The Plain of Reeds: Restoring wetlands in the Rice Bowl of Vietnam

By Jonathan Cook, WWF-US

Sampans meet at early morning market in the Mekong Deltawhere rivers converge. Vietnam

Sampans meet at early morning market in the Mekong Deltawhere rivers converge. Vietnam

A densely populated country with a very long coastline, Vietnam appears frequently on lists of the countries that are expected to be most seriously affected by climate change. And the Mekong Delta will be one of the most impacted areas within Vietnam: a broad, flat plain that receives the sediment-laden waters of the Mekong River, the Delta is home to about 18 million people. While it can be difficult to predict how climate change will impact a region as complex as the Mekong Delta, it is expected that sea level rise, increased storm surge, and saltwater intrusion will significantly threaten biodiversity and human livelihoods across the so-called Rice Bowl of Vietnam.

Lying in the upper Delta, the Plain of Reeds is a vast grassland area that once covered more than 700,000 hectares.  The rediscovery of the endangered Sarus crane (Grus antigone) there in 1989 led to the establishment of Tram Chim National Park. Unfortunately, when the park was initially established the wetland was permanently flooded in an effort to suppress the occurrence of fires. As could be expected from such a drastic environmental alteration, this rendered conditions in the wetland unsuitable for many of the species that live there. As a result, habitats dwindled, species disappeared, and people who relied on the lowland ecosystem for their livelihoods suffered. Unfortunately, wetland ecosystems, such as those that were lost, are essential buffers against many adverse impacts of climate change, including flooding as a result of large precipitation events (like hurricanes and other large storms). With the loss of these vital resources, the region, and its inhabitants, has become increasingly more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Fortunately not all hope is lost; there are ways to restore ecosystems allowing species to return and once again provide crucial environmental services to the people of the region. Restoration of the wetlands through improved water management would help mitigate the problems produced by the poor management practices in the past as well as those presented by climate change. For this reason, WWF-Vietnam and the Coca-Cola Corporation (a company dependent on clean water for its operations and product) has been working with park staff to restore the area’s natural hydrology.

I am excited to report that these efforts have already shown much progress! One of the first, and arguably most important, efforts was to institute a hydrologic management plan that more closely mimics the historic flood pulse of the Mekong River. In doing so, we have seen the return of real dry and wet seasons in the Tram Chim wetlands.  The grassland habitats have responded remarkably well to the change, almost tripling in area.  In addition, natural flows have been partially reestablished by removing sections of dykes originally built to retain and stock water. One of the major problems that the declining resources caused was an increase in conflict between park managers and locals. Fortunately, we have been able to address thisby organizing community members into natural resource user groups which can sustainably harvest fish and other resources (in addition to providing them with a legal basis to do so). Finally, the management capacity of the park has been improved by training park officials in key areas of conservation management; and a Wetland Advisory Body was formed to provide wetland management advice to the provincial government.

By comprehensively addressing the threats at Tram Chim, the wetlands’ health has greatly improved.  Healthier ecosystems are more resilient to future changes, including climate change. For wildlife, patches of healthy wetlands, like those at Tram Chim, can act as refugia for speices whose habitats are threatened. Equally, the wetlands will continue to regulate water for people and agriculture- absorbing water during times of flood and gradually releasing water during times of drought- a seriously important service in light of the expected climate related impacts on the region

These successes are exciting. However, the next step, of making sure the lessons learned in Tram Chim are applied in other wetland areas in the Mekong Delta, is absolutely crucial. Not far away, the Lang Sen Wetland Reserve, which preserves another 5000 hectares of the Plain of Reeds, provides one such opportunity.  Lang Sen is one of a few sites in the Delta where semi-natural Melaleuca forest occurs along a natural river channel, but it is under pressure from land conversion and unsustainable fishing by local communities.  Building on the lessons learned in Tram Chim, water exchange between wetland habitats and the river will be restored to increase aquatic resource productivity, communities will be organized to allow sustainable co-management of the reserve, and invasive species will be managed.

Our work in the Mekong Delta is vitally important in terms of providing concrete examples of how healthy ecosystems can contribute to climate change adaptation while ensuring more sustainable livelihoods for people. Kevin Marks, who manages the Tram Chim project for WWF-Vietnam, told me that “only by providing such on-the-ground demonstrations of adaptation approaches can we realistically hope to influence the adaptation agenda and relevant policies” in Vietnam and across the Greater Mekong region.  Doing this kind of practical work at a number of sites “creates a body of work that can then give us the greatest confidence in the approaches we are advocating.”