Thu Van

Thousands of hectares of forests are destroyed every year in Vietnam’s northwestern area due to poachers, households foraging for firewood, and slash-and-burn cultivators.

Floods in early August in northern Vietnam killed 27 people and washed away hundreds of homes, causing damage estimated at more than US$43 million (Bt1.4 billion).

Weeks of torrential rains that followed have also caused widespread devastation since then for the northern mountainous provinces of Son La, Dien Bien, Yen Bai and Lai Chau.

Terrifying images and videos have been posted online showing the disaster: people can see the swift flood waters sweeping through these provinces.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Hoang Van Thang, when visiting these areas, said he had never seen such a horrible flash flood “that can wash away anything it met on its way”.

Long before this, people from many other regions of the country, particularly the central region, suffered such destruction many times. In 2016, natural disasters such as floods and tropical storms killed 264 people across the country and caused damage worth nearly 40 trillion dong (Bt58 billion), five times more than in 2015.

Some people blamed this on mother nature. But some, or many others, know well that this is widely misunderstood as simply natural occurrences. They know that this is manmade.

Vu The Long, former head of the Human and Nature Research Group of the Viet Nam Institute of Archaeology, said although floods did happen in the past, they were not this severe.

“People have been cruelly destroying the environment, worsening the floods,” he said.

If a river cannot handle the load of water it’s required to carry, it must rise. With enough water, it must rise above its banks and flood. Trees prevent sediment runoff and forests hold and use more water than farms or grasslands.

While some rainwater stays on the leaves, and it may evaporate directly to the air, trees’ roots absorb water from the soil, making the soil drier and able to store more rainwater. Tree roots hold the soil in place, reducing the movement of sediment that can fill river channels downstream. That’s how a single tree can actually help in reducing the effects of flooding.

But what happened to so many trees in these northern provinces?

Officials say there are thousands of hectares of forests destroyed every year in the country’s northwestern area due to poachers, households foraging for firewood, and slash-and-burn cultivators.

In 2015 alone, forest rangers discovered and seized almost 2,000 cases of illegal logging in Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Yen Bai, Son La and Lao Cai provinces.

Last October, a report by Lao Dong (Labour) Newspaper told the story of how local residents in Tram Tau District of Yen Bai Province have been lured into cutting down trees and selling them to illegal traffickers. The activities took place like any other normal daily activities and the transporters had almost no difficulties in delivering the timber to the gathering place, the report said.

According to statistics by the Northwestern Steering Committee, in the past 10 years, there were more than 76,000 people migrating from one location to another and they had contributed greatly to deforestation for farming.

In 2015, 131 households in Muong Hung Commune, Song Ma District of Son La Province, voted among themselves to destroy an area of protected forest. The next morning, more than 20 hectares of protected forest had been cut down before local authorities discovered the case. More damage would have been done.

According to a 2005 report conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Vietnam had the second highest rate of deforestation of primary forests in the world, second only to Nigeria. In 2013, an analysis of satellite imagery by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) revealed that from 1973 to 2009, Vietnam had already lost 43 percent of its forest cover – the most severe forest destruction in the entire Mekong sub-region.

Over the past 30 years, the government has been developing hydropower capacity in the affected region. Unfortunately, in many cases of such development, environmental and social impacts are secondary concerns. Forests were destroyed to make space for the hydropower projects, but the areas of replanted forest were so little they could do nothing when flood comes.

While Vietnam is reportedly increasing the amount of forested land, it’s not close to enough to make up for the lost trees. And despite the order to close some forests by the Government, the destruction has not stopped. Illegal logging was still found recently in Quang Nam, Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces.

Nature has its rules. Humankind is a part of the universe. But look at what people have done to the nature. Of course I’m not happy at all at people being washed away by the floods and houses damaged and families broken, but logically now nature has taken its toll on us for our own mistakes and our own crimes.

Some examples: According to Janet Abramovitz of Worldwatch, the loss of trees played a major role in the huge Yangtze flood of 1998. The Yangtze watershed had lost 85 per cent of its forest cover in a few decades before that time.

While the Chinese government was trying to blame it all on heavy rains, maybe El Nino or global warming, it also launched a $2-billion plan to reforest the Yangtze basin. “Certainly … a very clear sign from the government that deforestation was a problem,” Abramovitz said.

Another: Floods are almost annual events in the Himalayas. Huge rivers originating in the Himalayas pass through the densely settled Terai flats that span both India and Nepal, and these rivers swell enormously in the monsoon season. But the floods this year have been particularly devastating. In the past two months more than 1,200 people have been killed and 20 million others affected by floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

India, for its part, said it believed deforestation contributed largely to water overflow into India.

The authorities have not been effective enough at preventing people from cutting down trees illegally. It was not right to build up so many hydropower plants. Now they can’t run away from the responsibility to address the problems their people have created.

Afforestation must be fostered, forest must be protected, and at the same time, flood alert systems should be improved to work more effectively. Proper preparation to cope with climate change is also needed. Or we’ll keep losing more people and properties each year.