The potential for conflict in Vietnam and the rest of South-East Asia as a consequence of climate change is a realistic prospect. Whilst the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has increased considerably over the past 10 years, a large proportion of these cases is now attributed to the adverse effects of climate change. This is particularly the case in regard to internal displacements from the Mekong river basin and delta. The subsequent pressure on Vietnam’s big cities – such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi – has aggravated levels of urban poverty and lowered standards of living. Furthermore, increased urbanization and industrialization due to such internal displacements serve to further the advance of climate change.
According to WWF, ‘the Greater Mekong Subregion is already experiencing the impacts of climate change and based on the best available information these impacts are only expected to worsen.’ Research suggests that climate change has led to a significant rise in temperatures in the Greater Mekong Subregion during the past 50 years, as well as a rise in sea levels. Vietnam experiences increasingly extreme rainy and dry seasons year on year, precipitating a decline in the salinity, fertility and availability of agricultural lands – especially those used for rice. In consequence, those employed in agriculture have had to rely on a higher volume of fertilisers and pesticides in order to sustain a living and, even then, are unable to reach the agricultural output that they achieved 50 years ago. Similarly, climate change-related diseases, such as “coffee rust”, have also threatened Vietnam’s expanding coffee bean export market.
Due to decreased yields and unreliable employment prospects, thousands of former agricultural workers have gravitated towards cities in the hope of securing employment. This has led to high levels of unemployment and overpopulation in urban areas. But this is not the only aspect to cause so many Vietnamese people to leave their homes for the city: rising sea levels and substantial erosion of the riverbanks have put many in danger, with houses routinely collapsing into river systems like the Mekong. This has not only damaged the Vietnamese economy, along with its living standards and ecosystem, but it has broken up communities with strong cultural identities; climate change is perceptibly threatening the very cultural fabric of Vietnam.
It is difficult to discriminate the victims from the perpetrators. Who is responsible? Is it the international community who have invested in and moulded the Vietnamese economy to be reliant on crops – like coffee beans – which are unsustainable given the seemingly unstoppable progress of climate change? Is it the Vietnamese people who feel the effects but cannot afford – or are unable – to relate the undesirable effects of climate change with their own unsustainable living? Or is it the Vietnamese government, who fail to perceive the potential for conflict if urban population density rises to levels synonymous with humanitarian crisis?
Perhaps the question should not be ‘who is responsible?’ but ‘who will be held to account?’ It is, after all, the Vietnamese government whose existence will be jeopardised if air pollution, resource scarcity, unemployment and poor standards of living antagonise the general populace. Whilst efforts have been made to introduce renewable energy to Vietnam, the Vietnamese government has not made attempts to educate its people about the human and environmental dangers of climate change and how to combat them. No strategies have been initiated to further sustainable practices. No moves have been made to curb emissions by, for example, investing in its public transport system.
The Vietnamese government has proved its approach myopic; it has not perceived the threat to itself or, more importantly, to its people that climate change poses both now and in the future.
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