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How mangrove trees are sowing the seeds of female empowerment in Vietnam

17 December 2019

By Jessica Wapner

Tran Thi Phuong Tien remembers when the floods came. Sitting at her cafe in Hue city, where she roasts her own coffee beans and serves sizzling beef that draws customers from the other side of the Perfume River, she recalls how Tropical Storm Eve hit the coast in October of 1999, pounding the region with more than its monthly average of rain in just a few days. The massive rainfall, which landed mostly upstream, conspired with the tide to cause the largest natural disaster for the area in the 20th century. The sea spilled aggressively through the narrow, unprepared streets of the communes and the single-storey homes of Hue. The unfeeling water rose shockingly fast.


Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment predicts that, if emissions remain high, the average temperature in Thua Thien Hue will rise by up to 3.7C by the end of the 21st century. Annual rainfall will increase by 2-10 per cent. Sea levels will rise by up to 94cm. Rising sea levels combined with increased rain will flood the low-lying plains in which the province sits. At the same time, the water on which some crops depend may become fatally salty when dry season droughts fail to bring enough rain to balance out the salinity of ocean water. The 1999 flood, says Pham, makes it easier to understand what’s coming.


So when Pham approached the local branches of the Vietnam Women’s Union, with a simple idea to help the land and sea withstand the coming danger, she found willing volunteers. They didn’t need marches or commitments from world superpowers to catalyse them into action. The women of Thua Thien Hue were ready to rescue themselves. And in doing so, they joined a global movement to preserve and restore one of the most crucial and widespread – yet neglected – tools for thwarting climate-driven destruction: mangrove trees.


All of this makes planting these trees an ideal project for a type of climate change preparation known as ecosystem-based adaptation – the harnessing of natural resources to build resilience to climate change. It may be best understood by what it isn’t: grey. Sea walls, reservoirs and dykes built of hard materials are the opposite of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). Such structures are typically the result of top-down decisions and funding. EbA, by contrast, is bottom-up and focused on the connection between people and their environment. It is most effective, says Philip Bubeck, who researches climate change adaptation at the University of Potsdam in Germany, if the humans directly intertwined with a given ecosystem are the ones involved in saving it. Planting mangroves is one example of EbA. Others include reforestation to eliminate food insecurity in Mexico, the establishment of no-fishing areas, and the clearing of litter in urban areas in South Africa.


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