Ancient Vietnamese explained away floods by pointing to a mysterious figure called the Saint of Water, who created and controlled the rain and rising water levels. They also had the Saint of Mountains, who helped protect them from the floods. The desire to explain and escape from floods is almost part of the Vietnamese DNA.
Today, we know there is no Saint of Water nor Saint of Mountains, and we also know what rain is and where floods come from. Yet we are no more free from floods than our ancestors were.
Weather forecasts tell us when floods may occur, but many people, especially those in the central region, can’t just run away. They must endure years with many floods and hope that other years are kinder.
Science has failed to help them escape the floods, as seen last year when the central region’s northern stretch experienced repeated floods in October and November, while its southern stretch was hit by two separate but devastating floods in November and December.
But as people cried out about their losses from the floods, most failed to recognise that they contribute to the problem.
An addiction to forest timber is still found among the majority of Vietnamese people. They look down upon industrial wood and demand forest timber all the time and for every item of furniture. This unnecessary demand has increased the consumption of forest timber, which means more trees being chopped down, resulting in larger tracts of bare land in forests, resulting in rainwater running freely into streams rather than being held in check by the forests.
In their ancient dreams, Vietnamese people from centuries past considered the forest to be the domain of the Saint of Mountains, but today’s generation have stripped the Saint bare and consumed timber in a manner that sees rainwater gush down mountain slopes and into the plains. They also filled up lakes and low-lying areas and blocked natural water channels to build homes and other buildings, reducing natural reserves of water and possible escape routes from rising flood waters.
All of these make flooding more severe after heavy downpours. The consequences of blocking water channels were on display in Nha Trang and Quy Nhon, where floodwaters created strong streams that broke walls and housing foundations as they flowed freely with little in the way of resistance.
During and after the four floods in 2016 in the central region, controversy broke out over the responsibility of hydropower plants in releasing water during the rainy season, contrary to their commitments on operating their reservoirs. Regulations require such reservoirs to hold water during the rainy season, to help cut floods on the plains and along downstream rivers. The reservoirs are only allowed to release water during the dry season, to ensure regular volumes of water for irrigation and human needs.
Investors or owners of reservoirs, though, tend to put profit first. Many refuse to release water during the dry season, as any water shortage would affect generation. Releasing water in the wet season, on the other hand, protects them from the risk of overflowing.
Natural floods come with signs and in a gradual manner, and people in plain areas generally have sufficient time to excavate and take their livestock to higher ground. The rise and fall of water levels depends on rainfall and change doesn’t normally come swiftly, meaning strong currents are not common in natural floods.
Natural floods have less of an impact than floods in an era when upstream rivers have hydropower reservoirs. People are scared of floods, but they also want and need natural flooding, which helps clean out chemical residues, plant disease, rats, pests and harmful insects from their gardens and fields. Floods also give them alluvia, which helps enrich their soil.
Floods from reservoirs are different, as they arrive suddenly and are accompanied by strong currents when power plants release huge volumes of water at the same time without prior announcements.
Obviously, power plants do not cause the flooding but they are a factor in worsening the impact from rising water levels. Residents in flood-prone areas cannot stop the greed of investors and have failed to prevent policy makers from allowing the construction of power plants while ignoring the safety of communities in low-lying areas.
But they can help themselves by reducing their electricity consumption, which would lead to less investment in power plants. It may sound a ridiculous idea on an individual level, but attempts by 92 million people around the country to conserve electricity consumption would have an impact.
Environmental issues affect everyone in the world these days and every individual should think responsibly and act consciously. Every single person should become involved in global environmental concerns with minor acts in their daily routines.
The poor and the disadvantaged are always hit hardest by disasters, including floods. They are, of course, not the direct cause of the floods, but like everyone else they play some role. Motivating them in particular and all Vietnamese citizens in general to end their addiction to forest timber, to live under a strict power conservation regime, and to build homes that respect the environment is necessary if they are to be saved from floods and not rely on the Saint of Mountains.