Investing in resilience to erratic future

As the tides of catastrophe recede, leaving Central Vietnam and indeed the entire country turned on its head by a raging pandemic and natural disasters, the need to rebuild emerges stronger than ever.

 Dao Xuan Lai, assistant resident representative and team leader of Climate Change and Environment from the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam, writes about what priority considerations Vietnam needs to take into account to build a better, more resilient, and more sustainable future for itself and its people.

Investing in resilience to erratic future
Dao Xuan Lai, assistant resident representative and team leader of Climate Change and Environment from the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam.

The year 2020 has been a challenging one for Vietnam and the world. We are living through a global pandemic that has disrupted our very way of life. Extreme heatwaves, droughts, forest fires, and floods are impacting every corner of the world, including Vietnam. The progress already achieved towards the Sustainable Development Goals is at risk, with less than one decade of action left. Currently in Vietnam, we have been responding to the devastating impacts of consecutive floods, storms, landslides, and heavy rains along the central coast since the beginning of October. As the floodwaters recede, there will be long months of rebuilding ahead.

The fact of the matter is that these extreme weather events are becoming more and more common. The climate is changing faster than anticipated, and its effects are exacerbating extreme weather events and natural disasters, making them increasingly unpredictable. This is clearly a glimpse of what our “new normal” might look like unless world leaders take urgent action to shift the global economy toward green development pathways and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

At the same time, the government and people of Vietnam need to take pre-emptive action to adapt so that the country’s hard-won development gains are not lost.

The Vietnamese government has taken great strides recently to build the resilience of the economy and vulnerable people, especially the poor and near-poor. This year, the government recently approved a more ambitious, updated National Determined Contribution (NDC) for implementing the Paris Agreement, as well as revised the Law on Natural Disaster Prevention and Control, both of which happened within this year.

The Vietnamese people have a long history of dealing with disasters but the successive floods, landslides, storms, cyclones, and heavy rains in October striking Central Vietnam have exceeded the adaptive capacity of the government and the people. More than 240 people have been reported dead or missing, and tens of thousands of the most vulnerable have been left with damaged houses, ruined crops, and destroyed livelihoods.

One aspect of vulnerability is that it is often the product of human choices – choices regarding land use, forest management, housing, environmental protection, education, and economic development.

We need to take the new normal and uncertain future into our own hands through strengthening the resilience of people, infrastructure, rural and urban areas, and the economy. This requires an integrated, systematic, and risk-informed approach to development. It also requires us to clearly define how to make the most efficient use of limited resources, with better prioritisation and focus on planning and investment into building the resilience of communities and infrastructure.

In Vietnam, the top priority in improving people’s resilience in coastal areas is investing in resilient houses which can withstand strong floods and storms to save lives and protect possessions, as this current stormy season clearly highlighted. As the government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and other partners provide humanitarian support to the flood- and storm-affected people in Central Vietnam right now, we need to be asking ourselves one critically important question: why do so many people need emergency relief?

For many, their homes were unable to withstand the extreme weather. At least 350,000 houses have been flooded, damaged, or destroyed, and many families have been left with nothing.

This can be avoided if families have access to strong, affordable houses built with key features to withstand storms and floods, they will be protected, their possessions will be safe, and they will be much better equipped to handle disasters when they occur.

 

Such resilient houses already exist in Vietnam. Under the framework and in connection with the government’s Resilient Housing Programme No.48, a joint Green Climate Fund-government-UNDP project has built more than 3,200 houses for vulnerable households in five central provinces since 2017, and their success can be seen in the disaster-stricken areas. These houses were even described as “life-saving” by one interviewee from a coastal commune in the south-central province of Quang Ngai.

According to a recent study by the UNDP and the Ministry of Construction, there is a significant need for support to build 109,211 such resilient houses in Vietnam’s 28 coastal provinces as part of the overall flood recovery process, 24,884 of which are urgently needed to protect people’s lives and property.

Building resilience, however, requires more than resilient houses: we must also consider the role of information, awareness, knowledge, and skills of people. A comprehensive, publicly available information system with accurate, accessible, and real-time data will allow everyone to learn about the risks they face and take action. Armed with information and knowledge, local communities can develop their own community risk maps in order to reduce their exposure to risks and make smart decisions in the future.

The increased adoption of nature-based solutions to build resilience is also key. For example, coastal mangrove plantations function as a strong natural “green wall” that buffers the coast from the worst effects of storm surges and erosion. They also create new opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in aquaculture, eco-tourism, as well as create rich habitats for Vietnam’s rare and remarkable biodiversity. With a systematic approach, measures to strengthen resilience can have many other positive benefits in addition to mitigating risks.

New and innovative financial mechanisms, such as green bonds, risk transfer, and insurance should be introduced to reduce the financial and economic burden on the state budget and households’ financial burden on public funds. Risk management can protect people through resilient houses and livelihoods, but those assets themselves can be further protected with disaster and climate risk insurance to help families recover more quickly.

In addition, increasing extreme weather events further exacerbated by climate change can exceed adaptation capacity, and in such cases, risk transfer and insurance mechanisms are essential to support the people and economy in recovery.

The principles of risk-informed development need to be applied to projects of every scale, and should be used to ensure that no new risk is created inadvertently. As Vietnam is increasingly investing in infrastructure, such as schools, roads, medical facilities, and evacuation centres, the planning for such projects must also take into account climate and disaster risk. Public services may be threatened instead of protected because of uninformed development choices that are effectively creating new and additional risk.

Although Vietnam has earned global praise for its effective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not come out unscathed. As people restart their lives and livelihoods, we are being presented with an opportunity to focus on making this recovery a green recovery. Similarly, as the central coast also begins to rebuild, we should ensure that new homes and livelihoods are created that can withstand future extreme weather events. There, we need to build better for the future.

We need a concerted effort from the government, private sector, community-based organisations, and people to build a safer, greener, and more climate-resilient future in Vietnam.  VIR

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