Louisiana faces the highest relative rates of sea level rise in the world. As policy and funding debates rage over how to best restore and protect our coastal communities, local leaders also look for allies elsewhere.
On the other side of the globe, they've found sympathetic ears in Vietnam. That nation also has a below-sea-level region at the mouth of a great river. As in Louisiana, people in Vietnam who make a living from the land, or the water, need to be close to that land and water. But, they are more vulnerable to flooding, saltier water, decaying soil and stronger storms. These threats grow as sea levels rise. So, which parts to protect? And at what cost? In the Mekong delta region of Vietnam they're grappling with the same question we face here in Louisiana: whether to go with the flow of changing water, or try to control it.
The color green takes over when you travel the countryside of the Mekong River delta. Banana trees and rice fields stretch into the horizon. Long, slim boats bob on slow, brown rivers. Villages hold simple, spare homes, with palm-thatched roofs. The striking spires of Buddhist pagodas reach for blue sky. It’s relaxed, a far cry from Saigon, that striving, busy city.
But there are complexities and striving here, too, often involving water. A network of man-made canals deliver freshwater from the rivers, or give access south to the sea. And then gates and walls and levees control water throughout the delta.
Our guide through this landscape is Tim Gorman, a Ph.D. student from Cornell University studying big water engineering projects like levees and gates. Not from a technical perspective, but whether they work for people.
"You’ll find a mix of rice farming and shrimp farming, saltwater shrimp farming," Gorman says as breakfast arrives to our table.
It's fried eggs with fresh French bread. And thick Vietnamese coffee, with sweet condensed milk, made by a woman at her small cart.
"You could build best system in the world, you know, the best dykes or sluice gates or dams, and people might respond in unexpected ways," he says.
Unexpected ways that muck up the best-laid plans of governments or engineers. Planners and technicians know the physical world really well, and they come up with solutions, but people don’t respond in the way they expect them to — and often aren’t happy with these sort of interventions.
We get on motorbikes and head out for examples. Across a bridge, we wind down a side street that follows a body of water about 100 feet wide. It’s a man-made canal that goes to the sea.
Tim points to big cement columns that support a huge metal gate in the water, the Lang Tram gate. It's a salinity control sluice gate, built in the late 1990s, with the idea of blocking saltwater and protecting this canal, making it possible to grow rice all year.
Growing rice all year is a big deal. The communist government had sent people to the delta to farm rice after the war, but with the natural cycle of freshwater during rainy season, and salty seawater during dry season, they could really only grow enough for themselves.
In 1990s, Vietnam’s economy opened up. The gate, and others like it, were part of a major water control project to jumpstart the rural economy.
"This is one of their big-ticket projects, tens to hundreds of millions of dollars," says Gorman. It came with a clear message: We’ve spent a lot of money to keep saltwater out, and from here on out, you’re supposed to grow rice.
Officials banked on getting two or three crops of rice a year. The farmers would make more money. The nation would have more rice. Win-win, right? Except, by the time the gates were finished:
"People in this area had switched, for the most part, from rice cultivation to shrimp, saltwater shrimp cultivation, mostly black tiger prawn," says Gorman. "So they built these big structures with the idea of protecting all this land from saline intrusion, but by the time they built it people didn’t want to be protected from saline intrusion."
The farmers had turned their freshwater rice fields into saltwater shrimp ponds. They had adapted. “If we can’t keep the saltwater out, let’s use it!” Shrimp prices were good. Forget rice.
Two middle-aged women, Ut and Manh, sit in the shade nearby, selling soft drinks and snacks. With animated hands, they tell Gorman and local research assistant Khiem Nguyen what happened when the gates closed.
Ut and her husband were among the many people who couldn’t easily get saltwater for their shrimp ponds after the gates closed. So, in 2001, her husband’s friends dared him to protest. Gorman and Nguyen translate their story.
"At first it was four people who showed up at this gate to demand that the gate be opened, and then it quickly snowballed," Gorman says. A thousand, maybe 2,000 people gathered to pry open the gates. But they couldn’t. So they started digging around the gates, to let water in that way.
"They were sleeping there in shifts, three eight-hour shifts. So there would always be a group there, always awake," says Gorman. Ut and Manh say it was fun. They cooked food and sang songs, including the communist anthem from right after the war.
Gorman can’t emphasize enough how rare this is — any public display, much less mass protest — in communist Vietnam.
The protest went on for three or four days. A group of women formed a front line to protect the protesters from arrest. These women were called the "mothers of Vietnam." They had lost sons or husbands in the war on the revolutionary, communist side. They were unassailable; the police couldn’t pass them.
To keep the protesters from completely destroying the hugely expensive gate, Vietnam’s prime minister got on the phone from up north in Hanoi.
"They negotiated a deal where they would open up the gates and let the saltwater to flow back in. That satisfied the protesters and they dispersed. Since then the gate has been open, pretty much," says Gorman.
Better community engagement, that factors in the economic realities for locals, can prevent big, expensive projects like this gate from failing. And there will be more and more big projects, as the Mekong delta faces sea level rise. If the sea rises one meter — about 3 feet — the UN Refugee Agency says seven million people will have to move.
Professor Le Anh Tuan studies water management at the Dragon Institute in the delta. His focus is smaller pilot projects with local farmers. Can they store more rainwater for rice? Or do a mix a rice and shrimp, so they don't turn the soil too salty? His department gets farmers together.
"Usually we try to do it from bottom up. The farmers come to have their own discussions," says professor Tuan.
The scientists just listen and explain. Which options will entail which consequences? They try things, a little at a time, see the results. This approach doesn't assume any particular outcome is bad if it's what people want.
Saltwater may keep locals from growing more rice, or may even swallow their homes in a storm one day, but it’s also a valuable resource.
Riding along a coastal highway with Gorman, we stop short at a mansion under construction. It has a sort of family crest. The owners’ initials, with two shrimp and a pot of gold between them.
The wife is there, tells us about the home, but doesn’t want to give her name. It’s surrounded by a dozen or so big shrimp ponds, brown pits lined with thick black plastic, and fans to aerate them. It is a big operation, says Gorman.
"I’m guessing $100,000, few hundred thousand a year here, which is a massive massive income for Vietnam," he says.
We’re thinking new reality TV show: Shrimp Wives of the Mekong Delta. Gorman is thinking: climate change.
"Those ponds back there probably used to be forest. What’s happened with this boom is it’s made this land valuable," he says.
More valuable than leaving it as forest to protect the delta from storms, even though, in 1997, a typhoon killed thousands of people here. And storms like that are expected to increase.
There are other downsides: shrimp farming speeds up degradation of the land, turns the soil salty, and emits pollutants. Plus, it’s risky. People often go bust and lose their land when their shrimp fails, or the price drops.
Further inland, more construction. Not a house, but an excavator, digging a new shrimp pond. The woman on site, Sao Van, is in her traditional conical hat. She says her family has tried a few things on this land: rice, a little bit of shrimp. But now, they're going all in.
"They’re digging this out so they can do shrimp all year," Gorman explains.
Sao Van hopes the investment works and will fund her children’s education. They’ll likely leave the delta to go work in the city, and she wants that for them.
This is social hydrology at work, says Gorman. People here largely understand the risk of rising water and storms. They can take measures to adapt, like moving, gradually. Which might be more realistic than big promises and big protection.
"This traditional approach, fortress approach, build big infrastructure to keep the sea out… does that really make sense with climate change? To block that would be hundreds of billions, trillions to protect from severe long term sea level rise, would be nearly impossible," Gorman says.
So rather than chase and raise huge sums of money for the nearly impossible, if some of the coast is going to be under water anyway, why not see what happens? It's a radical idea, especially with the urgent action messaging we're used to hearing around climate change.
But some of the experts we met in the Mekong delta think of it this way: people are like water. They’ll take the path of least resistance. Listen to them, and you can create ground-up solutions that help them get where they want to go, rather than forcing them — like a leveed river — into an engineered route.
This report was made possible with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.