Typhoon Vamco strikes Vietnam and the Philippines, showing force of climate crisis

The impact of Typhoon Goni in the Philippines. Photo: Judgefloro, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet another storm has washed across the Philippines and into Vietnam, showing the severe reality of the climate crisis for Southeast Asia.


On November 15, Typhoon Vamco struck the coast of central Vietnam with gusts topping 100 kilometers per hour, becoming the latest in a string of storms to hit the country in recent weeks. Following months of harsh drought, the storms have caused widespread flooding and landslides, displacing thousands and killing at least 159 people.

Before hitting Vietnam, Typhoon Vamco struck the Philippines, killing at least 67 people. Many towns remained flooded days after the storm, with rescuers working to help families get out until the water subsides. The Philippines had already been hit last month by tropical storm Saudel and Typhoon Goni, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the archipelago.

Vietnam has also seen intense storms and rain since October 9. The storms have wrecked or damaged at least 400,000 houses and 150,000 people may face food shortages, according to data from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The storms have turned Vietnam into a case study in climate challenges yet again, from sea level rise and saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta to the country’s reliance on coal

For Vietnam and much of Southeast Asia, this monsoon season has shown how governments must find ways to mitigate climate impacts and support the worst-hit areas to adapt. As with the waters of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, climate change has turned extreme weather into a regional issue.

Flooding caused by Typhoon Vamco in Calumpit, Bulacan, the Philippines. Photo: Judgefloro, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Typhoon Vamco strikes provinces already struggling with flooding, landslides

Over the past month, Vietnam has been hit by a series of storms including tropical storms Linfa, Nangka and Saudel as well as Typhoon Molave, the strongest storm to hit the country in 20 years. 

When Linfa and Nangka struck, heavy rain flooded 136,000 homes, forcing 90,000 people to evacuate and causing a landslide that buried workers at a hydropower plant in Thua Thien-Hue province. When a 21-person military rescue team went in to bring aid, a second landslide buried the ranger station where they were staying, killing 13 people. Soon after, a slide in Huong Phung, Quang Tri province killed at least 22 military personnel. 

When Molave struck land two weeks later, winds topped 85 miles per hour and heavy rain inundated towns and farms across the central provinces, causing another wave of major landslides that buried over 85 people and killed at least 24. Molave alone damaged at least 88,000 homes, according to government figures, forcing 375,000 people to evacuate.

Satellite image showing Typhoon Vamco approaching Vietnam. Photo: NASA, MODIS / LANCE, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As flooding continues, Vietnam sees toll of changing climate

In October, rainfall in some areas of Vietnam were six times higher than average, with some areas seeing over 2.4 meters of rainfall in just two weeks, according to the Vietnam Disaster Management Authority (VNDMA).

Storms also present more of a threat as possible sea level rise of 18-38 centimeters by 2050 will expose millions more to flooding. While discussions of sea level rise in Vietnam often focus on the Mekong delta in the south, severe storms mean much of the rest of the country will be impacted as well. The storms over the past month have all hit a string of nine provinces in central Vietnam, including Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Nghe An, Binh Dinh and Kon Tum.

But as the region copes with a changing climate, some aspects of infrastructure and development are also exacerbating the impacts of extreme weather. In Vietnam, members of the national legislature recently pointed to deforestation, primarily from hydropower projects, as a major driver of landslides. They presented research showing that 25 large hydropower projects in the country’s central highlands have cleared 263 square miles of forest.

According to Tran Tan Van, director of Vietnam’s Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, the country has 429 hydropower dams, many of which may have played a role in deforestation. But as of 2016, he says the government has stopped approving dams on natural forest land and reports that 472 dams in the country’s central provinces have been cancelled over concerns about flooding or landslides.

In neighboring Cambodia, where flooding has hit the Phnom Penh area, some observers have suggested that the destruction of lakes and wetlands is making the problem worse. Many of the lakes in and around the Cambodian capital have been filled in as part of a development boom.

“Ever since the 1400s, when the king moved the capital from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, they’ve known the city has problems with flooding,” one Cambodian bureaucrat told Nikkei Asian Review. “You can never have success stopping the floods, but if they fill in the lakes it will be a disaster.”

The picture is similar in Vietnam. A report by McKinsey Global Institute earlier this year showed how Ho Chi Minh City faces an increasing threat of devastating floods.

“As the city expanded, we started to fill up floodplains for human settlement and disrupted natural drainage systems, then the flood came. Until now, flooding is mostly a man-made problem in the city,” Dzung Do Nguyen, founder of urban planning firm enCity, told Channel NewsAsia.

The city has already invested in flood protections and plans to spend an additional US$4.4 billion. But it may not be enough—Singapore has now budgeted $72 billion for sea level rise adaption and Jakarta has allocated $40 billion.

With this year’s storms, the question of whether and how the Vietnamese government will adapt is becoming urgent.

“Adaptation is in our blood. It is a strong character of the Vietnamese,” Dzung said. “So I believe we will be able to navigate through this climate change, but I am still unsure how we will do that.”

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