Hue, Vietnam – Before floodwater inundated half their living room one night during the storm season this year, the Trans put their most valuable possessions – their TV and refrigerator – in the attic and told their two daughters to take refuge there.
Tran Nhu Hong, 23, and her 18-year-old sister, who do not know how to swim, survived the storms – the worst her generation had ever experienced and the worst her parents had seen in decades.
A neighbour was not so fortunate. The 19-year-old student was swept away in the floods after the vehicle she was travelling in was tipped over by the force of the water – on the same route the two young women usually take.
“Shortly after the water retreated, I went on that route and the vehicle was still there and had not yet been pulled out (of the mud),” Hong said. “I don’t dare to go on that route late at night any more.”
Across central Vietnam, cascading floods from October onward inundated the living and the dead, as record rainfall submerged towns and cemeteries. Authorities said earlier this month that the typhoons, which they referred to as “abnormal”, cost the Southeast Asian country 30 trillion dong ($1.3bn) in damage and killed at least 192 people – a death toll more than five times higher than the 35 COVID-19 deaths Vietnam recorded this year.
“In general, it is well-established that rainfall from typhoons is increasing due to climate change, both from observations and from models,” said Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, lead climate scientist at the Red Cross Climate Center and World Weather Attribution, whose team is conducting a study on the role of climate change in the recent floods and typhoons in central Vietnam.
With 70 percent of the population living in coastal areas and low-lying deltas, Vietnam is highly exposed to riverine and coastal flooding and is also one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change.
“There is even more damage after the floods,” Hong said, driving by rice fields made inlets because of the storms and floods in her hometown in Thua Thien Hue Province.
When the water retreated, it took crops with it, leaving behind scarred earth. Many farming families in central Vietnam count on rice, various other crops and cattle for income, especially as the Lunar New Year celebration, known as Tet, nears.
Tet is usually when Vietnamese shop for new clothes, gifts and appliances to welcome a new, fulfilling beginning; but with their homes and means of living ravaged by violent storms, severe floods and devastating landslides, Tet, which will take place in February, is likely to be tinged with sadness.
Hong’s parents are still recovering from the wounds and infections they got from wading through hip-high flood water for extended periods, and have yet to find jobs as construction workers due to the double burden of COVID-19 and the recent natural disasters.
Ichiro Sato, senior associate with the Climate Program and Sustainable Finance Center at US-based think tank World Resources Institute, says central Vietnam was battling extreme weather events long before climate change started to take effect.
“If governments have not been well-prepared even for the conventional risk of weather-related disasters that existed before climate change – and I am afraid that is the case for Central Vietnam – then there are so many things they have to work on before worrying about the additional risk of climate change,” Sato said, adding that unregulated urbanisation and economic growth may increase vulnerability to weather-related disasters in places like Vietnam.
The country typically endures between five and six storms and about three tropical depressions a year, according to the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, but in 2020 a total of at least 14 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, an estimated 7.7 million people in nine provinces, including 2.5 million children, were affected – with hundreds of thousands of houses flooded, damaged or destroyed.
“There is no doubt that children are those most affected by natural disasters,” Rana Flowers, UNICEF representative in Vietnam, told Al Jazeera, adding that families’ ability to secure nutritious food for their children had already suffered as a result of the pandemic.
An estimated 375,000 people were sent to evacuation centres during the storms and floods, including about 90,000 children, according to Flowers.
“Many of the evacuation sites were overcrowded, did not have access to sufficient water and sanitation and healthcare, and lacked appropriate management needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to mitigate protection risks especially for women and children,’’ Flowers said, adding that the situation severely affected the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of children.
A study brief published in August by the US-based Society for Research in Child Development showed that children may suffer longer-term physical and psychological deficits than adults, including difficulty sleeping or concentrating and losing interest in their usual activities – chronic mental health symptoms have been observed among children as long as four years after a disaster.
“In the long run, to be sustainable, the Vietnamese government should invest more to strengthen mental health services for children and their families, looking at the nationwide system and also building the workforce,’’ Flowers said.
Deforestation, which affects the ability of the land to retain water, also contributed to the flooding and a series of severe landslides during the stormy season, Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung said at a legislative National Assembly meeting last month.
Between 2002 and 2019, Vietnam lost 657,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) of primary forest – 23 percent of its total tree-cover loss according to data from international monitoring service Global Forest Watch. About 50 percent of all tree-cover loss between 2001 and 2019 took place in 11 of the country’s 63 provinces – eight of them in central Vietnam, it said.
The devastating landslides and flooding have prompted concerns about deforestation caused by the construction of hydropower plants in forests.
As of 2018, there were 385 dams in operation, with an additional 143 under construction, according to the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Earlier this month, the minister acknowledged the increased evidence of the loss of watershed forests and vegetation, as well as a loss of soil adhesion, as a result of the developments.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc suggested last month at a legislative National Assembly meeting that Vietnam target planting one billion trees in the next five years, although he did not elaborate on how the initiative would be executed.
The government has also announced sustainable and long-term missions to cope with storms in central Vietnam, including upgrading climate-change adaptation scenarios and relocating people in areas at risk of landslide and flooding.
No place like home
For those who have been living in the area for generations, like the parents of 21-year-old university student Le Thi Thuyen, leaving their storm-battered homes seems unfathomable.
“We can be accustomed to annual storms but whenever they come, we are still worried,” said Thuyen, a native of 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 organisation in Vietnam’s biggest city, called her parents and siblings back home every day when the storms were pounding their commune, flooding and isolating homes in low-lying areas.
Tears welled up in her eyes when she thought of her 12-year-old brother who does not know how to swim.
“I read news about kids who got swept away by the flood and I was really worried about my brother,” the 21-year-old said.
Thuyen’s parents, who make a living from agriculture and working on other people’s farms, have already been struggling this year because of the pandemic – and the storm season has created more problems, destroying their crops, and fish. It also meant weeks when there were no jobs to be found.
“Tet this year won’t be as fulfilling as others for us,” Thuyen said. “This time, it won’t be my parents supporting me, but I will be supporting them with what I can.”