A Vietnamese village’s uncertain future

Tran Thi Kim Lien reports on the threats to the communities of her childhood.

In one study in my hometown – a mountainous area in North Central Region of Vietnam, we considered Huong Lam commune – one of the vulnerable areas of climate change in Ha Tinh province. The commune is home to 6,673 people in 1,636 households with an average population density of 400 people/km2. Their main livelihood activities are agriculture, small industries, trades and services. Our study found that this commune faces risk from floods, droughts, cold and storms.

The most immediate impact of drought is a reduction and even loss in crop production (paddy rice, peanut, maize, etc.) due to inadequate and poorly distributed rainfall. Another severe impact of droughts is water shortages (Overseas Development Institute, 1997 PDF). Lower pasture production from droughts may also decrease fodder supplies. With little land available, the people cannot reduce risk through diversification (Beckman, 2011). The unusual dry conditions since the end of 2015 (allied with El Niño) have led to severe droughts around the country (IFRC, 2016).

The worst agricultural losses are from floods that arrive with typhoons. Floods destroy both standing crops (paddy rice and fruit trees) and stored food. They also increase fungal infections that destroy seeds for the next planting. Floods of 2-3 days cause serious health problems for people (in particular, the disabled and elderly) who live in poor conditions with limited food sources, polluted water sources, and poor sanitation (Few, Ahern, Matthies, & Kovats, 2004 PDF).

The author standing on a road that nearly flooded after torrential rains raised the river level by 2m.
The author standing on a road that nearly flooded after torrential rains raised river levels by 2m.

The Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment projects that medium emissions climate change scenarios (B2) will increase annual rainfall by 2-7 percent by 2100, with less rain in the dry season and more in the rainy season. Maximum daily rainfall may double in the North Central zones (including in Ha Tinh). Typhoons can uproot crops, damage trees, and destroy housing and animal shelters (Few, Ahern, Matthies, & Kovats, 2004). Climate change will change the intensity, frequency and (un)predictability of storms. In Ha Tinh, storms that normally occur from August to October are sometimes showing up in April, causing greater damage due to their unpredictable frequency and intensity.

The people of Huong Lam will not find it easy to adapt.


Tran Thi Kim Lien [email] holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Forest Science and Management from Vietnam and Australia, respectively. After earning her first degree, she spent 13 years working in forestry and rural development in North Central Vietnam. Her Masters degree has widened her knowledge to include environmental management and climate change adaptation. She now focuses on helping local people understand their vulnerabilities and adapt to climate change.

The beach that ate Silicon Valley

Jennifer LaForce has noticed that the residents and workers of Silicon Vally treat climate change like they treat homelessness — not their problem.

Silicon Valley, California. You can admire; you can hate it. Most of the world’s leading edge technology either comes from here or is made usable here. Tucked into the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay, you will find an old quai in the tiny towns of Alviso and Milpitas [now best seen at a local park]. Here the bay is shallow: 85 percent of the water is less than 30 feet deep. Circulation depends on strong tidal action, river inflow, winds and storms. From a wildlife perspective, the salt marshes are highly productive and very valuable. When the tide is high, many fish species forage for food along the shore. Once the tide goes out, water birds feast on those unfortunate enough to get stuck.

alviso_marina_county_park_view_at_sunset

Not too long ago, the Milpitas quai was a destination. Standing on the old pilings, a little imagination takes you on unday boat rides in 1915 or even farther back to a Native American fishing for dinner.

Now there is a new kind of production on the quai. Not quite sky scrapers, new commercial buildings full of valuable equipment and more valuable ideas indicate that the recession is over and Silicon Valley is pushing at the edges of its geography yet again. Water treatment plants responsible for most of the usable water in the Bay area dot the marsh shores. Highway 237 is a critical connection between continental California and the San Francisco peninsula, connecting the states two major highways, 880 along the eastern side of the bay and 101 along the western side.

siliv
Two meters of sea level rise will inundate the Bay Area’s coastline

A sea-level rise of 2 meters has all of Milpitas and Alviso completely underwater. Highway 237 will belong to the sea creatures as will much of Highway 101.

Such a sea-level rise will inundate both developed and natural areas, cause salinity contamination of groundwater aquifers and rivers, damage ports and recreational beaches. The cost of protecting against sea-level rise is large, but often below the value of the property protected. Preventative (“Hey! Don’t build there!”) and/or defensive actions taken today can prevent large damages in the future

Numerous studies have been done and there is no need to reproduce their conclusions. What is strangely remarkable about the rise in sea-level and the corresponding results is how we, as California communities, respond to it in almost exactly the same way we respond to homelessness.

Study after study, proof after proof – If you don’t know by now that it costs less to house a homeless person than to leave them on the streets, you just don’t want to know. Between jail time and emergency room visits, it costs about $30,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets. Add business loss, shelter costs and the figure increases to a staggering $40,000 a year. Guess what, they could be in a home for a lot less.

Perhaps because the costs are not easily seen by an individual or because the costs are spread out over service areas, we can’t seem to respond to these facts.

Likewise the value of property threatened by sea-level rise in Silicon Valley is extremely high because of past development and getting higher every day because of new development. Around the perimeter of the Bay, existing commercial, residential, and industrial structures threatened by a two-meter sea-level rise is valued at $100 billion.

Perhaps because of the slow rate of increase of sea level or perhaps because the individual can’t see it, there is little advanced planning and an inadequate response to these facts.

I’ve worked in disabled and disadvantaged communities for 30 years. I understand emotional response. I understand bias. But I have yet to figure out why my peers cannot step beyond both when presented with undisputable fact. If we could figure this out, we could address the fact that the sea level is rising without over or under reacting. We could address homelessness and probably every other polarizing issue. For me, that’s the task to undertake.


laforceJennifer LaForce is a Business Consultant in Silicon Valley, missionary, author & traveler with the grandiose goal of understanding why we do what we do.

Coastal freshwater aquifers join the sea

Nazli Koseoglu points out that higher sea levels also mean more saltwater penetration into coastal freshwater aquifers.

Global sea level is rising at an accelerating rate in response to global warming. As temperatures increase, ice growth in winter falls behind ice melt in summer resulting shrinkage of nearly all surveyed glaciers worldwide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, decline in ice cover increases amount of freshwater lost to the oceans and has already added about eight inches to the average sea level since Industrial Revolution. The IPCC forecasts [pdf] continuation of this trend in increasing sea levels over the course of this century with 0.4 to 0.8 metre additional increase only if the zero emissions are achieved as a result of historical emissions. On the other hand a more pessimistic  realistic scenario by the World Bank predicts up to 2 metres increase in the sea level assuming global carbon emissions remain unabated. A 2-metre rise in sea levels means an extreme reshaping of coastlines, possible flooding of many low-lying and coastal cities, and severe inundation of several islands.

Next to the well-documented concern for coastal and lowland flooding risk, another yet under-reported impact of sea level rise will be on the freshwater systems. When the freshwater level drops lower than the equilibrium in coastal aquifers, saltwater with higher density, thus pressure, is allowed further in land and salinize groundwater resources. This phenomenon is defined as salt intrusion (Johnson, 2007). Moreover as the sea level goes up beyond tolerable level, the interface between ground and seawater changes and intrusion risk increases, significantly impacting local drinking water availability of coastal communities. Basement and septic system failures and detrition of marshland ecosystems fed by coastal aquifers are other further hazards of the sea level rise associated with coastal aquifers are. How the sea level rise will affect in the coastal aquifers in schematised in the figure below taken from US Geological Survey sources.

coast

Climate-related hazards threaten human-environment systems and their vulnerability increase with amplified exposure. There are wide variety of physical mitigation and social adaptation options of varying effectiveness that could be combined in dealing with reducing the pressure of sea level rise on the coastal aquifers. While physical measures are mainly barriers insulating and recharging aquifers or removing saltwater, socials measures are more about adapting behaviour such as changing or limiting withdrawal patterns from coastal aquifers. However each measure requires a definite level expertise for implementation and comes at a certain capital, operation or opportunity cost to communities at risk that are not always able to afford them [pdf]. This adds up to the immense external costs and injustices of global warming that we do not account for.

coast2

As elaborated in Chang et al. multiple factors affect the vulnerability to salt intrusion in coastal aquifers of different geological characteristics at different altitudes and sea level-groundwater dynamics has a high level of inherit uncertainty due to this complexity. The occasional mismatches in sea level rises at local and global scale also adds to the challenge of determining a rule of thumb indicator or transferable decision support tool to assess vulnerability to sea level rise and type of mitigation measure to be chosen.


nazliNazli Koseoglu is a PhD student from the School of Geosciences of University of Edinburgh, UK. Her PhD looks into the valuation and optimization of water use in Scotland to increase total social return. Prior to her current studies in environmental economics, she received MSc degree in Environmental Studies and BSc in Environmental Engineering. She thinks groundwater systems can not be considered in isolation from rest of the water systems and therefore wanted to contribute Life Plus 2 Meters project to highlight the linkages between sea level rise and groundwater dynamics.

It’s about time!

Chris Holdsworth explains how we’ve reached a Catch-22 where inevitable adaptation obviates the need for mitigation.

timeThe single biggest barrier of our understanding and concern about climate change is time. Time is something that dictates everything, from our day-to-day schedules to how our planet regulates itself, but one’s perception of time is entirely subjective. The recent film Interstellar beautifully demonstrated this concept, and it is at the core of the discussion surrounding climate change. Where’s the evidence, why can’t I see it, why aren’t our summers noticeably hotter, why aren’t cities underwater yet? Climate change is to the human eye often invisible. It is planetary processes responding to human activity. The difficulty is that the planetary responses operate on a geological or planetary timescale, something that far exceeds our concept of time. A useful method of illustrating this is to consider the entire history of Earth in 24 hours. Do this and humans first appeared on the planet at 23:58:43, in fact industrialisation only took place seconds ago.

So this is the problem with climate change, a problem that is of our own doing, but which the consequences far-outdate a single generation. However, the fact remains we live in a human world and the impacts of climate change need to be assessed in human terms. Considering a world where sea levels are two metres higher than today is concerning, not least because the science increasingly suggests it could be a possibility by the turn of the century. This is of course because of the complex interconnectivity of our planet’s natural regulatory systems, whereby one change in the colour of a surface can change the amount of energy available to weather systems and geochemical processes. Our planet regulates itself through a multitude of complex feedback processes of which we are forcing and changing at a rate rarely seen throughout Earth history. But again, we live in a human world so we must consider the problems human society will encounter. Professor Brain Cox highlighted this recently:

“The key point is can we respond to it [the clear evidence that our climate is changing]. Do we have the political institutions, the political will and the organisation globally to respond to this challenge, and that worries me immensely. I don’t think we do at the moment.”

This concern is the real danger of climate change. The science involved is not terminal for the Earth, it has survived much worse than us and will most likely long out-live us. Climate change is humankind making our way of life and day-to-day lives much more difficult than they currently are. What Professor Cox highlights is that to change this our governance systems and figureheads need to be motivated and concerned about this issue and put simply, right now they are not.

The idea of sea levels being two metres higher than they currently are has a certain element of catch 22 about it. There would be no reasonable way of ignoring the problem, particularly in government centres like London which would likely be at least partially submerged, because for the first time significant visual evidence of human caused climate change is a problem and seriously threatens our way of life. However, if and when we reach that level of sea level we will likely be beyond the point of easily reversing the change we have set into motion, because of the nature of how our planet regulates itself. It is if you like similar to approaching a waterfall in a boat. Turn the boat a safe distance from the waterfall edge and the financial and physical cost will be minimal, but the longer you wait and closer you get to the waterfall the more difficult it becomes to reverse the direction of the boat until the boat tumbles over the edge and the financial and physical cost exponentially increases and you lose any real control in reversing the direction of the boat.

It is all rather depressing, but infuriating too because governments, particularly following the financial crash of 2008 are overly cautious with government spending for fear of increasing national deficits and decreasing public ratings. However, the longer we delay in truly addressing the causes and threats of climate change the costlier it becomes to everyone, not just government budgets. What is even more tragic is that the threats and causes of climate change present an opportunity to empower and protect individuals, particularly the most vulnerable in society. Small scale, individually owned, energy production, a more regular exposure to the natural world, enhancing the world we live in rather than degrading it. It truly is a tragedy that too many of us are blind to and on current trend will continue to neglect or not even acknowledge until it is too late.

It is perhaps fitting then to finish on the news that at the end of August 2016 a specially commissioned group of scientists came to a unanimous decision that the Earth has now entered a new geological time epoch. An epoch in geological time is shorted than a ‘period’, but longer than an absolute date or event. The criteria for the progression into a new epoch is should geologists in millions of years look back into the rock record at rocks that formed today, is there a notable shift in factors like species numbers, radioactive particles, atmospheric temperatures and rates of erosion. The group found that we comfortably qualify in all of these criteria and hence agreed that the Earth has indeed entered this new period known as the Anthropocene, likely in the mid 20th century upon the dawn of nuclear weapon usage and exponential population growth. What is even more shocking is that many scientists believe we are currently living in the sixth major mass extinction event in Earth history, the famed extinction of the dinosaurs being one of them, because at current rates three-quarters of species could become extinct in the next few centuries.

Despite all of this the question remains, can we respond? Do we have the foresight and will to really tackle this problem head on and save ourselves so much financial and social expenditure in the future? Only time will tell. There is so much potential to change things that will benefit all, but right now the forecast is bleak

HoldsworthChris Holdsworth is a final year undergraduate student at The University of Glasgow where he studies Earth Science. Aside from his studies Chris is regularly involved in public outreach and science communication work, including writing for various online media sources such as Darrow and The Glasgow Insight to Science and Technology. Chris is also the environmental officer on the student representative council (SRC) at Glasgow and sits on the council of this body. He currently lives in Glasgow, but grew up in Teesside, north east England.

Water management should adapt NOW

Ralph Pentland says we should avoid over-reacting to climate change, as the best policy would be to do what we should be doing anyway.

At the outset, I would like to point out that my own background is in water and environmental management. I do not profess to be an expert on climate – so my few remarks will be based as much on intuition as on science.

Let’s begin with the basics – assuming the climate forecasters are somewhere near the right ballpark. The hydrologic effects of climate change could include changes in annual, seasonal and extreme precipitation, evaporation and runoff. There could also be an earlier onset of soil drying in early summer, and decreases in soil moisture availability. And in a cold climate like ours in Canada, we could experience a decrease in the ratio of snowmelt to rain, and an increase in the rate of snowmelt in spring months.

These hydrologic changes would translate into a number of water resources effects – for example, effects on drought and flood magnitude and frequency; supply reliability; demand requirements; and water quality and ecosystem habitat conditions.

Since water tends to be both an environmental and an economic integrator, these water resource effects would impact on a broad range of socio-economic activities – agriculture, forestry, hydroelectricity, industry, municipalities, recreation, shipping, and so on.

It seems to me the first step in preparing for climate change should be in identifying the areas and activities that are likely to experience the most serious negative impacts of an increasing greenhouse effect. Areas where water resources are already sensitive to climatic variability will probably be most vulnerable to the impacts of future climate change. Generally speaking, such areas have few or many of the following characteristics:

* natural water deficits
* high societal demands
* high flood risk
* dependency on reliable seasonal supply
* sensitivity to lake levels
* decreasing water quality
* dependency on hydroelectricity
* sensitive natural ecosystems

Despite lingering predictive uncertainties, the implications for water resource systems are likely to include increased stress and more frequent failures. The apparent dilemma for water planners, managers and policy makers is whether to act on incomplete information, or to wait for more solid scientific support.

My own perception is that the dilemma is in fact more apparent than real, because the directions we should be moving to prepare for climate change are identical to those we should be moving anyway. Let me illustrate by way of a few examples:

  • We should begin to seriously question the real viability and sustainability of proposed irrigation systems, and make the existing ones more water efficient, with or without climate change. Climate change may force us to do it sooner.
  • We should discourage new development on flood plains and along susceptible shorelines, with or without climate change. Increasing climate variability may convince our citizens of the wisdom of that approach sooner.
  • We should broaden our arsenal of weapons for combating water quality deterioration, with or without climate change. Climate change could induce us to do it sooner.
  • We should price water and other environmental resources in such a way as to encourage their conservation – climate change may give us the incentive to do it sooner.
  • We should do less subsidizing and more taxing of environmentally damaging activities, with or without climate change. Climate change could convince our lawmakers to do it sooner.
  • Decentralized decision making, and application of user/polluter pays approaches should be practiced to the extent possible. These principles, which make sense anyway, are coming increasingly prudent with a less predictable future.
  • Some claim that most countries have less water and environmental planning capability today than they had a few decades ago. To the extent that is correct, we should reverse that trend, with or without climate change.

Some have suggested massive capital works solutions – I disagree, with one small proviso. I would take climate change scenarios into account as a secondary design consideration for projects that we are building anyway. For example, it may be possible to design water management schemes, at little or no extra cost today, in such a way that they could be modified later, if necessary, in response to a changing climate.

I do not think we should even contemplate major capital works projects at this time just to deal with potential climate trends. For example, if it doesn’t make economic sense now to further regulate the Great Lakes, we should not consider building capital works merely in anticipation of lower water supplies a few decades away – the evidence simply does not support it.

In fact, I would contend that the danger of over-reacting with structural measures is significantly greater than the danger of under-reacting. Let me elaborate by way of an admittedly far-fetched example. What would happen if two or more northern circum-polar countries were to decide simultaneously to solve their emerging drought problems by diverting some of their north-flowing rivers southwards?

Some oceanographers speculate that such an eventuality would affect arctic salinity gradients and climate circulation patterns in such a way as to actually accelerate the drying of the North American Great Plains. Whether one accepts that thesis or not, I am sure most would agree that the uncertainty alone is sufficient cause for caution.

In summary, what I am advocating is that we learn a lot more before contemplating any drastic adaptive measures, and that in the meantime, we simply do what we should be doing anyway – but that we do it much sooner and much better.

And cost should not be a serious concern. If my examples are anywhere near representative, a “sooner and better” strategy would almost surely result in long-term net savings.


PentlandRalph Pentland served as Director of the Water Planning and Management Branch in Environment Canada for 13 years, from 1978 to 1991. In that capacity, he negotiated and administered numerous Canada-U.S. and federal-provincial water Agreements, and was the primary author of the 1987 Federal Water Policy. Since 1991, he has served as a water and environmental policy consultant in many countries, and has collaborated with numerous non-governmental and academic institutions. Over the years, Ralph has co-chaired five International Joint Commission Boards and Committees. Most recently he was a member of the Government of the Northwest Territories Team negotiating bilateral water agreements in the multi-jurisdictional Mackenzie River Basin.