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Vietnamese expert calls for enhancing community resilience to deal with natural disasters

Tuesday, February 09, 2021, 14:29 GMT+7
Vietnamese expert calls for enhancing community resilience to deal with natural disasters
Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Huy (center) is seen in this provided photo in a training about disaster mitigation planning in Tam Ky, Quang Nam, Vietnam

In October 2020, according to the National General Statistics Office, central Vietnam was hit by four tropical storms with heavy rains and landslides that killed 129 people and damaged more than 111,200 houses. Even though the local people are no strangers to killer tropical storms, Nguyen Ngoc Huy, a Vietnamese international expert and senior advisor for Oxfam on climate change, believes more needs to be done in order to save lives and property after natural disasters.

Huy received a PhD in Environmental Studies from Kyoto University with a focus on drought risk management and climate change adaptation in 2010. He has over 15 years of experience working on water resource management, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and education in emergencies in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He has also served as an international consultant for UNISDR, UNCCD, IFAD, ADRC, and UNESCO in conducting research, studying policy, and developing tools for disaster risk reduction.

While he was a Ph.D candidate researching natural disaster mitigation, he realized that disaster management needed precise data from many fields. He continued to learn about meteorology, floods, droughts, climate change, and recovery efforts after disasters in his quest for knowledge. 

Since 2008, Huy has used social media to spread information and warnings about disastrous weather. He is motivated to share this information as he believes that forecasted information can save lives and property. Aware that countries have differences in disaster response and management and also suffer from gaps between forecasts and the needed response, he tries to narrow the gap.

To understand the weather forecast

Internet users in Vietnam refer to Nguyen Ngoc Huy as “Huy, the weather boy” and follow his weather forecasts online as they find them more understandable and useful than other forecasts.

On December 29, one forecast post about the unusually cold weather that occurred from late December to mid-January in the north and central northern parts of Vietnam had reactions from 7,000 people, 1,700 shares, and 614 comments on Facebook.

Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Huy is seen in this provided photo at Oxford University in 2019
Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Huy is seen in this provided photo at Oxford University in 2019

Next to the temperature forecast for each province, Huy included recommendations: senior citizens in the area should wear proper clothes inside and outside and avoid sudden temperature changes, people in the mountainous areas should protect their buffalo and cattle by herding them and burning wood to provide heat when and where affordable. He also suggested that people consider harvesting farm-raised striped bass to avoid losses.

On the nights of October 17, 18, and 19, tropical storm Vamco caused historic flooding in Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Ha Tinh, Vietnam. Numerous people in the provinces had to escape to their roofs in the middle of the night when circumstances were not appropriate for them to evacuate properly.

Although many other Vietnamese were moved and shocked to see such events, Huy was among a small group of people who knew historic rains were due to happen as early as mid-2020. This ability to foresee a disaster in the future through science could have avoided so many losses. However, what happened in October and November 2020 seems to show that there was a lack of readiness and preparation.

 “We can’t tell how many people knew that 2020 was going to be an extreme year of rain in central Vietnam, and we also don’t know how many people believed the prediction when they heard it. If the people had known that there would be excessive rain on the night of October 17, 2020 in Quang Tri Province, they could have evacuated sooner and the hotline for emergency rescue would not have been overwhelmed,” Huy reflected.

Huy believes that knowing about a storm one to two days in advance is enough for people in the vulnerable areas to protect their properties, as well as move to a safe place. Sometimes, those evacuating do not need to run far away from the area. It is as simple as temporarily staying at the house next door or somewhere a little farther as long as the building can properly resist the storm.

The reality of the poor response in the flood prone areas of Vietnam clearly showed that there was a need for a more meaningful weather forecast that could provide helpful information to people instead of just data and numbers.

“If we tell people that a precipitation of 20 mm will be seen in Quang Tri, most people won’t understand what it means. However, if we tell them that heavy rain will last for so many hours, where it will fall, and how likely it is that a flood will happen after so many days, the people will understand and be more likely to believe us,” Huy said.

Another example could be instead of using latitude and longitude information, which most people need to refer to a map, Huy suggested that news forecasts about storms should provide the most needed information: when and where the storm will hit the land, how strong it will be when it hits the land, and what type of housing could withstand the wind. In short, weather forecasts should be as accurate as possible while also providing useful and easily understood information.

“A very broad weather forecast that predicts a large range of possibilities and is read a few times a day everyday won’t trigger the required sense of alert,” Huy believes.

Resilient community

In an exclusive interview with Tuoi Tre News, Huy confirmed that 2020 was a historic year of tropical storms for the people in central Vietnam and emergency relief was indeed necessary. Without support from domestic and international communities, it would have been very difficult for the flood survivors to get back on their feet.

Vietnamese people, both from within and outside of the country, were called to donate money and goods to send to hard-hit provinces in the central region. The act reflected a famous proverb “La lanh dum la rach”, which simply translates into English as “the good leaves protect the worn-out leaves” and describes acts of unity in difficult times.

The question though is how to help in a sustainable and beneficial way? Social media posts showed food and clothes being tossed into the trash in the flooded areas soon after relief was sent, which demonstrated that those items were not needed. However, these things continued to pour into those areas weeks after the storm.

Partially because of this, Huy emphasizes that it is important for flood vulnerable communities to build their own resilience. In the case of the killer tropical storms in central Vietnam in October and November 2020, during the first three days, clean water, warm clothes, and ready-to-eat food were the most necessary items. However, after that, relief and reconstruction needed to be implemented.

In times of disaster, support needs to be enough and accessible for those who lose all means of living, but they also need to motivate those who can still thrive on their own. For example, people who still have land might only need some money to buy seeds for short-term vegetable crops or to start to raise poultry. Thus, loans should be provided based on the details and proposals based on needs such as rebuilding houses or restarting a resident's livelihood.

It is important for everyone to understand that the rebuilding process takes time and it must involve the local people. No matter how long it takes, the people have to be the key players to drive it by their motivation to fix things. People in flood vulnerable areas should not be seen as victims who are waiting for the compassion of society. Contrary to that image, their dignity should be realized by strengthening their capacity to get back up with strong will and determination. This capacity is built through a process of learning through experience, continuously adapting to the changing environment, and passing the knowledge on to future generations, as has already been seen in Japan.

Not so far from Vietnam, Japan is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of its climate and topography, and it has experienced countless earthquakes, typhoons, and other types of disasters.

Aware of how vulnerable the country is, Japan has developed a comprehensive disaster response plan in which each individual in the society respects the plan and fulfills their role. For example, when there is a call for evacuation, clear information is released regarding where to evacuate to and the deadline to show up at the safe shelter. The people then manage their business and show up at the designated time. With this spirit and capacity, in case of disasters, it is less challenging for the government to carry out emergency response in an organized way.

For building resilience capacity in Japan, construction technique and raising awareness were among the key priorities. Infrastructure in Japan such as buildings and bridges are resistant to a certain level of earthquake or storm.

Most Japanese learn about natural disasters at school, and they are aware of their part in responding to natural disasters. This spirit and practice is passed through generations.

In Vietnam, there is a gap in passing on this disaster knowledge or experience. In areas that are prone to natural disasters, most of the people have the experience of facing storms. However, in areas where natural disasters are fairly new or only occasionally happen, such as the Mekong Delta area, the experience and knowledge is lacking.

In 1997, tropical storm Linda hit Ca Mau province, a deep southern province of Vietnam, and killed more than 3,000. Since then, a gap of 23 years is long enough for young adults in the area to lack the knowledge of how to respond to a similar storm. Due to climate change, which affects Vietnam more than most other countries according to a report of the International Panel on Climate Change, the weather will be more unstable, extreme, and more difficult to forecast in the future. Thus, the gap between generational understanding in terms of responding to natural disasters needs to be filled.

Even though weather forecasts can’t be guaranteed correct, it is wise for the people to consider the advice of the government and experts in the field. Here in Vietnam, instead of showing up at the safe shelter, local governments usually have to force villagers to evacuate. This could be avoided, if the people had enough information to evaluate the risks for themselves.

Take up lesson

For Vietnam, the stormy and historic year of 2020 meant many lessons were learned, both for short-term and long-term change.

There were questions and concerns raised in regard to building resilience for vulnerable communities. If this is not in place years into the future, after each storm, Vietnamese in other parts of the country will still need to call for donations.

“I think that emergency response should happen for a short time when really big disasters that hit people hard. For mild and average disasters, the community should be able to resist,” Huy suggests.

It is the tradition of Vietnamese to unite and share their fortune with one another. However, carrying out donation drives is not as important as building and strengthening the capacity of the vulnerable communities overall.

There is so much to learn through example in central Vietnam, such as protecting the roof (housing or factories) better. A better roof may increase building costs by 10 percent or so, but businesses and people can protect 100 percent of their properties after the storm.In central Vietnam, people typically redo their roof the same way after a storm or disaster, and this is not considered a good practice. As the saying goes, the old path does not take us to a new destination. Based on past experiences, people must renovate what needs to be better in order to prepare for the next storm. In 1999, a historic flood happened in Hue. Since then, when building new houses, local people try to have their house foundation at least equal to or even higher than the historic water level. Reflecting on what happened in the storm season of 2020, local authorities should review their capacity to respond to extreme disasters.

If the region is not fully capable of handling such events, what can be done to change the situation? Reality has shown in some places that, even when all resources are in use, they are not enough. So, local authorities should plan for alternatives to address this. Perhaps they can mobilize resources from nearby provinces? Maybe privately owned trucks or canoes can be considered for rescue purposes? In order to do such a thing, a detailed plan needs to be in place for coordination before a disaster happens.

“Extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change,” Huy emphasized. Around the world, including Vietnam, climate change creates the need to improve current forecast and warning systems, practices, and response plans. Studies also show the impact of disasters on the economy has increased in many countries over the years, especially coastal countries. While the economy seems to be better in many countries, the cost related to disasters has been increasing at a similar rate. It's obvious that climate change and natural disasters are linked, so we need to change our ways to adapt to it so we can all prosper instead of suffer."

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