Delta Blues Part 3: Better Together

Feb 5, 2015

Boat on the river in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

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, Louisiana has found sympathetic ears in Vietnam. That nation also has a below-sea-level region at the mouth of a great river. Increased conversation and meetings aim to find out how shared geography might lead to shared solutions. 

There’s a lot of talk about climate change. Sometimes seemingly all talk. But when two places are actively dealing with similar issues, flying 9,000 miles to talk may be worth it.

A dozen or so Vietnamese government and NGO leaders came to Louisiana recently to find out. Their landscape connection is obvious from the first photo. 

"This is a nature preserve in upper Mekong," Jerome Zeringue says to the group, narrating a slideshow. Zeringue has served on Louisiana state and local coastal agencies. He visited Vietnam’s delta in 2013.

"Coulda sworn I was in lower Dulac or Montegut where I’m from, and it was striking the similarities. But also what’s unfortunate is the striking similarities in the threats," Zeringue says.

Increased rain, rising seas, and saltwater intrusion threaten roadways, long-term, along Louisiana's coast.
Credit Aubrey Edwards

Sea level rise, a changing mix of saltwater and freshwater. The hope is to make use of shared experience. Dr. Robert Twilley directs Louisiana Sea Grant. He translates academic research for local communities.

"We want to hear from you how our experience can help you," Twilley says to the delegation from Vietnam.

Vietnamese officials and NGO leaders tour Louisiana wetlands, October 2014.
Credit Coastal Resources Center, University of Rhode Island

"Much of what we’re dealing with is changing human behavior. Since Katrina, we’ve had four hurricanes, two floods, and an oil spill. I think a large part of our institutional memory is how to deal with communities under crisis."

Good crisis response delivers what people need to get back on their feet, fast. Everything from ice to low-interest loans. But then you have to talk about the long-term reality of where they live.

"So communities will understand exactly what they face in sea level rise," Twilley continues. 

This immediately strikes a chord. From a coastal province in Vietnam, Le Minh Duc describes his fishing community, through a translator.

Children in Mekong Delta.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

He says it’s not like the government can move everyone to a safer place tomorrow. And the risk grows gradually, anyway. So, how can a Vietnamese official like himself tell people to keep fishing and live on the coast for now? But also make it clear that they might have to move one day? How can he do this without making people anxious? 

"I wish I knew the answer," Twilley says. "But I’ll share with you my feelings right now about that question. When we translate the risk of climate change, people will listen if they understand what it means to them, number one, and second that there’s a discussion of what they can do to respond in the timeframe that the impact is to happen."

It’s a message of transition over decades and generations, Twilley says. Plus…

"Scare tactics don’t work."

You need trust to deliver bad news, even slow-moving bad news. You get that, he says, with “honest brokers.” Those are people known in the community, who can also help craft the message. One of these “honest brokers” in Louisiana is Sandy Nguyen. We showed her some photos of the Mekong delta.

“Do their shrimp look like ours? I would love to see that," she says.

Shrimp farmed in the Mekong Delta.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

She immediately wanted to go talk to people there. She’s been only once, years ago, on her honeymoon. Long before she started her nonprofit Coastal Communities Consulting.

Nguyen is part of south Louisiana’s large Vietnamese-American community. She came here in 1979 as a child, her family seeking refuge after the Vietnam War. Now, she’s married to a shrimp boat captain, and spends her days helping fishermen from a storefront in a largely Vietnamese-American neighborhood.

We talk about a delta dilemma in Vietnam, how the government wants to make some areas all freshwater, others all saltwater. To her it sounds like…

"What’s going on with the state now. Lot of controversy, back and forth."

Because part of Louisiana’s Master Plan to save the coast will flood salty areas with freshwater. That means fish, shrimp and oysters are going to move.

"My whole thing is making sure our rural communities and especially our fishermen understand and are updated on the process," Nguyen says. 

She’s had parts of the state’s plan simplified, and translated into Vietnamese. And when Miss Sandy gives these families something, they know it’s important. She says many didn’t know the state had a plan. And most support restoring coastal marsh. They just need to know how to work around it.

"I don’t think anybody knows the water like the fishermen do. They know everything. But the fisherman is never taken seriously, they’re always in the way. Well they’re in the way because they don’t know!" she says. 

Sandy Nguyen would like more communication with brokers like her. And to see fishermen’s needs considered — to minimize impact on their business, or compensate them as they adapt.

Dr. Brian Marks of Louisiana State University.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

This need for a two-way flow of ideas and information applies globally, too. Dr. Brian J. Marks is assistant professor of geography at LSU. He was there to meet the visiting delegates from Vietnam when they stopped in Baton Rouge, and even greeted them in their own language.

Marks grew up along Louisiana bayous, near Houma. His Ph.D. research was on the Mekong. He sees parallels in the two places’ need for affordable solutions, that take into account socio-economic diversity.  

“You can build tall sea walls, you can build tall dikes, you can do what the Dutch did — but the Dutch have a lot of money, and they have a small urbanized population to protect. Places like South Louisiana, we're more spread out, we don't have the same amount of resources, and we're in some ways more vulnerable,” Marks says.

Marks describes the Dutch solution as sort of the Rolls-Royce of water management. Louisiana is more working on an installment plan for a Chevy truck.

“We are facing such serious challenges to fund a $50 billion, 50-year master plan," he says. 

And that mirrors other places with Deltas and vulnerable populations.

"What is Bangladesh going to do? What is Egypt going to do? What is Vietnam going to do?” he asks. 

In Ho Chi Minh City, Dr. Ho Long Phi of Vietnam University has talked to Dutch and Louisiana officials, not to mention others. And he likes some of the ideas. But he can’t just go to migrants on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and say, hey, don’t build your house on the low lying floodplain. Or to farmers, don’t build that dike. You have to offer them something first, before you ask for something.

“We have to at least create something to protect them at the minimum level," Dr. Phi says. 

Once basic flood protection is in place, then maybe you can ask for bigger changes, like building higher density, greener housing. Or at the household level, rooftop storm-water collection tanks.

An apartment with green design in Ho Chi Minh City's 3rd District
Credit Jesse Hardman

“Then we encourage them to build up themselves some water tank, for their domestic use and also to work as a retention space for the rainfall,” he says. 

Louisiana State professor and landscape architect Elizabeth Mossop couldn’t agree more.

"Small scale measures to keep water out of the storm water system," Mossop says. 

Ho Chi Minh City’s been seeing crazy rainfall, episodes of four inches in 3 hours. New Orleans can get an inch or two in an hour. Citizens in both places can help manage that water.

“You can just give people rain barrels, just give them for free. Give people some kind of financial break if you make changes on your site, maybe you won’t have to pay as much,” she says. 

Both places need a mix of technical and behavioral solutions. Mossop supports a New Orleans zoning ordinance that forces real estate developers to consider water retention. She notes that some local elementary schools are teaching about water management; that’s cultural, generational change. And, she says, you need city-level advocates, like New Orleans City council member Latoya Cantrell.

“So if we want to continue to live in the city of New Orleans, and make it a safe environment for people, then we have to get serious” Cantrell says. 

New Orleans City Councilmember Latoya Cantrell speaking with fellow Councilmember Susan Guidry on a water management field trip in Austin, Texas
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

She was speaking after viewing some serious water management efforts in Austin, Texas. Cantrell is indeed a community broker in New Orleans. She’s already advocating for rain gardens around the city.

“I have a vacant, overgrown, blighted lot in back of me. So I'm fired up. And I'm going to make sure this vacant lot can help me with storm management,” she says. 

Design that vacant lot to absorb extra water in this soggy delta landscape. Then launch a city-wide program setting aside hundreds of vacant lots for the task. If New Orleans pulls it off, that little piece of policy could go up on a sort of global bulletin board.

Glenn Ricci is with the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island. He set up the Vietnamese visit to Louisiana.

"It’s people seeing their own story back home, but through a different lens. Often we look at our own backyard, we have too much history and bias. So when we look at other people's stories we start seeing other angles,” Ricci says.

And yes, a few days of talking is just one step toward action. But by curating the conversation toward targeted, meaningful insights, scholars and leaders can shape projects at home in subtle or specific ways.

"Seeing similarities and creating a vision and listening to each other. It’s almost too simple. Like making an apple pie. Everyone has their own little recipe, but they’re all basically the same,” says Ricci.

Communities already seeing the effects of sea level rise, super storms and flooding are the ones already testing their recipes to adapt. And so swapping those recipes globally can lead to better outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable places. Like the Mississippi and the Mekong river deltas.

Lunch of fish stew in the Mekong Delta
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

Travel for the series made possible by Solutions Journalism Network. WWNO's Coastal Desk gets support from the Walton Family Foundation, Kabacoff Family Foundation and Greater New Orleans Foundation.