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Expert Opinion

Viet Nam is a role model for responding to climate displacement, but there are still lessons to be learned


With increasing disaster and displacement risk associated with our changing climate, now is the time to learn from countries who are experiencing it first hand. Viet Nam’s approach should inspire policy and decision makers. However, there is still progress to be made, including improving mitigation and adaptation measures and collecting richer displacement data.

A perfect case study of climate change impacts and associated displacement

Viet Nam was ranked 43rd most exposed country to natural hazards in the WorldRiskReport 2020, with floods being the most acute risk. Climate change is contributing to increasingly intense and frequent storms, floods and landslides, as illustrated over the course of 2020. From 6 October to 17 November, when the tropical cyclone season overlapped with the monsoon season, seven consecutive tropical storms and cyclones hit the country leading to historical floods. In total, we recorded more than 60 disaster events that forced people to flee their homes last year, leading to around 1.3 million new displacements. This was one of the highest figures IDMC has recorded for Viet Nam since 2008.

In the medium to long-term, with approximately 70% of the population living in coastal and lowland delta areas, disaster risks are compounded by the slow-onset effects of sea-level rise, coastal erosion and saline intrusion resulting from climate change. More than 20,000 people are currently living on land that will be flooded by 2050. Variations in the hydro-meteorological cycle are also causing temperature extremes and droughts in all parts of the country. 

While many of the movements recorded in 2020 were related to preventive or emergency evacuation, after which it is assumed most people return home, this does not address the long-term vulnerability of communities affected by recurring weather events. Every year, disasters cause considerable damage to housing. When homes are destroyed, people can be permanently displaced and it may have a severe and prolonged impact on their lives. Planned relocation is one displacement risk mitigation measure, however, it is not always implemented in the best interests of those affected and can also lead to a deterioration in their living conditions. 

A forerunner in disaster risk management and climate change adaptation

Vietnamese authorities have been working to strengthen disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation since the 1990s. They developed key policies, gradually integrating evacuation and relocation in their response strategy with a clear need-based and human-centred approach. Provisions for internal displacement remain marginal, focusing mainly on evacuations in the emergency phase. Yet, these policies have had a clear impact on reducing displacement risks and adapting to environmental stress.  

With a history of state-run relocation for various purposes, planned relocation to reduce the risk of flooding has been widely implemented since the early 1990s. One of the first programmes in the Mekong Delta was launched in 1996 with the objective of building houses for resettled residents affected by severe flooding. This was the beginning of a country-wide resettlement strategy based on the concept of "Living With Floods". While the aim was to reduce disaster risk, relocations may have had unintended consequences, disrupting lives and diminishing access to livelihoods opportunities. 

The Tan Hoa–Lo Gom (I) pilot in Ho Chi Minh City is a case where resettlement can reduce negative effects, such as disruption to people's lives, through an inclusive and participatory approach. This involves including those affected in the planning process and providing the necessary social support to meet people's needs, which generates positive long-term results. 

Housing improvements as an alternative to resettlement have also been used as an adaptation strategy. In addition to protecting people’s assets, improved or innovative housing developments can also ensure the continuity of people’s lives. Since 2017, at least 3,500 resilient houses have been built in coastal areas as part of the “Improving the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities to climate change related impacts in Viet Nam” project. Following the events of 2020, similar initiatives have been launched in the severely affected regions of Quang Binh and Quang Tri.

A clear need for improved displacement data 

In order to understand if solutions are sustainable, risk is mitigated, and the impacts of displacement are reduced, there must be a collective effort to obtain evidence on a long-term basis. Data collection must also be inclusive and address various aspects of displacement, including its temporal and geographic nature.  

While data on short-term displacement is available through government agencies, when a sudden-onset disaster strikes, specific information is difficult to come by. This includes where, for how long, and under what conditions people are displaced, as well as details on their situation after the emergency phase. Collecting and making this information available would enable a better understanding on the efficiency of existing adaptation, prevention and mitigation measures, as well as developing a better disaster response strategy.

More data is also needed on longer-term displacement relating to slow-onset disasters or climate impacts, as these are particularly under-documented. Understanding these complex patterns of displacement and how it is intertwined with economic, social and environmental factors would help to better address the long-term effects of climate change. Some case studies have been documented, mostly related to planned relocations, but this should be systematic. 

Finally, to allow for appropriate programming, the data must reflect the different impacts of climate-related displacement on individuals, depending on their gender, health and socio-economic status. Disaggregated data reflecting these specific demographics, and potential vulnerability and exposure factors, must be available for both short and long-term displacement. This applies, for example, to the case of ethnic minorities in Viet Nam, who are more severely affected by the impacts of disasters and so more vulnerable to disaster-related displacement, requiring programmatic responses tailored to their specific needs.

Now is the time to undertake these efforts. On 17 March 2021, the Prime Minister of Viet Nam approved the new National Disaster Reduction Strategy to 2030, with a vision to 2050. This new strategy has not yet been made public, but we hope that it will include clear guidelines for addressing internal displacement in the medium to long-term. The impacts of climate change are likely to increase displacement risk. Any measures to reduce this risk or to increase our resilience must also accelerate in parallel.