Water and public policy research in Vietnam


We don’t get a lot of exposure to social science and policy research from Vietnam, so it was very interesting for me recently to run across two recent books by Vietnamese researchers: Pham Cong Huu’s Floods and Farmers: Politics, Economics and Environmental Impacts of Dyke Construction in the Mekong Delta / Vietnam and Ly Thim’s Planning the Lower Mekong Basin: Social Intervention on the Se San River. (The research was done at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.) Rural development and agricultural change are topics of interest to me, so I was very interested to read both these books.

Water control is the central focus of both books.  Floods in the Mekong Delta are among the most destructive in Asia. Pham Cong Huu quotes data that demonstrate that Vietnam has more deaths by flooding than any other state in southeast Asia. The river is also crucial to the intensive agriculture of the Mekong Delta, which produces 18 to 21 million tons of rice annually (Huu, 4). So the challenge of creating and maintaining systems for controlling flood waters and directing water into agricultural land is an enormously important one — both economically and in terms of human welfare.

Key among the measures the Vietnamese government has taken is a large system of dikes designed to control flooding. This system has generally had a positive impact on reducing the hazard of massive flooding and improving the stability of cultivation. But Huu observes that it also has major unintended negative consequences as well: “erosion, plant diseases, soil fertility decline and natural degradation in the protected flooding areas” (5).

Huu’s central interest is the decision-making processes that governed the creation and maintenance of this system of water control. He finds that it is dominated by government agencies with little input from farmers and non-governmental organizations.

It is therefore the purpose of this study not only to understand and discuss the “planning and implementation of the dyke system in the Mekong Delta”, but also to investigate the reactions of the farmers and of affected farming communities, with the ultimate aim and goal to include their experiences and visions into the broader social and economic context of the project area. (6)

Huu’s overall assessment of this decision-making process is favorable to the government but highlights crucial deficiencies:

The governmental approach is a correct and wise decision. The dyke system is seen by the government as a relevant flood control measure that needs to be implemented in the floodplains of the MD. This assumption, however, and its perception and consequences are — from a bottom-up perspective — partly adverse to the necessities and practical experiences of the local population. Therefore, farmer communities and local organizations rejected this dyke system in their practical flooding situation. (9)

 Here is how Huu summarizes his analysis of the decision-making process for dike construction in Can Tho city:

In summary, the reconstruction of the planning process and the results of own research substantiate our hypothesis that the whole planning and implementation process of the dyke system has been a top-down activity by the central government and its bodies. Professional knowledge, experience and voice of organizations and residents, especially that of planners at local level, were not asked but rather ignored in the dyke system planning process. (75)

Huu’s book is particularly valuable for the in-depth glimpses it permits of how land-use and water-control decisions are made in Vietnam. He also lays the ground for the idea that a substantially more multi-level process of decision-making would have served the people of the Mekong Delta better — one which took more account of the experience and knowledge of local people and their organizations. Here is how Huu puts this point:

Thus, one may argue that a considerable constraint of the city is the lack of democracy in the whole process of dyke system planning. The participation of civil society in planning issues towards the decentralization and devolution of many areas of natural resource policy and state responsibility are an international trend. Democratic decentralization is obviously more efficient and equitable than state-dcentered control, especially when local issues and problems are at stake. (91)

 Now consider Ly Thim’s research.  Thim is primarily interested in hydroelectric projects and the dams that they depend upon.  He focuses on the Se San river basin. There are several important differences between the problems that Huu and Thim consider. Most important is the fact that Huu’s focus is on sub-national planning (regional flood control), while Thim’s work involves river basins that span more than one country.  In the case of the Se San river, policy choices were mediated through the Mekong River Commission including Cambodia and Vietnam.  A second important difference between the two cases is the role that NGOs played.  NGOs are more or less invisible in Huu’s account, whereas they play a key role in Thim’s account of the development of policies and implementations for hydroelectric power systems on the Se San river.

Here is how Thim formulates his purposes in the research:

This book focuses on how various social actors influence the planning process for Se San River Basin’s management in response to the effect of Vietnamese Yali-Falls dam on Cambodian local communities’ livelihoods…. The objectives of this book are as follows: — To develop an understanding of historical process of hydropower development in Se San River Basin; — to identify the major actors, their roles, interests, power relations and strategies in influencing decision-making process in hydropower development sector in Se San River Basin; — to provide a concluding remark on the impact resulting from responses as a means for Se San River Basin management (1).

Thim finds that non-state actors had significant influence on the policies he considers.  NGOs were able to express their policy recommendations, and local communities were also able to find voice in the processes.

Various important actors who had a direct engagement with dam issues can be identified, such as the affected riverbank communities, the NGOs, the Cambodian government officials, and the Vietnamese government officials. The view of affected riverbank communities is mainly based on their local knowledge, their observation of changing river condition, and their experiences. The view of NGOs such as NTFP and Oxfam America clearly represents the protection of social welfare of affected communities as well as the protection of water resources environment and ecology. In this regard, the actions taken by NGOs … could bring the voice of local communities to provincial, national and international agencies for resolution. By this way, affected communities are empowered through NGOs. (93)

Both these studies are focused on policy decision-making processes governing water in Vietnam, but their methods of approach and their central findings are rather different.  The differences in findings probably reflect differences in the issue areas themselves — local and regional dike systems, versus massive international dam projects.  But it also seems noteworthy that Thim’s approach give substantially more importance to the voices of local communities and community-based organizations; whereas Huu finds that the political culture of Vietnam continues to be a top-down bureaucratic system of decision-making.

I am glad these two books made their way to my office in Michigan. This is another strong argument for the importance of digital distribution of books and research reports: these physical books probably won’t show up in your local library. But since they are available in digital editions on Google Books, anyone can download them for more careful study for a fraction of the paperback price.  Here is Ly Thim’s Planning the Lower Mekong Basin, and here you can find Pham Cong Huu’s Floods and Farmers. (They aren’t available as Kindle editions, unfortunately.)

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