Vietnam Then and Now

August 26, 2015

This article was adapted from a speech presented at “Advancing Prosperity: U.S.-Vietnam Development Cooperation,” a celebration in Hanoi organized in conjunction with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Michael DiGregorio speaking at "Advancing Prosperity: U.S.-Vietnam Development Cooperation."

In the early years of Renovation (Doi Moi), at a time when the market economy was just beginning to gain a foothold, Hanoi was a much greener city than it is today. Nearly all the fruits and vegetables, meats, and fish consumed here were produced in the suburbs and sold fresh in the city’s public markets. Within the city, Ho Tay and Bay Mau lakes produced hundreds of tons of fish per year. South of the city, a network of large lakes that also served as the city’s wastewater treatment system produced hundreds more. There were hardly any cars on the roads, and hardly any gas stations or motorcycle repair shops either. All the motorcycles were new, and the few large trucks that produced plumes of diesel fumes were regarded as a nuisance. The air was so clear in those days that the mountains west of the city were visible much of the year. They are a rare sight now.

Hanoi, however, was also a poor city whose people were eager for the things they knew others enjoyed. Those desires have been the fuel for many of the changes that have ensued. Those of us working on development issues in those days – both Vietnamese and foreigners – could see the trends, however, and we hoped that Vietnam would escape some of the environmental impacts associated with that process of change. We saw Vietnam going through a risk transition in which modern risks like lung and heart diseases, associated with air pollution, would gradually supplant traditional risks like infectious diseases and intestinal parasites, largely associated with poor sanitation and water supply. We also realized that some would have greater means to benefit from the coming changes, leaving the poor “lost in transition,” facing both traditional and modern risks.

As it turns out, that was only one of our worries. If Renovation set Vietnam on a new course, a gradual awakening to the consequences of climate change may be having a similar effect.

Vietnam: Then and Now

In 2007, the World Bank published a report on sea level rise that set off a new set of alarms. Not only was Vietnam facing a risk transition, but the fossil fuel-dependent pathway it was on was itself creating new risks for the country. The widely read report ranked Vietnam’s vulnerability first among 84 countries in terms of impact on population, GDP growth, urban flooding, and wetland loss, and second in land area lost and impacts on agriculture.

More recent hydro-meteorological assessments have added to a growing body of evidence of climate impacts:

  1. Sea level rise, as measured by satellite imagery, has now reached 4.7 mm per year, with the southeast region, where Ho Chi Minh City is located, showing the highest rate of increase.
  2. The mean annual temperature has increased by 0.4° C since 1960.
  3. There has been a significant increase in hot days and nights and a significant decrease in cold days and nights since 1960.
  4. Extreme rainfall events have increased in central Vietnam, where a majority of hydroelectric dams are located.
  5. The northeast monsoon is arriving 10-15 days later than it did in the 1980s. Typhoons are shifting south, and the number of those striking the coast of Vietnam is increasing.

While some Vietnamese scholars, notably Dr. Tran Thuc and Dr. Nguyen Huu Ninh, were already involved in climate change research in the 1990s, it was a 2008 report published by MARD, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, that raised the red flags that spurred the government into action. Following on the World Bank’s report on sea level rise, MARD raised concern that Vietnam’s strategy of increasing agricultural production in the Mekong Delta as other agricultural land was converted to urban and industrial uses – a fundamental pillar of the national socio-economic development plan – was in jeopardy. That same year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment took the lead in drafting the National Target Program in Response to Climate Change, which the prime minister approved in December 2008. The donor community and international development agencies, including USAID, have been instrumental in pushing this agenda forward, redefining it based on experience and evidence. This includes creation of the Dragon Institute, and support for the Institute for Meteorology, Hydrology, and Climate Change to carry out scientific research; for the Vietnam Forests and Deltas program, which builds community-level and governmental capacity to address long-term climate risks; and for community, business, and city-wide disaster risk management planning. The Asia Foundation has been fortunate to work with USAID on several of these projects.

Huge challenges remain. The energy sector is still locked into a reliance on coal, a dwindling national resource, and opposed to wind and solar, regarded as too costly. Socio-economic development planning at the provincial level is often aspirational, target driven, and out of step with the new realities of climate change. Influential corporations seem to be able to circumvent environmental regulations when their projects are favored by political insiders. And the private sector has not been fully engaged in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Despite this, I remain hopeful. Anyone who looks at the development challenges Vietnamese have already overcome, the government’s quickness in recognizing climate threats, and this country’s adaptability when facing changed conditions, will understand that the future, while difficult, is not impossible.

Michael DiGregorio is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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