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Contributed by Sarah O. Reed of ISET-International, Vietnam

Originally posted on: http://acccrn.org/news-and-events/news

As we wrapped up our first ACCCRN Vietnam-Thailand City Learning Exchange in Bangkok, Dr. Paul from Thailand Environmental Institute (TEI) underlined the events’ significance: our trip with 5 Vietnamese representatives of Can Tho and Da Nang Cities to meet with leaders from Hat Yai, Ayutthaya, and Thung Song marked one step in raising the level of dialogue between local ASEAN governments, to coordinate not just on economic development but on sustainable development. The exchange posed the question: How can ASEAN cities urbanize to provide benefits equitably and sustainably, while avoiding the worst impacts of climate change?

The big question on the Vietnam team’s minds was about last year’s “Mega Flood” in Thailand and its iconic images of inundated streets, homes, and factories. As Dr. Thongchai Roachanakanan from the Office of Climate Change Convention remarked, the flood produced one of the largest economic losses in human history. What were the main causes of this devastating flood, and how could its worst impacts be avoided in Vietnam?

As we learned throughout the three day visit, the answer to this question varies considerably between different stakeholders in Thailand: it is an open, ongoing dialogue, and major challenge for the country as a whole.

On-the-Ground Following 2011 “Mega Flood” in Ayutthaya

We began our exchange in Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Siam – a UNESCO World Heritage site and center of Thailand’s industrial heartland – 80 km north of Bangkok in the Chao Praya river basin, where the municipal mayor and provincial governors warmly greeted our team. Representatives shared with us how floodwaters broke the ancient city’s floodwalls in October 2011, submerging the entire old city for weeks, and how the community mobilized in response.

With support from the national government, the city and province plan to rebuild a stronger, higher wall around Ayutthaya, as well as raising the road to its west to protect the neighboring industrial/economic zones. Engineers have designed a mobile wall that can be erected quickly following a flood warning, but is retractable to prevent obscuring the city’s famous views. Installing a wall around the inner area of Ayutthaya would cost 2,000 million bhat (65 million USD). The government is still in the process of mobilizing resources. This is quite a hefty price tag, but as Mr. Ky Quang Vin from Can Tho commented while gazing at one of Ayutthaya’s ancient Wats, “the wall is very expensive – but if I had that [wat] in my city, I would want to protect it too.”

Flood Barriers for All at Bang Pa-In Industrial Estate?

We saw another formidable new flood barrier a few hours later, in Bang Pa-In Industrial Estate located between Bangkok and Ayutthaya city. Like the ancient city and the six other industrial estates in the province, Bang Pa-In was inundated last year when pressure from floodwater broke the existing flood protection barrier. The new design stands 6 m behind a surrounding channel and has multiple levels of protection to slow the flood if the outer barrier is breached. It will cost 400 million THB to construct the wall around the 11 km estate. Estate representatives have already presented this plan to its foreigner investors to reassure them of their investments’ safety. Though the wall is still under construction, from the inside I felt like I was peering outwards to the other side from a great, fortified castle.

“How can ASEAN cities urbanize to provide benefits equitably and sustainably, while avoiding the worst impacts of climate change? “

In both Ayutthaya and Bang Pa-In, we questioned our hosts about what would happen on the “other side” of the walls. We had read, for instance, about local communities and NGOs who had filed lawsuits against one of the industrial estates because of concerns that the new infrastructure would increase the risk in surrounding areas. Ayutthaya government representatives said that they are already working to improve drainage in the area west of the city. They are also working with local communities to build their capacity to prepare for and respond to floods, for instance by using stilts to raise their homes from the ground and enhancing evacuation systems.

In Bang Pa-In, several local officials joined the meeting and expressed their solidarity with the flood protection measures of the industrial estate. Their main concern was that the factories continued to function and that their constituents could continue to find work inside the walls.

The daylong trip gave us a lot to think about that evening at dinner. Can these kinds of flood protection measures prevent damage in the future? And can they do so in an equitable way?

Flooding’s Implications for Vietnam

Dr. Thongchai from the Office of Climate Change Convention is skeptical. In his presentation to the team on Friday morning, he painted a picture of Bangkok over the last 300 years, describing how this swampy, low-lying floodplain had become a city connected by canals to one linked by roads and layers of concrete. Although city plans include flood ways, these areas now contain major housing developments. Urban expansion in Thailand’s central plains was the main culprit of flood risk in 2011, he argued, but up until now building costly protection infrastructure and floodways has been the government’s principle response — a response that is not coordinated between municipalities, companies, farmers and other stakeholders.

“Any effort that is embarked upon by one municipality alone will not ultimately succeed.”

Vietnam still has the opportunity to avoid this kind of situation. Nevertheless, Vu Canh Toan from NISTPASS in Vietnam reminded us that Vietnamese economic and institutional incentives strongly favor urbanization in low lying areas, making its urbanization follow the pattern set by Thailand.

Climate change adds new dangers to this already complicated situation, according to the presenters. One aspect of Dr. Thongchai’s research is particularly troubling, suggesting Thailand may experience stronger storms coming from the south in coming years. Vietnam meanwhile is considered to be even more vulnerable to climate impacts than Thailand – a very sobering prospect.

Knowledge Sharing From Southern Thailand

We were lucky to be joined by colleagues who have been working with TEI on flood risk mitigation – Mr. Somcot Puttachart and Mr. Somporn Mueangthong from the ACCCRN city of Hat Yai city and Mayor Songchai Wongwatcharadamrong of Thung Song municipality, who shared some ideas based on their work in Southern Thailand.

In Hat Yai, stakeholders from municipal and provincial levels have formed a Climate Change Learning Center. They have designed and implemented a sophisticated flood early warning system that can be monitored online by anyone, making it possible for everyone to have reliable information and prepare themselves. They noted that Hat Yai city cannot act alone but needed an integrated approach for dealing with its larger water basin if it was to significantly decrease flood risk.

Thung Song municipality has been leading similar initiatives for over a decade and has established an Integrated Trang River Basin Management Plan between multiple provinces. Mayor Songchai described the complexity of working across municipal authorities, but progress is being made. In one instance, working with several different officials, Thung Song municipality has been able to coordinate the restoration of an authority-crossing canal whose flow had been altered and obstructed by encroachment.

Key to these discussions was the word “integrated”. Any effort that is embarked upon by one municipality alone, remarked Dr. Thongchai, will not ultimately succeed. Building coordination requires local action to test and demonstrate successes, build partnerships, and eventually move upwards.

In doing so, we can learn from each other – across regions and across countries.

Learn more about ACCCRN here.

Photo: Vietnamese municipal officials inspect a water pump in Ayutthaya
Credit: ISET-International, Vietnam

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