World Resource Institute

Vietnam Simulation: Sea Level Rise and Adaptation Choices

Vietnam faces significant impact from sea level rise in the future. Its government has recently decided what level of rising water local and provincial governments should plan on in the coming decades. This WRR simulation exercise involved a meeting of eight key stakeholders in the fictional country of Rinsap, in which participants are asked to make a recommendation to the prime minister. The group needed to achieve near-consensus agreement on a package of adaptation priorities. Participants weighed options including investments in protective infrastructure, mangrove restoration, new agricultural technologies and techniques, and diversification of rural livelihoods. In the process of exploring these trade-offs, participants discussed specific issues such as food security, farmers’ incomes and job growth in the face of land inundation.

The general instructions that the participants received, with detailed information about the decision they had to make, have been translated into English and can be found here.

Participants review their roles as decision makers in the fictional country of Rinsap who must determine adaptation priorities.

Four groups, made up of senior government representatives and donor agency officials, took part in the exercise in December 2010. The event began with a plenary session of all participants in an auditorium at Can Tho University, the event sponsor, in Can Tho City, situated in Vietnam's prime agricultural region. Each group met in separate rooms with University staff acting as moderators. The sessions lasted about four hours; each group designated one or two members to act as reporters to present the group’s decisions to the closing plenary. All exercises were conducted in Vietnamese; the morning and closing plenary sessions were conducted in both Vietnamese and English with simultaneous translation.

The exercise instructed the participants how to play their various roles, which included national and regional government officials, representatives from academia, a donor agency official, and local farmers.

Exercise Outcomes
Two of the groups chose as their first priority investment in new agricultural technologies to develop strains of rice and other crops that would thrive in the new environment that climate change would bring. There was little discussion of specifics, although biotech crops were not ruled out. There was a clear recognition that agriculture must be protected in the future, and better crops and techniques would be required.

The other two groups made infrastructure their first priority---the building of dikes and levees to protect as much of the Delta as possible; “protecting people and production…” is how one person put it. Participants saw infrastructure as the foundation of any future economic development. Closely linked was the restoration of the mangrove forests that used to dominate much of the Vietnamese coastline. Mangroves were seen as a long-term response, necessary to help protect dikes and levees, which were seen as short-term adaptation.

The only other adaptation choice that was in the top three in any group was investment in non-agricultural industry. In the discussion of that option, increased emphasis on education in rural areas was seen as very important. This option received almost grudging support from participants who felt that, at least in this part of the country, industry had been able to pollute the air and water with little consequence.

All participants were aware of climate change issues, and many indicated that they were already feeling impacts. In the short term, there was strong support for infrastructure as adaptation to protect agriculture. Yet the recognition that in the long term protection would not be enough was reflected in the support for the introduction of new agricultural technologies, and, as one farmer put it, “…we also have to accept some sacrifice, some level of sacrifice.”

The participants assessed the options, and among the four groups, agriculture and infrastructure emerged as key concerns.

The many countries around the world with coastlines vulnerable to sea level rise will eventually be confronted with difficult, disruptive and costly choices similar to those we posed to Vietnamese officials in this simulation. So what lessons did we learn from their responses?

  • If there was a dominant theme to the choices made by all the groups, it was protection---protection of agriculture and its importance to the economy and the culture of Rinsap (the fictional country in the exercise). It is worth noting, though, that it was often hard for participants to separate their role-playing in the simulation from their experience and opinions as Vietnamese.
  • Tradition and cultural and economic values play important roles in how various interests respond to climate risks.
  • The Mekong Delta in Vietnam, portions of which are at risk from sea level rise, is of critical value to the country on many levels. It is the major agricultural area in Vietnam, producing the majority of foodstuffs for both domestic use and for export. Public officials had difficulty envisaging the region being used for other purposes.
  • Food security is very important to Vietnam; less than 25 years ago, it was a net importer of rice. Rice production is also important to the national economy---Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world next to Thailand. This informed participants emphasis on continued food production as an adaptation priority.
  • In a society as old as that of Vietnam, traditions have great influence; the importance of rural life and staying on long-held family land cannot be underestimated. Protection of assets is a very strong initial reaction to such a risk. The reality of having to accept some loss takes time to absorb and even longer to become comfortable entertaining alternatives that will disrupt entrenched patterns of society.