Vietnamese pick up the pieces after relentless storms of 2020 | Climate change news

Hue, Vietnam – Before floodwaters flooded half of their living room one night during storm season this year, the Trans put their most precious possessions – their television and refrigerator – in the attic and told their two girls to take refuge there.

Tran Nhu Hong, 23, and his 18-year-old sister, who cannot swim, survived the storms – the worst his generation has ever seen and the worst his parents have seen in decades.

A neighbor was not so lucky. The 19-year-old student was swept away by flooding after the vehicle she was traveling in was overturned by the force of water – on the same route the two young women usually take.

“Shortly after the water receded, I took this road and the vehicle was still there and had not yet been pulled out (from the mud),” Hong said. “I don’t dare take this road late at night anymore.”

In central Vietnam, cascading floods from October inundated the living and the dead, as record-breaking rainfall flooded towns and cemeteries. Authorities said earlier this month that the typhoons, which they called “abnormal”, had cost the Southeast Asian country 30 trillion dong ($ 1.3 billion) and killed in minus 192 people – a death toll more than five times higher than the 35 COVID-19 deaths in Vietnam recorded this year.

Woman drives along flooded road beside submerged rice fields [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

“In general, it is well established that rainfall from typhoons is increasing due to climate change, both from observations and models,” said Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, chief climatologist at the Cross Climate Center. Rouge and World Weather Attribution, whose team is researching the role of climate change in recent floods and typhoons in central Vietnam.

Crops destroyed

With 70% of the population living in coastal areas and low-lying deltas, Vietnam is highly exposed to river and coastal flooding and is also one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change.

“There is even more damage after the floods,” said Hong, passing by rice fields and creeks due to storms and flooding in his hometown in Thua Thien Hue province.

When the water receded, it took the crops with it, leaving scarred soil behind. Many farming families in central Vietnam rely on rice, various other crops, and livestock for a living, especially as the Lunar New Year celebration approaches, known as Tet.

Tet is usually the time when Vietnamese buy new clothes, gifts and appliances to welcome a fulfilling new beginning; but with their homes and livelihoods ravaged by severe storms, severe flooding and devastating landslides, Tet, which takes place in February, is likely to be tinged with sadness.

Hong’s parents are still recovering from injuries and infections they contracted from wading in hip-high flood water for long periods of time, and have yet to find employment as construction workers due to the double burden of COVID-19 and recent natural disasters.

An aerial view of the city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after being flooded following Typhoon Molave ​​on October 30 [File: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

Ichiro Sato, senior associate of the climate program and sustainable finance center at US think tank World Resources Institute, said central Vietnam was battling extreme weather events long before climate change began to take effect.

“If governments have not been well prepared, even for the conventional risk of weather disasters that existed before climate change – and I fear this is the case for central Vietnam – then there is so much to which they have to work before they worry. on the additional risk of climate change, ”Sato said, adding that unregulated urbanization and economic growth can increase vulnerability to weather disasters in places like Vietnam.

The country typically experiences between five and six storms and about three tropical depressions per year, according to the National Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting Center, but by 2020 at least 14 have ravaged the country. Seven consecutive tropical storms and cyclones hit the central region between October and mid-November.

Children at risk

According to the UN, around 7.7 million people in nine provinces, including 2.5 million children, have been affected – with hundreds of thousands of homes flooded, damaged or destroyed.

“There is no doubt that children are the most affected by natural disasters,” Rana Flowers, UNICEF representative in Vietnam, told Al Jazeera, adding that the ability of families to provide nutritious food to their children had already suffered from the pandemic.

According to Flowers, about 375,000 people were sent to evacuation centers during storms and floods, including about 90,000 children.

“Many evacuation sites were overcrowded, lacked access to sufficient water, sanitation and health care, and lacked the proper management needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate protection risks, especially for women and children, ” said Flowers, adding that the situation has severely affected children’s mental health and psychosocial well-being.

A study brief published in August by the US-based Society for Research in Child Development showed that children may suffer from longer-term physical and psychological deficits than adults, including difficulty sleeping or sitting. concentrate and lose interest in their usual activities – chronic mental health symptoms have been observed in children up to four years after a disaster.

A woman carries food through the submerged streets of Hue, central Vietnam [File: Manan Vatsyana/AFP]

“In the long term, to be sustainable, the Vietnamese government should invest more in strengthening mental health services for children and their families, reviewing the national system and also strengthening the workforce,” said Flowers.

Deforestation, which affects the ability of land to hold water, has also contributed to flooding and a series of severe landslides during the thunderstorm season, Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung said at a meeting. of the National Legislative Assembly last month.

Between 2002 and 2019, Vietnam lost 657,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) of primary forest – 23% of its total loss of tree cover according to data from the international monitoring service Global Forest Watch. About 50 percent of all forest cover loss between 2001 and 2019 occurred in 11 of the country’s 63 provinces – eight of them in central Vietnam, according to the report.

Devastating landslides and flooding have raised concerns about deforestation caused by the construction of hydropower plants in the forests.

In 2018, 385 dams were in service, with 143 more under construction, according to the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Earlier this month, the minister acknowledged growing evidence of loss of forests and watershed vegetation, as well as loss of soil adhesion, as a result of the developments.

Landslide in central Vietnam amid storms that have hit the country this year [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc suggested at a meeting of the National Legislative Assembly last month that Vietnam aims to plant one billion trees in the next five years, although he did not specify. how the initiative would be carried out.

The government has also announced long-term, sustainable missions to deal with storms in central Vietnam, including improving climate change adaptation scenarios and moving people to areas at risk of landslides and storms. ‘floods.

Nothing better than being at home

For those who have lived in the area for generations, like the parents of 21-year-old college student Le Thi Thuyen, leaving their storm-stricken homes seems unfathomable.

“We may be used to annual storms, but whenever they happen we are always worried,” said Thuyen, from Quang Binh, one of the hardest-hit provinces in the central region.

Thuyen, who left for Ho Chi Minh City to study and is currently an intern at a non-governmental organization in Vietnam’s largest city, called his parents and siblings home every day when storms hit. struck their commune, inundating and isolating the houses in the surrounding areas.

Tears came to her eyes when she thought of her 12 year old brother who couldn’t swim.

Cemeteries were flooded as floodwaters rose in central Vietnam [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

“I read news about the children who were swept away by the floods and I was really worried for my brother,” said the 21-year-old.

Thuyen’s parents, who make a living from farming and working on other people’s farms, have already struggled this year with the pandemic – and the storm season has created more problems, destroying their crops and fish. It also meant weeks when there was no job to be found.

“Tet this year will not be as satisfying as the others for us,” Thuyen said. “This time it will not be my parents who will support me, but I will support them as best I can.”

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