In 2006 a storm hit Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Binh Thuan Provinces in southwestern Vietnam. 47 people were killed and there was widespread structural damage to the region. It was the only major storm to hit Vietnam over a number of years.
Yet, this autumn alone there were three devastating storms.
It started with Typhoon Doksuri, the most powerful hurricane to hit the country in a decade. Fortunately, widespread evacuations in the Quang Binh and Ha Tinh areas of North Central Vietnam kept the fatalities to a minimum — there were only 11 deaths.
Then the next storm hit: Typhoon Khanun. The storm made landfall in Southern China and was downgraded to a category 2 hurricane by the time it moved into northern Vietnam. However, with parts of the north already reeling from flooding that had killed 81 people, the arrival of heavy rain only made things worse.
At the beginning of November, Typhoon Damrey battered coastal Nha Trang with winds of up to 135km per hour. It killed well over 60 people and caused widespread flooding — most notably further north in Hoi An. 2,000 homes collapsed and more than 80,000 were damaged.
At present the relief efforts in the wake of Damrey are ongoing. Local charities and NGOs, together with the Vietnam Disaster Management Authority, the likes of UNICEF, and aid and humanitarian assistance from Russia are all playing a part. As is often the case, those most affected live in the rural areas of Vietnam. In this instance, the provinces of Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen.
What’s Going On?
The problem with these storms is not only that they have increased in frequency, but also that they add to the growing list of environmental problems, some natural, some manmade, that are affecting Vietnam.
Perhaps the most serious and least documented is the health of the Mekong River. Flowing 4,630km through Southern China and Southeast Asia, the waterway is in deep crisis, caused in part by two large-scale hydroelectric dam projects in Laos; Don Sahong in the south and Xayaburi in the north.
Large dams trap nutrient-rich sediment and deprive downstream areas of vital nutrients. According to a recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Mekong Delta in Vietnam is already suffering from huge sediment loss; the river is presently running at 50 percent less than the regular flow. Unrestricted sand-mining in Cambodia and Vietnam has been the initial cause of the delta’s acute sediment shortage. This is being heightened by the dams. All meaning that the delta, which relies for its landmass on the natural flow of sediment down the river, is starting to shrink.
According to Marc Goichot, WWF’s lead coordinator for Water and Energy Security in the Greater Mekong, the Mekong Delta is crucial to the economic future of Vietnam. “It produces 50 percent of the country’s staple food crops and 90 percent of its rice exports,” he said in 2016. “It is one of the most productive and densely populated areas of Vietnam, home to 18 million people. Vietnam cannot lose the Delta.”
It Doesn’t Stop There
Another key issue is rising sea levels. Vietnam has over 3,000km of coastline and much of the country is either just above or at sea level. This, according to Mike Hoffman, a professor of entomology and executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture, presents a major environmental and food security challenge for the whole of Vietnam, and in particular the Mekong Delta.
Then there are growing problems with air pollution in Vietnam’s major cities, particularly Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, which frequently have readings that are two to five times above the ‘safe’ threshold for air quality set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). And as recent incidents, one in Ha Tinh, and another in West Lake in Hanoi are beginning to show, pollutants and factory waste are now affecting the general health of the country’s waterways and seas.
These are just a few of the environmental problems facing Vietnam. While the storms can’t be lessened, both in severity and frequency, and climate change can’t be reversed without the will of all the international community, the decline in the health of the Mekong, worsening air quality and pollution of the country’s seas and waterways can be prevented. But to do this requires an immense effort of will on the behalf of the authorities. Whether this exists is hard to tell.