HANOI, Vietnam (AlertNet) – Memories of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Damrey, which struck coastal areas of northern and eastern Vietnam in 2005, are still fresh in Pham Thi Tuyen’s mind.
“The cyclone was (the most) powerful, dreadful and cataclysmic event I had ever witnessed in my life,” recalls the 37-year-old rice paddy farmer.
But Tuyen and other residents of rural Thanh Hoa province feel more confident about withstanding future storms, thanks to a project that takes advantage of the coastal protection offered by mangrove forests.
In the hours before Typhoon Damrey hit in September 2005, with winds of 100 km per hour (60 miles per hour), nearly 300,000 people were evacuated from the coastal areas of Thanh Hoa and Nam Dinh provinces.
“We had no choice but to flee for our lives to higher ground, leaving behind everything, including our cattle,” recalled Pham, who lives in the remote coastal community of Da Loc, in eastern Thanh Hoa province, about 175 km (110 miles) south of Hanoi, the capital.
A storm surge ripped apart 3.7 km (2.3 miles) of dykes in front of her village and inundated most of the district’s coastal communities, including agricultural fields, fruit orchards and cattle farms.
But in Da Loc community, one protective dyke, 1.7 km (1 mile) in length, survived the cyclone because it was buffered by thick mangrove forest.
“This was when we realised how stubbornly the mangroves can withstand tropical cyclones like Damrey,” said Vu Xuan Ngoc, a 33-year old fish farmer. “This was a key lesson nature taught us.”
Following Typhoon Damrey and an increasing number of cyclones that have affected Vietnam in the last five years, a number of international non-governmental organisations have begun working in disaster-prone coastal areas of Vietnam, building on evidence that mangroves can play a crucial role in reducing the destruction from cyclones.
A wave’s energy can be reduced by 75 percent if it passes through 200 metres of mangrove forest, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.
CARE International, a non-governmental organisation working in Vietnam, has launched a project to help Da Loc and other adjoining communes re-establish mangrove forests as “living storm barriers”, said Nguyen Viet Nghi, a senior official at the organisation’s Vietnam project office.
Quoting from a project report, Nguyen said that in Hau Loc district, where Da Loc is situated, the area of coastal land which has mangrove coverage has increased from 15 hectares (37 acres) to more than 250 hectares (620 acres).
The mangrove strip is now nearly 3 km (2 miles) long and 700 metres wide, with more than 2,000 plants per hectare. More than 6,000 people in the six project areas of Thanh Hoa province, along with a further 2,300 people in adjoining project areas, are now better protected against the effects of flooding as a result of the mangroves.
Da Loc is one of six coastal communities of Thanh Hoa province considered highly vulnerable to frequent storm surges, sea level rise, intrusion of salt water and drought, all of which are expected to become more serious threats as a result of changes in the climate and an increase in extreme weather events.
According to the Southern Institute for Water Resources Research in Vietnam, Vietnam has witnessed a 0.5 to 0.7 degrees Celsius rise in temperature over the past 50 years.
The institute says that rainfall has become more erratic and has increased by 10 percent in the northern part of the country, and that the sea level has risen by 20 cm (8 inches) over the same 50-year period, with an anticipated increase of a further 100 cm (39 inches) by 2100.
According to Nguyen, the rapid establishment of the mangrove plantations is due to the active participation of local communities. Members of the six communes in Hau Loc district collectively run mangrove nurseries, selecting and sourcing seeds recommended for the area’s varied local conditions, which can include muddy soils or sandy seabed.
Community members also prepare and plant the mangroves in the new areas. For example, where CARE has provided training, the community has taken responsibility for sustaining the mangrove plantations.
“Experiences in Vietnam’s coastal communes show the value and advantages of (communities) sharing control over key decisions and resources,” said Rolf Herno, CARE International’s coordinator for adaptation learning projects in Africa.
“This enables communities to be powerful actors in the fight against poverty and adaptation to climate change,” he added.
Farming is the major source of income for coastal communities such as Da Loc. Nevertheless, the mangrove forests are offering communities an opportunity to diversify their livelihoods and increase the number of ways they are able to earn an income.
The project has incorporated plans to help residents diversify their income sources, in recognition of the fact that people in coastal areas need different livelihood options to help them build up long-term resilience to the impacts of climate change.
Giving local people additional possibilities for income generation was also important to help reduce their reliance on the mangroves as a source of wood for fuel or sale, Nguyen said.
Bui Thi Din, chairwoman of Yen Loc village women’s union in Da Loc, said that due to the increasing mangrove coverage, coastal communities’ living standards had improved significantly as they were now able to earn additional income by catching and selling crabs and shrimp that live among the mangrove roots.
Pham Thi Tuyen said that the project has helped her appreciate the different ways in which mangroves can protect and support her. Previously, “I just knew it was simply a [mangrove] forest and had no idea what was in the forest,” she said.
“But now I know better how to find clamshells, small crabs, mussels, oysters and shrimps to generate additional income for my family from these forests,” she said.
Chief executive of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, Sam Bickersteth, said lessons learned from community-based adaptation interventions in Vietnam can be replicated in other parts of the world.
“There is a strong need to carry forward these proven experiences to other coastal areas of Asia-Pacific countries, Africa and other parts of the world where denudation of mangrove forests has exposed the countries of these regions to tropical cyclones and other climate change-induced risks,” he said.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan. . This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.