A tale of typhoons, trees and tiny creatures that stood between a community and climate resilience

Nguyen Viet Nghi’s enthusiasm was infectious as he showed off a scene of remarkable renewal in what was once a disaster zone. We were in Da Loc commune, a sleepy part of Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa province. It’s a place that on a single day witnessed both the fury and the protective power of nature. The community learned well from the experience, but only after they overcame the attention of some tiny animals that threatened to spoil the story.

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Da Loc’s day of destiny came on 17 September 2005. At around ten o’clock in the morning Typhoon Damrey tore into Vietnam here and unleashed its awesome power. As it churned at the coast at 100 kilometres per hour, it tore buildings apart and spawned a sea surge that smashed through the commune’s protective dyke wall and laid waste to the villages behind it. Many people lost their lives that day.

The survivors found their homes and livelihoods in ruins. The sea swept inland for kilometres. Its salt ruined rice crops and would leave fields infertile for years to come. The typhoon caused more than US$4.4 million in damage, but one area suffered less than the rest. A 500 metre stretch of the 3500 metre long dyke had remained intact because of what stood between it and the sea: a patch of mangrove forest.

Nature had provided a lesson that Da Loc commune could not afford to ignore. And in 2006 Nguyen — a project manager for Care Vietnam — arrived with a mangrove mission in mind. The plan was simple: to support the community to plant a living wall of mangrove trees to protect against future storms.

But when they first tried to plant mangroves along that stretch of coast, the trees died after just two months. It looked like Nguyen’s mission was doomed to fail. Until, that is, one of the villagers diagnosed the problem. Little creatures called barnacles had attached themselves to the mangrove seedlings in such numbers that they killed the trees before they could establish themselves.

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Now the villagers go out onto the mudflats each month to battle the barnacles. Sinking knee deep in the thick grey mud, they scrape them off with a sharp knife. It’s a tough way to spend a day, as I found out yesterday.

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But the tactic works. Once the seedlings reach a certain height they can tolerate the barnacles and grow into mature trees whose seeds help the forest to spread further.

I visited Da Loc as part of the 6th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change, which gathers researchers and development workers to share knowledge of how local action can protect people from extreme climatic events like droughts, floods, landslides and heat waves.

Typhoons and big coastal storms seem to be becoming more frequent and more intense in Vietnam. And while none can be proven to be caused by climate change, the experiences of Da Loc can inform other communities around the world who face threats from the extreme events that climate science predicts will become more common as the world warms.

In Da Loc, the community has owned and managed the mangrove planting project, decided how and where to act and how to share the work. Care Vietnam has supported the process with funding, technical advice on climate resilient livelihoods and programmes to educate children about disaster risks.

To date more than 6,000 villagers — mostly women — have planted mangroves on 305 hectares of the shoreline. The oldest trees now form a thick wall that shields several kilometres of the coast.

Nguyen says the whole operation has cost just US$1000 per hectare of planted forest. Based on the losses mangroves prevented in 2005, he equates each dollar spent with US$186 in saved storm damages. It’s a cost-effective way to protect 50,000 people from extreme weather and it has boosted food security and incomes too.

More mangroves means more fish, crabs and shrimp, which shelter among the tree’s submerged roots. They provide the villagers with an important source of protein and something to sell. The trees give globally too, as mangrove forests lock vast amounts of climate-changing carbon in their wood and the mud they stand in.

Nguyen’s pride was palpable as he showed off the blanket of mangroves the villagers planted in 2007. The trees are now taller than him. “Now when a big wave comes,” he says, “the mangroves take its energy and make the water calm, like big hands that keep the people safe.”

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11 thoughts on “A tale of typhoons, trees and tiny creatures that stood between a community and climate resilience

  1. Glad to see CARE and other NGOs picking up this issue; they have long advocated for locally-appropriate, ecosystem-based disaster planning response, like mangrove afforestation.

    But the structural issues that create a climate where mangroves are not valued still exists, especially in the Mekong Delta. Government policies to promote export aquaculture has resulted in the loss of over 70% of the mangroves there.

    The most rapid losses have come since the year 2000, when Government Resolutions 3 and 9 to provide incentives for shrimp development were put in place.

    The huge boom in export shrimp aquaculture rests on these government decisions to provide infrastructure development, tax supports, loan guarantees, and favorable market access to the sector; the cost has been the loss of mangroves that previously provided so many environmental services.

    A recent doctoral dissertation by Dr Vu Thi Hong Anh at Syracuse University explored the social and environmental costs that shrimp has inflicted on many areas of the coastal Mekong Delta: indebtedness, loss of lands, social strife. Not enough has been heard of this side of the story.

    Vietnam is happy to say what it thinks the world wants to hear in terms of trying to adapt to climate change (and hopefully get a great deal of money for it), but does not want to acknowledge that many of the development decisions made by leaders are putting the country directly in the path of the runaway train by increasing overall vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. That lack of foresight needs to change.

  2. Nice to hear a success story from Vietnam after the dubious development I saw there recently (including those shrimp farms). So I hope this isn’t a daft question, but if the planted saplings were vulnerable to barnacles, how do mangrove trees grown from dispersed seed survive crustaceous attack?

    • Hi again Shrinky Dinky… I caught up with Nguyen Viet Nghi again and asked him your question. He said the barnacles also kill some mangrove seedlings that grow from seeds that disperse naturally. A healthy mangrove forest will produce huge numbers of seeds. Some live. Some die. He pointed out though that in many areas where mangroves grow in Vietnam — such as the Red River and Mekong deltas — the water is a brackish mix of river and sea water. The lower salt levels mean barnacles are less interested in the mangrove seedlings there. But at the site in Da Loc where he oversees the mangrove planting, the water is saltier — so more barnacles. He said that the plan now is to grow seedlings in nurseries for a full two years before planting them in the mud. By then they would be a metre tall and have thick enough bark to withstand the barnacles.

  3. Great to hear how a natural solution can be used to combat a natural threat. Plus, this solution has additional benefits with the creation of the mangrove that encourages a diverse wildlife habitat. Did you get your hands dirty and help scrape off some barnacles? Great story Mike.

    • Hi Nick
      I didn’t get my hands dirty but I can’t say the same about my legs. I was knee deep in the mangrove mud and when it was time to get back on the boat, the bamboo poles I had to walk up to board it were so slippy with mud that I slid off and ended up waist deep in water. Here’s my left leg as evidence.

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