In 2009, Dutch architect Joep Janssen quit his job in the Netherlands and moved to Vietnam with his girlfriend to study impacts of climate change on the Southeast Asian country.
Three years earlier, after watching Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” about former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's campaign to educate citizens about global warming, the architect wondered how his profession could contribute to a solution to one of the world’s most pressing issues.
During his time in the architecture industry, Janssen studied how Dutch cities have coped with water issues since the Middle Ages. Drawing on his background, he selected Vietnam as his destination to seek out a solution in “a place defined by the UN Climate Panel as the front line of climate change: the Mekong Delta.”
After four years living in Ho Chi Minh City, Janssen traveled through the delta to meet people and experts to learn about how climate change affects Vietnam.
The architect went back to the Netherlands in 2013 and two years later released ‘Living with the Mekong’ – a personal account of how Vietnam and the Vietnamese people cope with the consequences of climate change.
In the book, Janssen analyses the influence of rapid economic developments on water management and showcases a series of photos capturing the life of people in the delta area.
The 38-year-old recently spoke with Tuoi Tre News to share his opinion on Vietnam’s climate situation and offer suggestions on how the country can effectively cope with climate change.
Joep Janssen in a photo provided by him
To author ‘Living with the Mekong,’ you traveled through the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City to meet with farmers and urban inhabitants. What did you see?
I noticed that discussions about the organization of the delta were dominated by scientists, engineers and policymakers, who presented their new ideas at conferences and in delta plans.
Ordinary inhabitants of the delta were never present at these conferences even though these farmers and villagers have been developing skills and know-how to cope with water situations for generations. I have experienced many skills and (small-scale) innovations used by the local people in the Mekong Delta.
- Rice-fish culture: fish farming in the rice fields demonstrates how inventive the inhabitants of the delta are. The fish eat weeds and snails. They are also used to control malaria, as they eat mosquito larvae. In this way, the farmers save a lot of money on expensive pesticides.
- Sustainable energy resource: farmers who turn pig manure into biogas for cooking.
- Coastal mangrove restoration: using melaleuca fences.
Because each pumping machine is different, it seems that all farmers are creative mechanical engineers!
How is the current situation of Vietnam amid climate change?
The Vietnamese government seems to be proactive in shifting towards a low-carbon economy and tries to strengthen its sustainable energy development. Vietnam’s contribution to tackle climate change is admirable. The government feels the need to act. That is understandable since the country is already heavily affected by the impact of climate change, according to The Global Green Growth Institute’s report ‘Unleashing Green Growth in the Mekong Delta’ (2014):
“During the last 50 years, average annual temperatures have risen from 0.5 to 0.7°C, and sea level rise has reached about 20 cm (Deltares 2011). Over the past years, extreme weather events have caused human and economic losses in many regions of the country, and particularly in the Mekong Delta.
According to government estimates, between 2001 and 2010 natural disasters exacerbated by climate change have resulted in 9,500 deaths, and caused the loss of 1.5% of annual GDP (GoV 2011a).”
In the long run, climate change affects agriculture and livelihoods, but the immediate impact of land subsidence is even bigger. The more people live in the city, the more water they consume and the more groundwater they extract from the soil. As a result, the soil subsides. It is a bigger problem for Ho Chi Minh City than sea level rise. In the city, land subsides a few centimeters per year. That's going a bit faster than the sea level, which rises a few millimeters annually.
Flooding Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Joep Janssen
What are your suggested solutions?
To solve this problem, I would suggest focusing on the following three topics:
- Strengthen urban planning and management and include it in study programs at universities. During my time in Ho Chi Minh City, all architecture students would become architects; no one was interested in becoming a good urban planner. Invest in and stimulate young students to become the next generation of water and urban professionals who can deal with complex urban systems and uncertainty.
- It would be good if tapping groundwater could stop or could be more expensive for private parties. Vietnam Brewery (Asia Pacific Breweries – Heineken from the Netherlands), for example, taps lots of water and barely pays for it. The consequence: the large amount of groundwater extraction will continue and Ho Chi Minh City continues to slowly sink. By increasing water taxes for farmers and big companies, large-scale consumption will be discouraged, and the money could be used for smart urban solutions.
- And last but not least: let’s work together – neighboring provinces, different government departments, decision-makers and local people.
How about urbanization? In your opinion, what is the most obvious influence that rapid economic development has left on water sources in Vietnam?
Since the implementation of an economic policy promoting innovation, the city has developed independently of nature. The Saigon River and its two tributaries are still there, but many canals have been replaced by asphalt streets. Due to a lack of effective planning, the high density inner-city growth has reduced green space. That is unfortunate, as it is exactly those open spaces that might be able to protect the city against extreme heat and floods.
If action is not taken and the urbanization continues, two thirds of the city will flood frequently in 2025. The economic costs could be huge.
Flooding in Ho CHi Minh City. Photo: Joep Janssen
Vietnam and the Netherlands are threatened by climate change, is there any lesson(s) that you think Vietnam should learn, and apply, from the European country?
With thousands of kilometers of long riverbanks and seacoast, the construction of dykes is unthinkable; if only because of the costs (Vietnam has about 10 times more coastline than the Netherlands).
The Mekong Delta is much more waterlogged than the Netherlands: two times more annual rainfall, more waterways (about the same length as the waterways in the whole of Europe!) and much more water flow through the Mekong River (average flow rate in the rainy season: 16,000m³ every second) than through the Rhine (2,300m³ every second).
Besides this, a large area of the Mekong Delta is flooded annually and in the Netherlands the probability of a flood happening is 0.01 percent in any given year.
The Netherlands is a small delta country – almost the same size and number of inhabitants as the Mekong Delta. More than one quarter is below sea level and 60 percent of the inhabitants live in flood-prone areas. We have learned lessons from several deadly floods in the past.
I think the Dutch success and experiences are based on three pillars: collaboration, long-term planning and capacity building.
The first success factor is culture related: we believe in collaboration (include local people, not only professionals) and our behavior is proactive. We all feel the flood risk and know we need to act. Look at the ‘Ho Chi Minh City Moving towards the Sea’ project in cooperation with Rotterdam in 2013 in which the Dutch government worked closely with universities, research institutions, landscape designers and engineering companies.
Second, education (capacity building) and innovation are very important for economic growth. We found some innovative ways to protect the people from flooding. Until the 1990’s we were very much into ‘hard’ structures like dikes and sea gates. Then we changed our mindset: we found ‘soft’ solutions to live with water instead of fighting it.
The water storage facility ''Watersquare Benthemplein'' in Rotterdam and the ''Room for the River'' [to give the river more room to be able to manage higher water levels] may be good solutions for the problems in Ho Chi Minh City.
Let’s try to translate the ‘Room for the River’ concept to the Ho Chi Minh City context. You need to reconnect the city-dwellers with the water. That’s difficult, because nowadays, people ignore the river because of its deteriorated condition. Water is the backyard of Ho Chi Minh City – it should be the front yard.
Third, we have a strong long-term and integrated planning approach to create multiple benefits.