Protecting vulnerable communities and the ecosystems they rely on in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Together with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Munich Re and ERGO started an initiative on ecosystem-based climate change adaptation in Vietnam in 2019, as part of their overarching approach, “Tackling Climate Change Together” (TCCT). The project aims to reforest mangroves in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Whilst also ensuring the enhancement of livelihood opportunities and generation of alternative income streams for exposed and vulnerable communities that heavily depend on the natural resources of both the forest areas as well as its vicinity.

Image: Local fisherman in Soc Trang preparing his nets to sustain his livelihood. Copyright © GIZ

Increasing pressure on mangrove ecosystems

Around 50 percent of the world’s mangrove forests have been irreversibly destroyed in the past decades through deforestation, abuse and exploitation. In Vietnam and upstream countries, unsustainable cropping practices, the expansion of resource-intensive aquaculture as well as increased infrastructure development is heavily affecting natural resources along the coastlines. Together with land subsidence and rising sea levels, this puts increasing pressure on the fragile mangrove ecosystems.

Image: The breakwater fences are made of bamboo poles. © GIZ

The loss of forest along the coast is a particularly sensitive issue. This green belt was once a stabilizing force across the coasts, reducing the risk of floods and other hazards. Erosion of entire tidal mudflats leave deep scours and steep embankments, making natural mangrove resettling impossible and needing to be supported through additional measures. Dyke breaches and flooding from the missing mangrove belt threaten the densely populated areas behind them.

The mangrove belt between water and land is shrinking from two sides (the scientific community calls this phenomenon “coastal squeeze”). From the land side, farmers want to claim the valuable forest grounds for farming and shrimp ponds. Further stress comes from irrigation canals that let water flow in two directions: from the Mekong River into the rice paddies and the sea, and from the sea into the shrimp and fishponds on land. Where the canals discharge into the sea, erosion often occurs. Such erosion – the loss of land to the sea – is the main threat for mangroves from the sea, and a huge challenge for the population of the coast: erosion of up to 50 meters per year in some areas means that without intervention, houses that lie 500 meters from the sea today would be at the coastline in ten years.

Our reforestation efforts use nature-based solutions by building bamboo breakwater fences that support mudflat aggregation for a renewed plantation of mangrove seedlings. By this contribution to restoring the ecosystem, we also strive to secure the livelihood for many people.

Pandemic affects project implementation

For the past months, the COVID-19 pandemic had Vietnam in its grip. Strict lockdowns imposed were affecting the project’s implementation in the partner provinces of the Mekong Delta. At the outset of the project , before COVID-19 had unfolded its impact on people and economies worldwide, important strides towards securing partner commitment and involvement of local beneficiaries were already being made.

The so-called co-management process, where local communities share responsibility with local authorities to manage natural resources, had to be carefully planned and coordinated. This consultation process between stakeholders will accompany the project over its full duration since it carries fundamental implications on the overall governance system.

Equally, physical site assessments and monitoring of the mangrove forest could be concluded for one of two planned planting sites. Local government and project staff agreed on the design of a breakwater fence. This fence is built with locally sourced bamboo — an ideal nature-based solution that helps minimize the impact on-site and fosters mud deposition for mangrove seedlings.

Mr. Tran Tri Dung and Mrs. Lam Thi Tre are farmers in the location of the planned afforestation activities in Soc Trang Province. They state,

“This season we planted bitter melons on an area of about 1,000 m2 – with a total production of about 3 tons of bitter melons, we could only sell 500 kg so far because the products could not be transported due to the lockdown. We have been giving the leftovers to our neighbours and anyone passing by. We do not sell locally because local people likewise cannot work or sell their own produce at the moment. Therefore, they do not have money to purchase from us. We give them what we own, and they give us what they have in turn. We feed our animals, a goat and a cow with cucumbers and other vegetables.”

While COVID-19 has posed many challenges for the implementation of projects globally, it has also illustrated the extreme vulnerabilities of communities such as the beneficiaries of our efforts in Vietnam. The Delta variant of Covid-19 has been spreading rapidly and huge efforts were undertaken to curb the spread. This is particularly difficult in a country with a health system still under development and with strained resources. Vietnam had closed its international borders very early on and continued to maintain an extremely cautious approach towards the pandemic, including strict curfews and lockdowns. Market linkages are broken or interrupted, fishermen and farmers alike struggle to sell their produce and can only sell locally, whereas prices for the consumers have risen sharply.

Workers plant mangrove seedlings on the Mekong coast. © GIZ

Finally, at the end of September this year, a fortunate window of opportunity did arise for the mangrove project. After the strict COVID measures showed first effects, the Vietnamese government eased the freedom of movement for the Mekong Delta and rehabilitation could start at the first project site. Local farmers and fishermen could be hired to build the so-called T-Fences (an abbreviated form of referring to the nature-based breakwater fences), a very labor- intensive work. First, the three-meter-long bamboo poles have to be pulled through the at times head-high breakwater. Then, two workers set them up and push them into the mud. Next, the local workers started planting the mangrove seedlings. Before planting, ropes were spanned from one side to the other, in order to ensure that the seedlings will be distributed evenly on the planting area of 17.5 ha. By the end of November, the plantation of almost 100,000 mangrove seedlings and 18,000 young mangrove plants in Soc Trang had been completed.

Next step: expansion to second site

In 2022, the project team will expand the efforts to a second site in the Mekong Delta, aiming to double the impact already achieved in 2021 in terms of the reforested area and involved local households. Prior to the final selection of the second province, a physical site assessment will be carried out to ensure the optimal conditions for a successful reforestation, by which the project aims to support people and nature in strengthening their resilience against the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the co-management and livelihood models will build on, support and promote existing local structures and their engagement with and knowledge of mangroves. Waiting for the COVID impact to ease, co-management activities are already being planned with local stakeholders in Soc Trang.

Image: Construction of bamboo fences. Copyright © GIZ

The pandemic itself has only further highlighted the need for nature-based solutions and initiatives such as those promoted by the TCCT Initiative. It has illuminated the acute vulnerabilities of these communities and how much support is needed to rehabilitate mangroves to allow for communities, environment and individuals to flourish. As such, while this pandemic has created challenges for the implementation of the project it has also put a spotlight on how much progress can be made through building the T-Fences and their potential benefits.