Mekong Delta: The forest is returning

The forest is returning to the Mekong Delta

The raised bamboo walkway is only half a metre wide. With every step taken it squeaks and sways a little. Thach Soal walks along the wooden path and points to the ground. "Until 1992 there were houses here," the 66-year-old farmer says, "but they were destroyed in a heavy storm."

Nothing is left to show that once there were buildings here. Instead a thick mangrove forest now grows here, with plants up to two metres high. Their fan-like roots have burrowed deep into the ground. The knee-high walkway is meant to ensure that the villagers do not damage the roots on their way to the sea.

The village of Au Tho B in Viet Nam's Mekong Delta is the site of a field experiment. The idea is that the mangroves will stop the advancing sea and protect the land that lies behind them. National and local authorities together with the inhabitants of the coastal villages affected by the encroaching sea are involved in the project. The region is very severely threatened by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has even identified Viet Nam as one of the worst affected of all countries.

Threatened by climate change

Vast areas of the Mekong Delta lie less than one metre above sea level. The rising sea level and the increasing frequency of extreme weather are a growing threat for the region. If sea water floods the fields at high tide or in a storm, they cannot be used for agriculture for years afterwards. In this part of Viet Nam, an important area for growing rice and the country's third-biggest economic region, that is a serious problem. The population density is also high: about one fifth of the country's entire population, roughly 17 million people, lives here.

The protective mangroves often used to end up as firewood. Viet Nam's authorities have long been aware of the problem. They began replanting coastal mangrove forests that had been destroyed back in the 1990s. In Au Tho B there was nothing left back then of the natural forest that had once covered almost the entire coastline in this part of Viet Nam. However, the newly planted mangroves did not thrive. "Back then the people did not give any thought to the environment," says Thach Soal. Apparently many people chopped down the mangroves for firewood or to sell the wood in the market, even though it was forbidden. As a result the mangrove forest did not grow thickly and was not really able to hold back the constantly advancing sea.

German activities

Because of that, since 2011, the German development cooperation programme has taken a different approach: the local people are directly involved in managing the mangroves. The inhabitants of the coastal villages that are involved in the reafforestation have privileged access to the mangrove forest. They are the only ones allowed to collect dead wood and to catch crabs, fish and other sea creatures. At the same time this is the least expensive way to manage the forest.

In Au Tho B this approach has clearly worked: "We now understand that we benefit when we protect the forest together, so we do it of our own accord," says Thach Soal, who – like many farmers in the region – grows onions and chilli peppers among other crops in his fields. He is the spokesperson for a group that GIZ helped found in order to organise the management of the mangrove forests. The group is open to all the people living in the village. Anyone interested in becoming a member does, however, need to give an undertaking to attend the regular meetings and to keep the rules for protecting the mangroves.

Results

"Since the project began our income has risen by about 60 per cent," says Thach Soal. The money earned by selling fish and crabs, and wood collected in the forest has increased considerably. The challenges of climate change will remain for some time to come. Although, as Thach Soal tells us, the region has not experienced a bad storm since 1997, heavy flooding continues to occur.

However, the farmers now worry much less about saltwater getting into their fields and causing severe damage to the soil. "Sometimes we hear the waves beating against the mangroves at night – they’re really loud. But we are no longer afraid of the water."