Vietnamese city probes climate risks to development plan

by Thin Lei Win | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 April 2011 13:09 GMT
Coastal city takes unusual step of studying potential impacts of flooding and sea-level rise before building new infrastructure

BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Like many coastal cities in Vietnam, Quy Nhon is gearing up for development. It has big plans to become a trading and seaport hub, thanks to its strategic location connecting important transport routes. It also wants to develop snazzy accommodation for its population of 260,000 residents, and attract more tourists to its beautiful beachfront.

The city in central Binh Dinh province has also taken the novel – and, to climate experts, welcome – step of looking at the risk of disasters and potential effects of climate change before embarking on its major development programme.

With $300,000 funding from the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation, Quy Nhon is conducting a hydrology study that will explore the impact of infrastructure development in a flood-prone district, taking into consideration future weather patterns likely to be associated with climate change.

"I think it's a tribute to the Binh Dinh People's Committee that they're willing to step back and say, 'Wait, we know climate change is an issue, we know sea level is rising and storms are likely to intensify, what's likely to happen here?'" said Karen MacClune, a scientist with the U.S.-based Institute for Social and Environmental Transition which is providing technical support for the project.
   
Vietnam, with a coastline more than 3,200 km long, has been cited as one of the countries that will be most affected by global warming, which scientists warn could lead to sea-level rises and more extreme weather.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said a one-metre rise in sea level would affect almost one in four Vietnamese, and submerge 40,000 square kilometres of the country's land.

BUILDING ON FLOOD PLAINS

The hydrology study was launched by the Binh Dinh People's Committee after Nhon Binh ward on the western edge of Thi Nai lagoon, not far from the heart of Quy Nhon, submitted a development plan. It includes a water treatment plant, a station for rail cargo and residential housing.

The main concern is that the area proposed for construction is vulnerable to flooding and saline intrusion. Two typhoons – Ketsana and Mirinae – in late 2009 inundated Quy Nhon, including Nhon Binh, killing nine people and wounding 26.

Quy Nhon is prone to seasonal flooding, but locals recall the 2009 floods as being among the worst, with deluges lasting longer than usual and water levels above head height.

MacClune said preliminary research shows the flooding may have been more related to development than climate. Infrastructure projects are rapidly filling up flood plains with little consideration of alternative routes for water run-off.

"With climate change, what you're likely to see is potentially more intense storms ... and then higher sea levels extending the period of inundation, because it's slower to drain that water off the land," the scientist explained.

The 18-month study will first document the 2009 floods in detail. It will then feed information into a hydrological model to simulate water flows and predict how floods could play out in a future with higher sea levels, looking at scenarios both with and without urban development.

ACTING ON ADVICE

How land is used is a key aspect of adapting to the impacts of climate change and reducing the risk of disasters, but experts say urban planning often fails to consider the issue. That's why the Rockefeller Foundation, which is running a $50 million climate change adaptation programme in Asian cities, decided to fund the Vietnamese study.

"As a city that is urbanising rapidly, the transformation of land from agricultural use to developed and built-up land has implications in terms of changes in exposure and risks such as flooding," said Rockefeller spokesperson Anna Brown.

"Quy Nhon, like many other growing cities in Asia, has an opportunity to make choices and investments today that will affect the longer-term resilience profile of the city."

Dinh Van Tien, director of the Binh Dinh climate change coordination office, told AlertNet the results of the study could encourage urban planners in other cities to pay more attention to climate change issues.

Still, questions remain about what will happen after the study is completed.

Disaster experts understand the implications of large-scale development in Quy Nhon but have little control over where new construction takes place, MacClune said.

And will developers change their plans if the hydrological model shows a significantly increased risk of flooding? Van Tien said one of the challenges is to get local authorities to listen to recommendations, given the rapid pace of urbanisation and uncertainties in climate modelling.

For the near term, the goal is to produce a solid scientific report outlining the different scenarios for the People's Committee. The fact that provincial officials are even asking whether there are ways to develop without exacerbating the risk of disasters in a changing climate is a good first step, MacClune said.

"It's not just about not developing, but developing taking into consideration all these factors," she added.

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