The Viet Nam News spoke with Professor Nguyen Hoang Tri from UNESCO's Man and Biosphere programme on the need for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to set up more biosphere reserves.
Can you tell us about the function of biosphere reserves? How will it benefit the Mekong Delta?
A biosphere reserve has some core functions including preserving biodivers-ity, supporting research and education, and other environmental protection activities. When sea levels rise in the future Mekong Delta provinces including Ben Tre, Tra Vinh and Soc Trang will suffer from saline water intrusion.
From UNESCO's viewpoint, if Viet Nam is able to set up biosphere reserves in such provinces, it would have a great impact on the dam building process on the Mekong river. Because, then, the Mekong River Basin would belong to the world as a UNESCO's biosphere reserve, and this would give dam investors pause.
When did this idea originate? And how can it be realised?
Last year, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) organised a big conference on this topic. If the three provinces, for instance, accepted the programme to establish biosphere reserves, they would accept many rules related to environmental protection and of course, some limits on economic development.
It's an urgent task, but the central government can't interfere because the biosphere preservation model is a new one that does not allow any one specific agency to manage it.
Biosphere preservation needs different agencies to co-operate and co-ordinate with each other, like the ministries of environment, tourism, education, construction, agriculture and rural development.
If the Government asks a specific ministry to manage a biosphere reserve, it would be limited by its own core function.
Therefore, we have suggested provincial levels to take responsibility on this issue, which will require new ways of thinking and working. For example: the total budget for the agriculture sector is around VND3 billion a year but under the new co-operation model, they would have to share it with the education and training sector. That means the rights of different agencies will be affected.
These are some of the reasons why slow progress is being made on establishing biosphere reserves.
How can we improve the situation?
We are integrating and co-operating with successful countries, but are not able to emulate them because of our limited awareness, not because of poor technology.
To change the situation, the only way is to increase education and awareness, beginning with top officials.
In leadership theory, there is an interesting word: trade-off. It means if you want something, you have to give up some other thing. For example: if you want to build a thermal power plant, you have to destroy forests.
This is common throughout the world, but rich, developed nations can afford to make the right choice, but for Viet Nam, it's impossible. If you are not a rich nation, the leaders have to make choices and they need more time to decide on the best way to get things done.
If climate change is going to cause great losses for the three Mekong Delta provinces mentioned earlier, why are they hesitant?
The conflict between GDP growth and environmental protection is a long story. Typically, officials only play attention to economic development. So education must change this. At first, we wanted all three provinces to act at the same time, but now, we let them have time to prepare.
Do we have any criteria for balancing environment and economy?
Yes, the Government has already set up a Sustainable Development Council that releases standards for economic development and environmental protection. But the real story is very different because everything depends on money. Anyone can see the difference between a mangrove forest and a shrimp pond. In theory, everybody knows the mangrove forest is precious and needed to fight climate change impacts, but shrimp pond can help many people become rich. So leaders do not have an easy choice.
But I think the thinking of many leaders has clearly improved. That's the most important thing for the long-term fight.
Local residents are also learning to adapt to climate change by themselves, using their own experience and through their social network. — VNS