The Vietnamese Government’s pro- active approach to disaster prevention is an ideal model that should be followed by her neighbors.
By: Vanessa Uy
Over the past 30 years, climate disasters like floods, droughts and hurricanes have increased three- fold. This trend concerns Vietnam, which climatologists had found out to be one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters. The reason for this is that most of the Vietnamese population and agricultural industries are cited in coastal areas that are only a few feet above sea level.
In 1994, Vietnam’s Red Cross adapted a pro-active approach to against storm surges by launching a program of mangrove tree reforestation and management. Existing mangrove forests in parts of Vietnam are well known for their ability to protect low lying rice fields against tidal surges caused by increasingly powerful storms. The root complexes of these mangrove trees buffers the forces exerted by storm waves and extend the useful lives of the earthen dikes that for years served as scant protection to these vital agricultural areas.
Mangrove tree reforestation also benefits Vietnam’s fishing industry. The fishes, shrimps, prawns, and crabs that populate the coastal areas now have an increased number of secure spawning areas to rear their young. Despite these benefits, mangrove roots can easily be damaged by careless fishing practices. So mangrove fields should be designated as a no fishing zone. Illegal harvesting of mangrove trees for firewood and charcoal production is also a problem. Since Vietnam has a very long coastline, the program still has quite a long way to go in order for all coastal communities to reap the benefits and receive increased protection against storm surges.
Despite the programs documented successes, there was no mention of the effects of defoliants used by U.S. Armed Forces back in the late 1960’s. Chemical defoliants like “agent- orange” were used to reveal the camouflaged positions of the communist rebel fighters. In 1975, the publication of the three- year investigation of the 17-member National Academy of Science’s Committee on the Effects of Herbicides in Vietnam released their report in February of that year. Their major conclusions: The military use of herbicides may have had ill effects on the human population of the then South Vietnam and inflicted long-term damage on the country’s environment and supplies of timber. The “Committee’s” findings on the effects on the local vegetation were considerably more definite in comparison to the effects on human health. Coastal mangrove forests “suffered greater damage than any other type of vegetation.” Even where they were sprayed only once, they were destroyed. Time for total recovery of the mangrove forests: “at least 100 years.”
Thirty years on, Vietnam’s mangrove forests seems to be thriving. To what extent does the past herbicide and defoliant use affect the mangrove reforestation program, nobody knows? Maybe, we just got lucky that mangrove forests are more resilient than we thought they are.