By Prof Tran Duc Tuan

Two case study sites in Mekong Delta in Vietnam for the ISSC project on T-learning have been identified after field visits in 2015 and 2016. Vietnam is considered as one of the countries most affected by climate change with its Mekong Delta is one of the world’s three most vulnerable deltas (together with the Nile Delta in Egypt and the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh) affected by sea level rise.

The Mekong Delta is located at the southernmost tip of Vietnam and is the site at which the Mekong River empties into the South China Sea. It encompasses an area of 39,200 km2 and accounts for 12% of the national area of Vietnam and 5% of the entire Mekong Basin area (Käkönen, 206). 22% of the population of Vietnam lives in the Mekong Delta and the population density of the Mekong Delta is 412 persons per km2. Agricultural land constitutes 75% of the Mekong Delta, most of which is dedicated to rice paddies.

The Mekong Delta is critically important to Vietnam’s national agricultural production. According to Can Tho University estimates, the Mekong Delta produces 50% of the nation’s rice, 80% of the nation’s fruit, and 60% of the nation’s fish, making it the largest agriculture and aquaculture production region in Vietnam (ICEM, 37). Overall, 46% of the total amount of food produced in Vietnam comes from the Mekong Delta and the Mekong Delta contributes 27% of Vietnam’s GDP according to the 2009 Mekong Delta Climate Change Forum Report (ICEM, 7 & 59). Agriculture in the Mekong Delta is the primary livelihood for 60% of the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta (Käkönen, 206).

With rising sea levels near low lying land at the mouth of the delta, increased rainfall, an increased number of extreme weather events, increased average temperatures, and increased saltwater intrusion, the climate change in Mekong Delta has already substantially impacted the Mekong Delta (ICEM, 4 – 5). According to one projection, 90% of the agricultural land in the Mekong Delta would be affected by flooding and 70% of the Mekong Delta will suffer from saline intrusion as a result of climate change (ICEM, page 6). The climate change has become a real threat to the agricultural productivity of the Mekong Delta and will negatively impact the livelihoods of many of its residents, especially poor people.

The studies show clearly that in Mekong Delta climate-water-food-energy-social nexus has been affected more seriously than in the past. In this context local people have great concerns on nexus issues and really want to have opportunities to approach different forms of social learning through public media, civil society, learning communities, NGOs and academic or training organizations in order to understand the climate-water-food-energy and social justice nexus and to develop their competence to overcome big challenges of climate change in this region.

For the T-learning case study research in Mekong Delta, we are concentrating research activities in two case study sites (Can Tho city and Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve). The focus will be on completing the following main tasks:

  • Investigate and identify how issues of the climate-water-food-energy–social nexus are presented and how these are framed as matters of concern by local people.
  • Explore questions and concerns raised by local participants in situ and reflect on existing social learning in climate-water-climate- energy-social justice nexus context
  • Identify how T- Learning could be expanded or extended for social and ecological sustainability

We have chosen  Can Tho City and the Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve in Mekong Delta, Vietnam as two case study sites of Transgressive Social Learning for Social-Ecological Sustainability in Times of Climate Change (T-learning), because they present all nexus issues, and provide insights into T-learning challenges which meet the two basic kinds of learning: instrumental and communicative learning, especially instrumental learning focusing on learning through task-oriented problem solving and determination of cause and effect relationships.


T-learning case study site 1:  Can Tho City

This city, which is one of the case study sites, falls directly under the central authorities, and lies in the heart of the Mekong River Delta with the specific culture of water-based farming.  In there, An Binh ward and My Khanh commune are the two sites which have been selected for implementing the sub-projects on transformative learning.

Can Tho lies at the heart of the Mekong Delta. It is the fifth-largest city in Vietnam and is growing rapidly. After 120 years of development, the city now is the delta’s most important center of economics, culture, science, and technology. It has a large freshwater port and two industrial parks. Can Tho not only has advantages of agriculture and aquatic products, but also a geographical position that helps develop such fields as urban infrastructure, traffic infrastructure, hi-tech agriculture, agricultural–aquatic products and seafood processing industry, tourism and supportive industries. Traditionally a center of agriculture, forestry and fishery, the Can Tho economy is increasingly moving toward commerce, service, and construction.

The area of Can Tho is 1, 401 km2 and it has a population of 1.4 million (2014 figures), and is located on the south bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong river. The city is subdivided into nine district-level sub-divisions including 5 urban districts and 4 rural districts in which Ninh Kiều, an urban district is the modern city center, which is also the most populated and wealthiest district. Land and water are the typical natural resources of Can Tho.

The Ninh Kieu District floods regularly when monsoon-driven waters swell the Mekong to bank-full conditions. Ninh Kieu is home to administrative buildings, domestic housing, commercial banks, higher education institutes, hospitals, supermarkets, and communication stations. Outlying areas, criss-crossed by a dense system of rivers and canals, experience more intense flooding. Sea level rise is poised to exacerbate these risks. Low water levels are beginning to pose equally significant challenges. There is concern that in the coming decades, saline encroachment, driven by a combination of higher sea levels, increasing upstream water withdrawals, and extended dry seasons will impact the city’s municipal water supply. Exposure to other climate related hazards is also increasing. Changing storm tracks are bringing typhoons to southern Vietnam in an increasing number; temperatures are rising, posing threats to urban populations, agriculture, and aquiculture alike; and vector-borne diseases appear to be on the rise.

Currently, climate change is a major challenge for the sustainable development of the Can Tho City. In recent decades, the city has been affected increasingly by natural disasters: floods, storms. Recent studies in Can Tho have indicated that climate change leads to more extreme weather and therefore causes affecting the food supply, use and supply of energy and fresh water as well as impact on social justice.

The city lies in the half-flooded plains that are gradually sloping from northeast to southwest, including three kinds of terrain: natural dikes alongside Ha River (forming the strip of high land and islands along-side Ha River); half-flooded plains (that is directly influenced by the flood every year); and delta plains (mainly influenced by the tide and some interactive influences from the crop-end floods). Increased flooding and becoming more frequent in the area of Can Tho has led to many problems such as water pollution, reduced crop productivity, job loss, health decline and migration to find work or residence. Agriculture is a primary source of livelihood in countryside areas of Can Tho. The increased flooding risk along with increasing levels of saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta pose a real threat to its agricultural output. As a result of decreased agricultural output, income per capita in the Can Tho city will likely fall. An eventual migration of residents of the city to the neighboring regions of the Mekong Delta could occur due to their loss of livelihoods. This poses the potential for social and/or political unrest as resource shortages may affect the food security and livelihoods of the residents of the regions to which the Can Tho city refugees may migrate. In other words, the social – ecological system is at risk.

The local people are developing many adaptive practices to climate change and the environment both spontaneously and actively, mainly in livelihood development and disaster risk reduction. The learning activities to raise awareness about climate change, disaster response or adaptive livelihood development or water savings are geared towards different objects in the community at different levels (district and commune). Enhancing understanding to adapt better and enable sustainable development in the climate change context seems to be a need of the society. This is also advantage to take the research programme forward.

Meanwhile, higher education systems in Can Tho city are developed, with numerous universities present. Non-formal and social learning activities are also increasing in the area. Learning activities take place in various forms (e.g. formal learning, extracurricular activities, and activities at the community learning center) and they are organized in multiple different spaces (community learning centers of commune / ward level; seminars – training organized by the project, the meetings of social organizations). However, the learning activities that are taking place are only sporadic and of a temporary nature, and these tend to depend on project activities, events or the annual communications plans of local authorities) which have not been included in the formal education system.

The potential germ cell activities of T-learning appear to potentially exist in different forms in Can Tho site. There are many T-learning challenges that we have identified so far. T-learning is a new educational theory, a new concept in Vietnam. In other words, there is not much research on T-learning in Vietnam in general and Can Tho city in particular. The current learning activities associated with the nexus issues that arise in the time of climate change (such as water, livelihood, food, climate, energy) appear to be formed primarily from projects or research programs related to climate change. So it is small-scale, short-term, sporadic and limited to assessments of the social impact. The government or the formal education system does not have policies and budgets to regularly promote forms of social learning.

Recently in Can Tho more and more climate resilience projects and case studies funded by international or domestic organizations have implemented and supported a diverse stakeholder groups in Can Tho to understand the linked challenges of climate change and urbanization, to plan strategically, and to implement key priority interventions to build resilience. This process has engaged local actors from the provincial to community level, including the People’s Committee, government departments, mass organizations, non-government organizations, and academic institutions.  In 2009, stakeholders embarked on a process of shared learning for resilience planning, which included: participatory shared learning dialogues (SLDs) calling together stakeholders and experts from a variety of backgrounds to understand more about climate risks, exchange research and experiences related to the city’s vulnerability, and to deliberate. Due to practical activities of the projects, first basics and conditions for social learning and T-learning appear therefore to be in place and can be further developed in Can Tho City.


T-learning case study site 2:  Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve

The UNESCO Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve is located in Kien Giang province. Kien Giang is located in the Mekong River Delta at the southwest end of Vietnam, covering a natural area of 6,348.50 km2, with over 200 km of coastline and over 56 km of land bordering with Cambodia.

As a miniature of Vietnam, Kien Giang province is endowed with a full variety of natural resources including the river systems, mountains, forests, plains and the sea with over 140 large and small islands. Its population is about 1,688,288 (2009) of which 80 percent live in the rural area. Many issues in the area are related sustainable livelihoods including food, energy and water and social justice in the context of climate change. As stated in the National Strategic Action Plan for Climate Change (NSAPCC,2014), Kien Giang as other provinces in Mekong Delta, will be prone to heavy impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, saltwater intrusion affecting governance and social justice.

The Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve was designated by UNESCO in 2006, covering an area of 1,188,106 ha (329,305 of terrestrial area and 858,801 ha of marine area); the biosphere reserve consists of three functional zones: core zone, buffer zone and transition zone. The core zone covers 36,936 ha. It makes a corridor connecting various habitats including terrestrial, marine and wetland. The buffer zone covers 172,578 ha in both terrestrial and marine areas, surrounding the coastal mangrove stretches and mudflat areas. The transition zone covers 978,592 ha in terrestrial land and outer marine waters.

The Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve is the 2nd largest Biosphere Reserve in the network of 9 World Biosphere Reserves of Vietnam recognized by UNESCO; most tropical ecosystems are present here namely: mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds, seasonally inundated Melaleuca forests, evergreen tropical forests on Phu Quoc Island; Hon Chong limestone forests; the remaining Lepironia prairie grassland in the Mekong Delta. There are large spaces in which core areas are connected to such as U Minh Thuong National Park, Phu Quoc National Park and Phu Quoc Marine Protected Area; Kien Luong landscape protection forests and Western coastal mangrove belt. The biosphere reserve is managed by a management board composing mainly stakeholders of governmental staff, local community and private company representatives. The biosphere reserve supports a population of 352,893 people living almost in rural areas. They are facing to impact of climate change including harvest and life losses from storms, typhoons, saline intrusion and sea level rise (SLR).

The nexus issues in the area of relevance to the T-learning study, emerge in relation to food, energy, water and social justice in the context of climate change. All these are related and relating each other. The most critical issue is how to coordinate sectors to work together and engage toward sustainability. This involves dealing with how to create the space of transformation. It includes the need to plan for functional zones, and create a mechanism of coordination between and among sectors. This same need was presented in UNESCO/MAB periodic review of the biosphere reserve during 10 years (2006-2016), the GIZ/AUSAID project on enforcement of three core zones of Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve during 2009-2013, and in the national project on building modalities of tourism development linking with biodiversity conservation (2016-2018), and others.

Lessons learnt from these projects that consist of mangrove rehabilitation for buffering the SLR and tropical storm surges, livelihood improvement of local people in the biosphere reserve (GIZ/AUSAID 2009-2013), conservation-based tourism development (National project 2016-8), education innovation (GIZ/AUSAID 2009-2013), using indigenous knowledge in sustainable fishing (UNESCO/MAB 202-3) would be good highlights for T-learning. The space of transformation includes both spatial land/sea scape and cultural scape, they are interacting to move forward sustainability objectives. An addition, the MAB Vietnam is using the SLIQ approach (System thinking, Land/sea scape planning, Intersectional coordination, Quality economy) for successful nomination and governance of the biosphere reserve, it is also a good space for inter-sectional T-Learning.

The Vietnam Government has approved a National Strategic Action Plan for Climate Change, National Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development and National Strategy for Green Economy. The national network of biosphere reserves is top priority for implementation of these policies. This provides a rich context for T-learning and results from the T-learning will be used for national policy and governance of the country. The T-learning will be integrated into Vietnam MAB policy and management of biosphere reserves in the country during 2016-2020 and vision 2050.



  1. International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) (2009, November 12 – 13). Mekong Delta Climate Change Forum Report Volume I. Retrieved September 11, 2011, from the International Centre for Environmental Management:
  2. Käkönen, Mira (2008 May). “Mekong Delta at the Crossroads: More Control or Adaptation?” Ambio Volume 37, No. 3: 205-12. Retrieved October 5, 2011 from ProQuest.
  3. Vietnam’s National Strategy on Climate Change:


September 2016

Center for Research and Promotion of ESD (CEREPROD), Hanoi National University of Education (HNUE)