How UK universities are building flood resilience in Vietnam and Peru

A major study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned the world is on the brink of a climate disaster unless global warming stays under 1.5%.

Just half a degree more could lead to ‘far-reaching and unprecedented consequences,’ according to the report.

In many countries, the catastrophic effects of climate change are already acutely felt.

To help understand these effects, the UK has partnered with Vietnam and Peru on the Newton Fund, which is a Government programme that links the UK up with 17 countries around the world, acting as a bridge between universities who can share scientific knowledge and expertise around environmental issues.

The UK has pledged over £735m since it was launched in 2014, but it’s no handout, and whatever money the UK spends in a country is matched by the partner country’s government.

The fund is delivered by seven delivery partners, including the British Council, the Met Office and UKRI, who develop and run calls as well as allocating and managing the money they receive as part of the Newton Fund.

It’s exactly the type of collaborative approach urged in the landmark IPCC report.

‘Science is global,’ says Mark Gardner, communications manager of the Newton Fund.

‘Climate change doesn’t have a passport.’

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Can Tho, Vietnam

Since 2014, the UK and Vietnam have each spent £5m on over 15 Newton Fund schemes, with a particular focus on agricultural resilience in the face of climate change and other man-made factors.

Professor Dan Parsons from the University of Hull recently returned from Vietnam where he was working alongside academics from Can Tho University on a project aimed at understanding sediment discharge in the Mekong Delta.

The Delta is one of the most agriculturally fertile areas in the world, in part due to the deposition of sediments down the Mekong River over thousands of years.

These sediments have helped make the Delta one of the largest rice producing regions in the world but its ecosystem is under threat due to climate change as well as man-made interventions such as the proliferation of hydropower dams further up the Mekong River and sand mining.

It could have serious economic consequences for the region as an estimated 30 million people depend on the Mekong Basin for their livelihoods.

However, due to rising sea levels caused by climate change, the Delta is sinking.

By 2050 its water levels are expected to rise by 30cm.

Normally, the sediments that travel down the Mekong River would help to combat subsidence and keep the Delta above sea levels.

‘The sea levels are rising yet the sediment supply from upstream is being shut off,’ says Prof Parsons.

‘It’s a double-whammy for the Delta,’ he adds.

‘The intensification of the rice-growing productivity has been one of the real success stories of Vietnam over the past 20 years, and that’s now under threat because of climate change and changing flood risk.’

A recent study from Agence Francaise de Developpement and the EU estimates losses of around $702m a year to Vietnam’s economy due to a decline in agriculture and fisheries.

A double-edged sword

Since 2008 there have been 30 hydropower dams commissioned on the China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos sections of the Mekong River, with 31 more currently under construction and 74 planned.

Whilst being a relatively clean form of energy, the dams trap sediments that would normally travel downstream to the Delta.

Professor Parsons calls it a ‘double-edged sword.’

‘You have hydropower as a clean energy production but it does have massive ecological consequences,’ he says.

Add in sand mining, which is fuelling much of the growth in cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and Professor Parsons says it’s resulted in the Mekong’s sediment discharge ‘falling off a cliff edge.’

So his team has been working on solutions that quantify the impact on sediment delivered to the Delta.

They’ve helped develop an underwater instrument which measures and traces sediment to help them better prepare for the effects of climate change.

‘We’ve done a series of work within the country and that’s allowed us to unlock a huge archive of data, so we can look at how the sediment discharge has declined over time,’ he says.

‘What we’ve been trying to do is quantify some of that and then use the information to project forward what the vulnerability of the Delta is to flood risk under a range of climate change scenarios into the future,

‘We’re looking at the value of the sediment for a range different livelihoods, from the small-scale one farmer families to the larger conglomerates or community groups, and what their futures might look like under different climate change scenarios.’

Farmers in the Mekong rely on floods and often will plant a second crop during the rainy season, however, climate change is affecting the course of tropical cyclones with fewer landing in Southern Vietnam.

Stephen Darby, professor of physical geography at the University of Southampton is working with Professor Parsons on Newton Fund projects in the Mekong. His research reveals there has been a 33 million tonne reduction in the sediment load in the Mekong between 1981 and 2015 due to fewer tropical cyclones hitting the region.

The cyclones are becoming larger and more powerful, but they are swinging quicker and impacting southern China more than Vietnam, which is having dire consequences on farmer’s crops in Vietnam.

‘We’re worried that this could have dramatic effects on the Delta’s sustainability in the medium and long-term due to the adverse impacts on flooding and reduced agricultural productivity,’ says Prof Parsons.

Piura, Peru and the Newton-Paulet Fund

Flooding in Piura, 2017

Peru has had sophisticated irrigation and water drainage systems dating back to before the Incas.

However, climate change is presenting the country with levels of flooding that they’ve rarely faced before.

In March 2017, Piura in northern Peru suffered its worst floods in decades when over a 100 people were killed. It raised fresh questions over how prepared the country is for the effects of climate change.

It’s not just increased flooding they are having to contend with, either. In 2016 they were hit with crippling droughts that devastated crops and forced the Government into declaring a state of emergency.

‘We know we are a country that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change,’ said Verónika Mendoza, leader of the New Peru movement to The Guardian following the 2017 floods.

‘We should have prepared ourselves better,’ she added.

The Newton Fund link in Peru was established in 2017, and Birmingham City University flooding experts Professor David Proverbs, Roger Wall and Michael Grace successfully secured funding from the British Council to travel to Peru and host a four-day workshop with groups of experts and researchers, with the aim of improving the South American country’s resilience to flooding support vulnerable communities.

The UK delegation included flooding experts Cambridge University, Newcastle University and King’s College London.

‘It brought to light the scale of the challenge they have,’ says Professor Proverbs.

‘It was an inspiring event and some the things we saw were quite harrowing,’ he added.

Workshop

El Nino conditions are nothing new in Peru, but its the abnormality and unpredictability of recent floods that have left communities in Piura exposed.

Scientists are conflicted on whether its climate change causing them but Peru’s infrastructure remains ill-equipped to cope with the heightened threat.

The landscape of the region is characterised by dry plains. The Sechura Desert, located south of the Piura River, is Peru’s largest desert and one of the world’s only tropical deserts, meaning the El Niño phenomenon is having significant macroeconomic repercussions.

There are at least 50,000 small farmers in the region of Piura who ‘live in precarious conditions,’ with many depending on a subsistence economy.

‘The El Niños are terribly difficult to predict,’ says Prof Proverbs.

‘It causes huge issues for these communities,

‘Going back 60 or 70 years these events were few and far between but over the last 15 to 20 years these events have increased and this frequency is increasing,’ he adds.

The Newton Fund grant for the workshop was a joint contribution between UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Peruvian National Council of Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (CONCYTEC) and delivered by the British Council.

Attendees visited some key flooding hotspots and explored how changes to engineering, urban and rural planning, and government policy could help prevent flooding and improve response times in emergency situations.

Working alongside the Instituto Geofísico del Perú, the Universidad de Puria and the Governor of the Piura Region, the scheme aimed to equip officials with new ideas and kick-start a major overhaul of research into the issue, as well as influence future policy.

Like in Vietnam, man-made factors are exacerbating river conditions in the region. Severe deforestation is taking place upstream which has stripped the river Piura of much-needed protection and accelerated the way precipitation gets into the river systems.

Following the workshop, the UK delegation is working on a proposal to the Governor of Piura which he says will set out a softer approach to flood risk management.

‘We’re proposing an integrated approach to flood risk management.

‘When a nation starts to wrestle with these issues, they tend to focus on engineering and that’s what we did in the UK for many years.’

‘Hopefully, a holistic and conceptual new approach to the way flooding might be managed better in the region.’

The cutting edge

Both countries will continue to benefit through partnerships forged through The Newton Fund, and PhD students from Can Tho University will spend up to a year in Hull, learning about how they manage flood risk in one of the most flood-prone areas of the UK.

‘The cross-fertilisation of ideas to help support the resilience of Peruvian communities, and we can take something back to help our own communities in the UK,’  adds Prof Proverbs.

Mark Gardner of the Newton Fund agrees and he believes the fund is crucial if we are to stay at the ‘the cutting edge of science.’

‘Our programme not only informs decision-makers in developing countries but also in the UK also’

‘In the UK, we have some of the best scientists in the world and we need to use that excellence for global benefit.’

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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