What do vulnerable fishing and farming communities along the Mississippi River Delta and the Mekong River Delta have in common?
Quite a lot.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Vietnam to help connect Oxfam partners that are working in Louisiana and Vietnam. We participated in the 2013 World Deltas Dialogues, a conference bringing together leaders to examine regional approaches to the growing threats of climate change, subsidence, and upstream development on the world’s great river deltas.
These four images I captured show the similar challenges, approaches, and recommendations from Oxfam partners, despite the thousands of miles that divide them geographically.
1. Healthy deltas are essential to supporting livelihoods, but they face an array of threats.
A commercial fisherman pulls in a cast net in boat steered by his wife near Hoi An, Viet Nam, where I also tried my hand at throwing a cast line, rather poorly I must admit. Photo: Jeffrey Buchanan
Almost 300 million people live along the world’s 40 largest river deltas, which are among the globe’s most vulnerable landscapes for the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and extreme weather. In both Viet Nam and Louisiana, fishermen, farmers and their families, as well as advocates and academics, are fighting for their livelihoods in the midst of upstream developments and decisions. Whether it’s energy development or structural flood protection like levees, they have had an impact on essential fish habitat and natural flood protection, impacting the resilience and livelihoods of communities along our world’s great deltas.
“We see how upstream development, climate change, and extreme weather are impacting hydrological systems [that] communities depend on, and what that means for what they are able to fish and farm along the delta,” said Nga Dao, the Executive Director of the Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development (WARECOD), in her presentation to the conference. “We need to consider…how [communities] will adapt going forward in our planning.”
2. Those living and working in the deltas have the most relevant and up-to-date information to share with planners, and with each other.
Oxfam partners Daniel Nguyen of MQVN Community Development Corporation in New Orleans (left) and Nga Dao of WARECOD in Hanoi (right) discuss a research project analyzing changes in a tributary of the Mekong River in An Gaing province, Vietnam. Photo: Jeffrey Buchanan
At a conference chock full of “experts” like scientists, engineers, and diplomats, Oxfam partners brought a unique approach, making the case that communities themselves bring valuable perspectives and information to the discourse.
“A bottom up approach in community resilience [builds] common efforts to try and increase the engagement and participation of local people in our projects,” said Binh Hoang, policy director of Green Innovation and Development Center (GREEN-ID) in Hanoi of the Oxfam partners. “We all are working to try and bring local [people’s] concerns and voices to important decision makers.”
We also saw our partners could learn from each other. For instance, Daniel Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, a non-profit working with Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans, expressed interest in learning from the way WARECOD in the An Gaing province of Vietnam involved residents in planning research and owning project agendas. According to our colleague Nga Dao of WARECOD, the community leaders we met with on our site visit were once shy and hesitant but by now the level of enthusiasm was so great that a few of the members even presented their research results in song!
3. Repairing our deltas is not just about economics, but about future generations.
A child atop a house in the Tonlé Sap region of Cambodia waves while holding a fishing pole. Photo: Jeffrey Buchanan
Fishing communities of the Mississippi and Mekong River Deltas share a pride in the quality of their seafood and hospitality (I found sharing crabs and a cold beer are universal!), a strong connection to their faith, and hopes of passing on their livelihoods for the future.
On a visit to Ong Thuy Tuong Temple just outside Can Gio Bio Reserve in Vietnam, I learned about the annual religious festival, Nghinh Ong, where fishermen pray for safety and a good catch, a tradition very similar to Louisiana’s blessing of the fleet. Traveling along Tonlé Sap with colleagues from the American Wetlands Foundation and the US Army Corps of Engineers, we saw plenty of children fishing with their parents, hauling in their catch and casting lines. This reminded many of our colleagues of their own childhoods growing up on the bayous of Louisiana and fishing with parents who worked as commercial fishermen.
“We have to remember that along with science and engineering, the story of our deltas is about people, our cultures and our history,” said Rebecca Templeton, the Executive Director of Bayou Grace Community Services, a community development organization in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. “Our people have lived here for generations knowing how to adapt to change.”
With so much of the way of life centering on the connection to the water and natural resources, these challenges take on greater meaning than just dollars and cents. (Or Vietnamese dong for that matter!)
4. If we want to build resilient deltas, the right people must be at the table.
Oxfam partners speaking at the 2013 World Deltas Dialogues conference about community resiliency (left to right): Jeffrey Buchanan of Oxfam America, Val Marmillion of America’s Wetlands Foundation, Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace Community Services, Daniel Nguyen of MQVN CDC; Nga Dao of WARECOD, and Binh Hoang of GREEN-ID.
If we want to save the world’s great deltas, the people who depend on them most must be a part of the solution. “People have the right to be consulted about these resources that are part of their lives,” Nga Dao of WARECOD shared.
In the end, in the final communique of cooperation issued by the conference, attendees agreed on six major areas where greater cooperation and progress is needed to improve deltaic sustainability across the globe. One of these goals was community participation and support of an ongoing dialogue that ensures transparency and integration of communities in decision-making and public action.
When Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace Community Services was asked during the panel about the political challenges facing communities in doing so, she had this to say. It has stuck with me.
“As communities, we know if we’re not at the table discussing how to solve these problems, then we’re likely on the menu.”