Monday, November 02, 2009

Environment: Vietnam - Typhoon Ketsana exposes illegal logging

While residents in Vietnam’s low-lying coastal provinces were riding out Typhoon Ketsana, few knew that upriver the storm had unleashed a new hazard.

Thousands of logs, many apparently illegally harvested, were racing down the swollen rivers and at least 100 houses along the riverbanks were destroyed before the timber came to rest, jammed under bridges and piers.

Vietnamese forestry officials said the wood was likely taken from the country’s rapidly shrinking old-growth forests in the Central Highland provinces.

“We identified some logs that travelled 100km from Phuoc Son [a district in Quang Nam Province],” said Le Nho Nam, director of the Phuoc Son Forestry Protection Unit, one of the last old-growth or mature nature forests in the country and home to several endangered animal species.

Since old-growth trees in the park are protected, Nam said it was likely some were illegally harvested.

“We face difficulties in protecting our forests as we don’t have enough manpower or adequate equipment,” said Pham Thanh Lam, director of the Forestry Protection Unit in Quang Nam Province.

He blames deforestation - whether it is from illegal logging or to make way for hydroelectric plants - for the sustained flooding that followed Typhoon Ketsana.

In August, the forestry department issued a report citing 4,841 cases of illegal deforestation in the first half of 2009. There were hundreds of attacks on forestry officials in the same period, including loggers who tried to run down rangers with their vehicles.

Vietnam’s wood-processing industry, which supplies hardwood tables and chairs to the world, is now one of its largest exports, earning US$2.8 billion last year.

Landslide risk

“Forests help to prevent floods as we are in a high sloping terrain,” said Lam. “Reduced forest coverage makes flooding worse.”

In the past two decades, 78 percent of Vietnam’s old-growth forests have vanished, leaving it with only 85,000ha of old-growth forest.

According to the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre (ADRC) in Bangkok, such changes have serious consequences.

“Deforestation increases the risk of landslides,” Susith Arambepola, director of the centre’s urban disaster risk management programme, told IRIN. “When there is less tree cover, the run-off is higher and the soil becomes weaker,” he said.

Concerned about the rapid loss of its forests, the government has embarked on an ambitious planting programme to increase forest cover to 43 percent of the country from a low of 28 percent, says Dao Xuan Lai, who heads the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Development office in Hanoi.

The quality of the forests is poor and biodiversity is low, said Lai, so they cannot protect the soil from erosion or retain large amounts of water in heavy rain.

Last month, Typhoon Ketsana killed at least 164 people in Vietnam, after making landfall in central Quang Nam province on 29 September.

The highest number of deaths, however, was not in Quang Nam on the coast but in the mountainous province of Kon Tum after rains triggered flash floods and landslides.

Several villages were completely buried in mud.

Vietnam is plagued by natural disasters, and has been named as one of 10 countries in the world most prone to disasters caused by climate change.

According to the UNDP, typhoons, floods and droughts mean that one million people need emergency aid every year.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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