Vietnam's slow emergency: 4 lessons learned from drought response

Men in a rice field in Vietnam. Photo by: Georgina Smith / CIAT / CC BY-NC-SA

“Slowly, slow slow.” That, according to World Vision Vietnam national humanitarian and emergency affairs coordinator Duong Van Le, is the way a crippling drought snuck in to wreak havoc on the Mekong Delta from late 2015 to early 2016.

Vietnam is currently recovering from this disaster, its worst drought in nearly 100 years, caused in part by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific known as El Niño. As a result, more than 400,000 hectares of crops were affected with varying degrees of productivity loss, and 25,900 hectares weren’t planted at all, according to an April report from the United Nations.

The drought and compounding effects — such as invading salt water further up the country’s vast maze of rivers — affected the livelihoods of nearly 2 million smallholder farmers and other, mainly poor, households dependent on the delta’s freshwater for drinking and irrigation.

The majority of donors and aid organizations Devex spoke to noted the trickiness of addressing the prolonged drought — because it affected such a large swathe of the agriculture-dependent country, for one, but mostly thanks to its slow onset nature and the way it preyed on already poverty-stricken populations in the southern region known as Vietnam’s rice bowl.

Many of those involved in funding or emergency response to the drought, including the World Bank and Plan International, used the term “wake-up call” to describe the way the disaster affected vulnerable communities — as well as how it highlighted aid organizations’ and the Vietnamese government’s own shortcomings to address what many climate experts are calling the new normal.

Now, after El Niño’s official end and well into recovery from the devastating drought, development professionals in Vietnam are ruminating about how the lower-middle-income country can improve the link between humanitarian aid and development assistance, why local politics are crucial in future climate change response, and what role rice will play in Vietnam’s future.

1. Slow onset disasters can still fall through the cracks.

The uniqueness of a slow onset disaster — such as drought or salinization — makes it tough to respond for many reasons, according to Mizuho Okimoto-Kaewtathip, head of emergency programs for Vietnam UNICEF, which in November signed a partnership agreement of $125,000 to improve drinking water safety and hygiene practices among 30,000 of the most vulnerable people in six provinces.

The traditional methods of monitoring the impact of a disaster such as flooding or typhoons — through agricultural damage and roads and schools affected, for example — don’t apply to drought. Indicators such as nutrition and water, hygiene and sanitation must be monitored closely as well, Okimoto-Kaewtathip told Devex, adding they she’d like to see a stronger government focus on human impact of slow onset disasters.

Plan International’s Olle Castell, disaster risk manager in Asia, echoed the need for more apt indicators to prompt a quicker drought response.

“We didn’t have clear triggers, which is often the case for droughts,” he said. “It’s a creeping type of emergency, a frog in a hot pot. It’s when you slowly turn up the heat but don’t know when to jump … that’s what this drought was.”

Castell referenced East Timor, when the drought in early 2016 reached such dire points — of people lacking clean drinking water and rising risks of acute outbreaks of waterborne disease — that Plan was able to offer short-term intervention to distribute clean water.

The triggers for humanitarian response are based on situations where people’s live and dignities are immediately threatened. The context of El Niño in Vietnam and in many countries in Asia, Castell said, never really reached that point — although several INGOs, such as World Vision and the Vietnam Red Cross, offered short-term support in the form of clean drinking water and food aid in many of the country’s hardest hit provinces.

“Poor people started to eat the seeds they were going to plant for the next season,” he said. “They’re plunged back into poverty, but it’s not that they were about to die within a week.”

It’s likely time to revise and revisit the triggers and define additional types of humanitarian crises, Castell said. Establishing community-level baseline indicators such as access to safe water, how many meals people are eating per day, what type of food they have in their meals and how many seeds they have for the next harvesting season could help identify the most vulnerable groups and allow quicker response to a disaster such as a drought, although Castell hopes the global community comes together to discuss other ideas.

Investing millions of dollars to lift people out of poverty and having them drawn back in is a humanitarian crisis, slow onset or not, Castell said: “Maybe we need to have a narrative, an argument for why donors should put money to that type of crisis.”

2. Politics are at play — at a dizzying number of levels.

It’s always politically sensitive for a country to request monetary support or to announce that it can’t feed its population. In the case of the latest El Niño, many governments in Asia didn’t ask for help, or didn’t ask soon enough, Castell said.

In April, the government of Vietnam, the United Nations and partners did appeal to the international community to support a$48.5 million emergency response plan to address the worsening drought. But if the government doesn’t request international assistance, it’s challenging to secure the funding at the volume required to respond, Castell said.

“We have some flexible funding, but to meet the scale of what we were facing … we were frustrated, we had intentions and things we could do, but we didn’t have donors,” he told Devex of Plan’s work throughout Asia.

Geopolitics are also afoot, considering the vast interconnectivity of the Mekong River, which snakes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before Vietnam. Consequently, Vietnam is impacted by continued upstream development like hydropower infrastructure in China and Laos and irrigation projects in Cambodia.

Contrary to popular opinion, the construction of hydropower dams has a heavier impact on sediment load and fish catch than on water supply, according to a 2015 Mekong Delta Study-Impact Assessment Report. But irrespective of what happens upstream, Vietnam is impacted in general by climate change and must develop strong strategies at a national level, said Anjali Acharya, environment sector coordinator for the World Bank in Vietnam, which in July pledged $310 million to help nine provinces in the Mekong Delta combat adverse weather conditions that have led to saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion and flooding.

An often overlooked but key factor is development impact within Vietnam, she added: The Mekong delta is interconnected hydrologically, so the decisions one province makes affects all the others. It’s important to ask who is growing what, where and how? Groundwater extraction in one community can cause land subsidence or drain aquifers elsewhere, for example. These are “small but significant issues, but they are not the sexy topics,” she said.

“We need to make sure that people over here start transitioning to an agricultural brackish zone … to create infrastructure here to protect the real freshwater zone,” Acharya said, pointing to provinces on a map of the delta hanging in her office. “In the upper delta we need to look at measures to improve flood retention.”

Integrated planning — and focusing far less on politics and more on land suitability — is the way to get there, Acharya said.

3. It’s no longer all about rice.

While it’s not fair to say rice isn’t the future of Vietnam, it’s true the staple won’t continue to play the same role for the world's third-largest rice exporter moving forward. The country produced a record 45.2 million tons of paddy in 2015, a number FAO forecasted in July will be down in 2016, right along with rice exports due to tighter export availabilities and reduced demand.

“What is for sure is that the issue of high value crops is one that is most important right now,” World Bank Vietnam country director Ousmane Dione told Devex.

In 2015, agriculture provided livelihoods to around 70 percent of the population, according to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. But the country’s reliance on outdated agricultural practices — such as growing three rice crops annually in certain regions — has to change to make room for climate smarter, salt tolerant crops, especially when drought continues to loom.

The quality of rice Vietnam produces also plays a role in the consideration of other crop varieties, U.S. Agency for International Development Vietnam Country Director Michael Greene told Devex.

Vietnam’s market niche is low quality rice, which the country exports to places such as Indonesia, China and the Philippines — markets that are quite “fully saturated,” Green said.

Now, there is a significant movement within the government to look at agricultural restructuring and to move toward identifying varieties of crops that adapt to the water context, rather than changing the water context to suit outdated directives.

“You have a certain land use allocated by government … a ‘this area must grow rice’ legacy of the post [Vietnam] war era, when a lot of the focus was — for good reason — on food security,” Acharya told Devex.

This is slowly changing, she noted: “If there is repeated saline intrusion coming, why not look toward saline tolerant varieties of cropping?”

4. Climate change means more of this. But who’s in charge?

Ordinary drought? Climate change induced drought? El Niño induced drought?

“We don’t know,” Castell said. “But it’s likely that what we saw [in Vietnam] is the new normal,” he said, adding that the interval between droughts is likely going to narrow.

“The logic of humanitarian intervention where we bring clean water in tankers for three months or three weeks, it might help the urgent situation, but it doesn’t help the community in the next year,” he told Devex.

This is where climate adaptation, especially working with young people who will be the future leaders on these issues, becomes paramount, he said. Plan currently focuses on education as a platform to raise awareness about climate change, and stresses the importance of including adaptation in curriculum, such as new forms of irrigation, new types of seeds and plant awareness.

It’s also a matter of who is in charge of drought response. OCHA fostered much of the communication at the regional level for El Niño response in Asia, setting up meetings with local CSOs and other U.N. organizations. But for future emergencies, “should a more development oriented organization be coordinating this dialogue?” Castell asked.

“They have the long-term perspective, understand that this is something that might happen every year and the kind of donor commitments on board to address it,” he added. “Internally, it would be interesting to have that conversation. Who is best positioned?”

Creating a more successful response is also an issue of stronger institutional mandates at the provincial and communal level, Acharya noted. Within a province in Vietnam there might be both a department of natural resources and a department of agriculture and rural development, but who informs on the drought? How do they put together a cohesive strategy?

“Your shrimp pond has a salinity level of XYZ when it should be at ABC. What are your options?” Acharya said. “We need to make sure there is a clear pathway for communities to reach out to get that advice and get that relief that they need.”

Those medium-to-long-term strategies are just as important as immediate relief, she added, and in the future will become even more zeroed in on equipping communities with the tools, knowledge and mechanism to adjust to a new normal.

In the meantime, Castell emphasized the need to continue sharing lessons learned among the global development community.

“I think everyone would agree that it should be happening, but somehow when El Niño finally was declared over, which happened in March or April, that discussion started to fade out,” he said of best practices moving forward. “We are forgetting about it a bit too early. Now is a good moment to stop and reflect what happened and how.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

Join the Discussion