For Vietnamese minority communities, climate change isn’t coming; it’s here

Minority community in Sapa, Northern Vietnam

Vietnamese minority communities, particularly minority women, are at the forefront of the climate crisis. They are developing their own coping strategies to deal with extreme weather.

By Oliver Ward

The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) expect temperatures in Vietnam to rise by between 1 and 3.4°C by the end of the century, putting an additional 6-12 million people at risk of flooding. Economic losses caused by climate change could reach US$15 billion by the middle of the century, with floods causing an additional US$9 billion worth of damage.

These numbers have ominous implications for Vietnam. But for minority communities at the forefront of the climate crisis, they are catastrophic.

Minority communities are the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change

Minority communities rely on livelihoods that are vulnerable to disruption by climate change. Agriculture, forestry and fishing are climate-dependent industries. A warmer climate means reduced crop yields, poorer soil quality, and reduced access to natural resources.

Limited access to government support and economic opportunities further heighten these communities’ vulnerabilities. Nguyen Thi Yen, a climate change and disaster risk reduction advisor at CARE, a humanitarian organisation, told ASEAN Today that “social exclusion and ongoing limited access to markets constrain the opportunities that could be available to them to adapt to climate change.”

These reduced opportunities exacerbate the impacts of natural disasters and increase the time it takes for communities to recover. Minority groups’ average income is just half that of the majority Hoa and Kinh populations. Only 63% of minority communities have adequate access to medical services.

infographic depicting Vietnamese ethnic minority figures

Government preparation measures, including the National Target Programme to Respond to Climate Change (NTP-CC) and the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), have mainly focused on the Mekong Delta and coastal areas, leaving minority communities in the mountainous north underprepared. “Overall, there was very limited capacity to address the emerging challenges of climate change for ethnic minority areas in the northern mountains,” Yen said. “Programs and interventions in the northern mountainous areas are more on poverty reduction dimension.”

Programs specifically designed to prepare minority communities for climate-induced disasters have been poorly implemented at a local level. Yen described one program to provide adverse weather warnings to rural minority communities via loudspeaker. The loudspeakers “were reported as not functioning in some places,” she said. Those that worked often provided weather reports that were not tailored for the local region. They were also in the Kinh language, which many minority households could not understand.

Minority females will bear the brunt of the climate crisis

Female roles in minority communities mean that they will be the most impacted by a warming climate. Women spend more time doing unpaid work than men. Weather-related stresses cause this time to increase.

Reduced water sources mean women will spend more time collecting water. A warmer climate means more disease and infection. Women will be expected to care for sick family members.

A study carried out by the University of Potsdam looked at the speed at which Vietnamese communities recover after a flood. It found that five years after the incident, men had recovered 80% of their welfare losses, while females had recovered 70%. In monetary terms, females lost 40-90% of their annual income in the flooding and its aftermath, while males lost 30-60%.

Communities are already struggling with the impacts of a warmer world

Local communities are already dealing with the consequences of climate change.

“Temperature extremes – both hot and cold – are frequently of concern to villagers. These result in lost production days whilst waiting for the extremes to pass, as well as crop loss depending on when in the cropping cycle the extremes occur,” said Yen.

In 2016, a cold spell saw crops fail in Dien Bien and Lai Chau provinces. Almost 1,000 cattle died in the Tan Uyen district of Lau Chau. More recently, in 2019, har frost damaged coffee, tea and fruit crops in Son La province.

Other regions are suffering from drought. Pham Phuong, a programme analyst at UN Women Vietnam, said “In Central Vietnam… and the Mekong Delta there is drought and saltwater intrusion” taking place. Local authorities have issued severe drought warnings for the coming months. 

Without adequate support, communities are developing their own coping strategies

To maintain water access and protect crops in the dry season, one minority community asked local authorities to pump water from the Ma River into a local field. However, Nguyen Thi Yen described how residents in Anh Van village soon discovered the water was polluted by an upstream factory and caused water-borne diseases. 

“In the dry season villagers without access to stream water sometimes pay to hire a pump, if avail­able in the village, and for fuel to pump water from lower streams,” Nguyen Thi Yen said. However, she acknowledged “the financial burden can be significant.”

A 15-year-old Hmong girl prepares a wedding dress in Phố Cáo commune, Hà Giang province, Vietnam.
A 15-year-old H’Mong girl prepares a wedding dress in Phố Cáo commune, Hà Giang province, Vietnam.
Photo: Bac Luong

With limited government assistance and few economic resources, many minority communities are developing their own strategies for coping with climate change and extreme weather patterns.

In Ba Thuoc district, Thanh Hoa province, some villages collect jars of water during the rainy season and store them for use in the dry season.

Many villages are building makeshift shelter for their animals to protect them during cold spells. Some H’Mong communities in Ha Giang province are covering cattle in warm clothes to protect them from the bitter night temperatures.

Other practices are having a more detrimental long-term impact. As crops fail, minority communities are increasing their fertilizer and pesticide use. “However, they were well aware that over time both the soil quality and the quality of the produce decline using these methods,” Yen said. “In addition, there is a lack of training and support in administering the chemicals so it is not possible to be sure if villagers are using the appropriate (and safe) amounts.”

Some villagers are transitioning to alternate, more resilient crops. UN Women provides assistance to minority communities through one of their programs which helps agricultural workers transition to a more appropriate crop. “Green beans are one of the crops that people have been recently cultivating in Central Vietnam because it is more resistant to drought,” Pham Phuong said. In places where the soil quality has significantly deteriorated, bamboo is a viable alternative. However, communities are forced to consider prospective demand.

Weighing up resilience and demand, native strains of brown rice are emerging as a popular crop for rural minority communities. Tran Thi Thuy Anh, UN Women’s programme analyst, told ASEAN Today, “even though ethnic minorities are very vulnerable to climate change and disaster risks, they also have their own strengths in understanding their natural surroundings. They have their traditional knowledge about crops.” She added, “native brown rice is one of the specialities for this area which has a better market demand than other crops and is also resistant to drought.”

If the Mekong Delta is the landscape that encapsulates our shifting climate, the faces of mountainous minorities must be the portrait. While coastal cities shudder at the thought of the seas one day claiming the land they occupy, rural minorities are already watching their cattle die, their crops fail, and their water sources run dry. While the Mekong’s fishermen fear the day when their nets yield nothing, the Hmong, Nung and Muong have already seen the day the land turned on them. And the worst is yet to come.