efforts to respond to climatic extremes even further as many of these extremes are getting worse," he told Thanh Nien News.

He also said Vietnam needs to prioritize climate change responses because it cannot protect every part at the same time, because resources are limited.

He compared Ho Chi Minh City and Ben Tre, a poor coastal province in the Mekong Delta which is suffering from saline water intrusion, saying that the country must choose what to protect first and with most investment: rice fields or large factories.

Such decisions will require assessment of industries' relative economic worth.

"Vietnam's government is putting a little everywhere, but that does not guarantee it will maximize protection and strengthening of the resilience of people, communities and businesses," Neefjes said.

He said adapting to climate change will require different measures in different areas, such as the relocation of certain coastal communities, and some of those areas can be used for mangrove forests.

Many countries are starting to make these kinds of tough choices, including his native Holland, which is known for its dykes but which has nevertheless had to leave some areas to flood, Neefjes explained.

The UNDP is helping Vietnam identify its most vulnerable communities, including some where families and villages may have to be relocated.

He said once people are resettled with most of them bound to be farmers there is a need to support them with alternative ways to make a living because there will often not be enough land available for agriculture.

Such plans may have to include training and low interest loans to start businesses, and create opportunities for them to enjoy better lives than before.

Children should receive good education including computer training so they may find jobs more lucrative than farming when they grow up, he said.

Neefjes also said Vietnam needs to change its agricultural practices to limit damages associated with climate change.

The government needs to consider all potential risks in order to properly advise its farmers, he said, citing an example of cultivation in the northern mountainous region, which is cool enough for berries or grapes but that those crops can easily be destroyed by even a slight hailstorm, let alone one like the recent Lao Cai storm. Potatoes, on the other hand, may survive hailstorms better.

Farmers in the Mekong Delta, the country's rice basket, must be warned about worsening droughts in the future and may have to reduce their annual rice crops from three to two, or to switch to different crops that require less water, he said.

He added that droughts such in the south-central provinces of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan will render fish farming unadvisable, unless a sustainable water source is available.

Neefjes said every government agency and resident needs to consider the effects of climate change to come up with economic alternatives to how things have traditionally been done.

He said developed governments in the world have signed agreements that provide support to countries that are hit hardest by climate change, and that Vietnam has already received many cheap loans and grants.

But he also noted that there is not yet much evidence to suggest that the climate change money is reaching the communities where it is needed most.

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