Bringing Nature Back: Promoting resilient rural infrastructure in Northern Viet Nam

Jul 28, 2017

Ms. Ha Thi Huyen is the Deputy Chair of the Women’s Union in the Thanh Mai Commune. Like many other farmers in the mountainous provinces of the Northern Region of Vietnam, she is very familiar with riverbank erosion and failing roads. The region often experiences intense storms, and the resulting floods can damage infrastructure. With  the frequency and the severity of these natural events intensifying, Huyen’s family and community have been struggling to maintain their livelihoods.

In recent years, Vietnam has taken great strides to overcoming economic and human poverty. Despite these achievements, where Huyen lives, the lack of infrastructure is a key factor limiting poverty reduction - the fifteen provinces of Northern Vietnam have very poor infrastructure compared to the rest of the country.

To address these imbalances, the Vietnamese government has planned a series of large investments in the rural areas of the Northern mountainous provinces. Significant national and provincial funds are to be allocated to rural infrastructure development over the coming years.

Vietnam, however, is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, suffering from typhoons, floods, droughts and landslides.

Natural disasters, exacerbated by a rapidly warming world, are likely to impact both old and new infrastructure, undermining efforts to reduce poverty. The traditional response has been heavily-engineered solutions that are usually very expensive, require expertise and material not available locally, and take a toll on the landscape and natural resources.

The Special Climate Change Fund project Promoting Climate Resilient Rural Infrastructure in Northern Provinces of Vietnam, implemented by UNDP and the Asian Development Bank, is demonstrating how non-conventional engineering solutions can strengthen rural infrastructure, and provide opportunities to enhance community livelihoods.

The project aims at increasing the resilience and reducing vulnerability of local, economically critical infrastructure in the northern mountains areas of Vietnam, and to create a policy framework conducive to promoting resilient development in the northern mountains zone.

To achieve this, the project focused on bioengineering as a low-cost alternative to conventional slope stabilization and protection techniques. It also developed easy to use tools for planners that help them determine which infrastructure is most at risk, and where can be benefit from applying bioengineering techniques.

Unlike traditional concrete infrastructure, bioengineering measures strengthen over time and can be maintained by local communities. They use locally-grown species of grasses and shrubs, are wildlife-friendly, and provide economic products, such as leaves, for roofing or fodder. They are also far cheaper than conventional techniques for slope protection, which rely on concrete.

Since 2015 the Women Union chaired by Huyen participated in the construction of the bioengineering river bank embankment site in Ti commune.

“Bioengineering embankment is very good. When the rainy season comes, the plants help to prevent the bank from erosion, build up alluvium and improve crops’ growth. Local families can trim the leaves to use as fodder for livestock. My family has been trying to apply the techniques used in this demonstration, planting Puou trees and Vetiver grass by ourselves. So far the plants have grown well and bring benefits to my family and also to other families in the commune.” says Huyen.

“In this region, seeing is believing, and if you show it’s working, then what was a pilot can be extended and replicated to other pilots, and eventually, these become a nationwide commitment to reform that can influence legislation. Looking long-term, the main thing is to try to change the way we do business in infrastructure in Vietnam. The first question we need engineers to ask, when planning and designing infrastructure, is ‘can we solve this problem by bringing nature back?’” says Dr. Jeremy Carew-Reid, ICEM* Director General.

The first results have been very encouraging. “Although these slope protection measures are still in the pilot period, the environmental benefits and ease of use are already apparent” says Mr. Cao Viet Thin, Director of Son La Project Management Unit (PPMU), Ministry of Agriculture. “I hope that these models can be expanded, not only in Son La province, but also nationwide”.

Vietnam will be hosting the 6th GEF Assembly in June 2018.

*ICEM – International Centre for Environmental Management is an award-winning independent technical service centre that assists government, private sector and communities to define and implement policies for sustainable development.

For more information about the project visit ICEM project page.

Contributors: Petro Kotze, ICEM and Jenty Kirsh-Wood, UNDP