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Creating Problems You Want to Have

Photo credit: Lisa Murray
Photo credit: Lisa Murray

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region has long been considered a climate hot spot. With its low elevation, rapidly urbanizing population, and central role in global rice production, flooding alone could easily create catastrophic social and economic disruptions in the region. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Environment‘s worst case projections on climate change—which appears increasingly likely—as much as one third of the Delta could become inundated by the end of the century. As such, Can Tho’s selection as one of the first cities in the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) was an easy choice.

“As much as one third of the Delta could become inundated by the end of the century.”

One of the most compelling interventions to come out of ACCCRN’s city resilience planning process was a real-time salinity monitoring system developed by the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) Vietnam, the Can Tho Climate Change Coordination Office (CCCO), and the Can Tho Environment and Natural Resources Monitoring Center (CENRM).


Salinity Montitoring Project.
The real-time salinity monitoring system in Can Tho. (Photo credit: Lisa Murray)

The combination of land subsidence, rising sea levels, upstream dams and extractions, and tidal flows are projected to produce rapidly increasing salinity levels. With an unusually high reliance on surface water for industrial, residential, and agricultural use, the city’s stakeholders quickly recognized the need to respond to the situation. To further complicate matters, daily fluctuations provided a strong impetus to monitor levels as often as every 15 minutes to ensure that citizens, water utilities, public health agencies, farmers, and local industries were informed.

Without the ability to halt the salinization process, this project was a strong example of resilience planning. It enabled adaptive management at a household and institutional level. It brought multiple stakeholders together, including city and national departments within government, and also involved collaboration with telephone companies to deliver SMS alerts. In addition, it focused on a pressing, but not immediate challenge, a category for which it’s difficult to generate interest or commitment.

Once activated, the real-time monitoring system provided reliable data at regular intervals from eight sites within the city. This information could also be accessed online. The system was well maintained by the city’s Climate Change Coordination Office following the launch, in cooperation with national ministries.

“Had we chosen the wrong project?”

We recently learned that salinity levels in Can Tho had failed to spike after over two years of regular monitoring. Despite projections, not one of the more than 70,000 measurements—one every 15 minutes—had reached the danger level. Upon hearing the news, we had a sinking feeling. Had we chosen the wrong project? Would the equipment become degraded before it was ever utilized? Would this project be abandoned by the city?

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These are typical concerns of donors hoping to see their investments showing concrete results in the short-term. Those who designed the project had shown the precise foresight that we had been looking for. This was resilience planning. And yet, the system was now potentially redundant—before it had even served its purpose. Was this intervention a failure?

On the contrary, the local stakeholders have instead chosen to further adapt the project knowing that the salinization levels will eventually rise. It’s simply a matter of when. So, in the short term, Can Tho is looking to creative alternatives. One solution involves potentially re-locating the monitoring equipment to smaller downstream towns, where real-time information is needed today.

In the end, we were pleased to find that sustained capacity building for resilience outweighed a more reactive “business as usual” approach, which might have put salinity monitoring on the back burner. Ultimately, that could have had serious implications for human health, livelihoods, and the economy of the city over the decade ahead. It is a new generation of resilience projects such as this—which demonstrate adaptive management and planning capacity—that more cities will need in an increasingly uncertain future.

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