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For now, the arrival of participatory citizen science is proving helpful to vulnerable areas across Vietnam and signals an expansion of the democratisation of scientific information. This collaboration of scientists and volunteers broadens the scope of research and enhances the compilation of scientific data.
The approaches range from community-based monitoring to internet-driven crowdsourcing through photo documentation and data collection.
From the iridescent green rice paddies of the Mekong Delta to Hanoi’s silt-filled iron oxide-rich Red River, citizen scientists draw on their own community experiences and upload readily available science apps from their smartphones.
Scientists are quick to point out that Vietnam’s weak environmental enforcement measures have brought about a litany of damages, including mass deforestation caused by massive illegal logging; rapidly worsening air pollution due to a growing number of motorbikes; untreated wastewater being released, and industrialisation polluting rivers and streams.
As a result, provincial governments recognise the need for local communities to be empowered with skillsets for data gathering of environmental challenges.
For decades farmers and fishers have warned authorities that an environmental crisis was unfolding along the 2,700-mile Mekong, which runs through six countries providing fish, irrigation, and drinking water to an estimated 60 million people.
Three years ago, as an environmental security reporter and nonresident research fellow at the Stimson Center, I met Nguyen Minh Quang, a geography lecturer at Can Tho University, where together we engaged in researching the impact of industrialisation on Can Tho’s river systems. Out of this research experience, we formed the Mekong Environment Forum, a platform and non-governmental organisation (NGO), to educate and empower local farmers with more access to environmental information and science data tools.
Our training, directed at student volunteers, farmers, and women community organisers, continues to offer access and knowledge to platforms like iNaturalist, Fieldscope, and Marine Debris Tracker, enabling newly-trained citizen scientists to join community-wide conservation and sustainability practices by uploading data and qualitative observations.
While citizen scientists in the Mekong Delta cannot stand up against the dam building policy planners, overfishing, and sand mining, an increasing number of volunteers, many of them students at Can Tho University, are giving a voice to the Mekong River and to many farmers in the delta.
There are other environment-focused NGOs that provide a foundation for grassroots environmentalism and education. Some of these include People and Nature Reconciliation, or Pan Nature, a conservation and protection NGO; the Center for Water Resources and Development, or WARECOD, which supports sustainable water use and gender equality in access to resources; and Green Innovation and Development, or Green ID, which promotes sustainable development.
Cambodia’s recent pressure on China to release more water from its 11 upper Mekong dams to aid its downstream neighbours has helped, as has Phnom Penh’s decision not to develop new hydropower dams.
Stimson Center research analyst Courtney Weatherby hailed the move. “The postponement of any further (dam) movement on the Sambor and Stung Treng projects is certainly a victory for environmental actors and a laudable decision to limit further domestic impacts on the flow of fish, water, and sediment between the Mekong and the Tonle Sap and Delta,” said Weatherby.
The situation in the region remains dire because of the duration of the present drought. For generations, rice farmers have harvested their rice paddies on the Lower Mekong River’s thousands of tributaries to water their crops.
However, an array of problems – from rising sea levels to industrial pollution and saltwater intrusion – are converging to threaten their traditional livelihoods.
Can Tho University’s Tran Thi Diem Can agreed that the situation was perilous. “Both the drought issue and salinity issue are continuing to affect human life in the five provinces of the Mekong Delta,” said Can. “People cannot cope with the problem at the present because disasters are quicker to devastate than before.”
There is an increasing number of local people suffering from crop losses due to lack of water, especially durian farmers in Tien Giang, vegetable farmers in Ben Tre, and fruit and rice farmers. The big question for those embracing this rising citizen science tide is whether it can actually lead to policy changes, encourage smart rice farming, or merely allow for the environment’s deterioration to be documented in greater detail.
* James Borton is a non-resident fellow at the Centre of Sea and Islands Studies at Vietnam University of Social Sciences and Humanities.