University of Sussex
The University of Sydney
Trapped Populations


Geographic Rationale:

The Mekong Delta has been selected as the geographical focus of this research due to a combination of factors:

  • The high population density of the region, combined with its status as the most productive in Vietnam, makes it of considerable interest in socio-economic terms. Furthermore, the traditional dependence of such productivity, and therefore livelihoods, upon seasonal cycles (rainfall, river flow, overbank flooding, sediment deposition etc.) has linked the population and economy of the region to the natural environment in a profound way.

  • Although the most productive region of Vietnam, this status has not been attained without the introduction of human modifications to the delta environment designed to increase yields. Due in large part to the intricate balance that has long existed in the natural systems of the delta, many such modifications have been found to have potentially damaging effects upon the long-term sustainability of production. The ability of the region to continue to support high concentrations of both people and productivity may thus be challenged in the future as the impacts of increasing modifications to the delta are felt and the costs associated with their amelioration grow.

  • In addition to environment-changing anthropogenic influences originating within the region, the location of the Mekong Delta at the mouth of one of the world’s longest rivers makes it potentially subject to changes caused by human interference upstream. With the Mekong River flowing through five countries before arriving in the delta, many changes applied to the river and watershed outside Vietnam have the potential to propagate downstream. As with anthropogenic changes undertaken within the delta, these adjustments to the natural system have the potential to affect the livelihood systems of communities located within the delta.

  • Finally, in their Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Nicholls et al., 2007) cited Ericson et al. (2006) as identifying the Mekong Delta as one of three mega deltas around the world within which more than 1 million people would be directly affected by coastal erosion and land loss resulting from decreased sediment delivery and sea-level rise by 2050. As a change in the average and distribution of weather patterns, climate change has the potential to affect the interacting systems at play in the delta and exacerbate those changes already being felt as a result of the direct influence of human activity.

The interplay between population density and vulnerability to environmental changes influenced by coastal processes are indicated by the extensive interaction between population density and low elevation coastal zone (<10m above sea level) seen on the map below.

map of population density and LECZs in Vietnam

map key

Sourced from CIESIN (2007).

Communities inhabiting the complex natural systems found within the Mekong Delta region are thus proposed to be subject to the influence of changes to the environment brought about by interactions between natural and anthropogenic processes occurring at multiple spatial and temporal scales. The delta, its communities and their inhabitants can be thought of as complex constituents of larger natural (regional river/basin and global climate) and anthropogenic (national and international policies activities) systems. Each of these interacting components that exist at a range of spatial scales will also be subject to multiple and varied changes over a range of temporal scales (ranging from days/weeks at the community level to decades/centuries at the level of global climate change) into the future.

These combinations of interlocking spatial and temporal scales of influence make the Mekong Delta an ideal, if challenging, location within which to consider the likely impacts of future environmental change and the migration decision-making processes that may lead to populations becoming trapped. With the population and economy of the region so closely linked to the natural environment, the migration decisions made by the region’s inhabitants are likely to be both highly complex and of considerable value in identifying the adaptation options being pursued there.

Interacting and Combined Pressures:

One example of the complex processes at play in the Mekong Delta is the role played by population density. While it is the productive nature of the region that may have attracted many of its inhabitants to settle there, the potential for environmental change to drastically alter the capacity of the delta to be so productive places the livelihoods of many communities at risk. Research within the Mekong Delta reveals three major environmental threats facing the region:

   1. Flooding
   2. Soil Salinity
   3. Acid Sulphate Soils (ASS)

All three of these threats have the potential to limit the agricultural productivity of a locale within which a large population reside and farm. Although the presence of a large population within regions affected by these environmental threats expose significant numbers of people to environmental threats, their presence in the region may be contributing to their own vulnerability and thus the risk of negative consequences occurring. For example, large-scale irrigation developed to prolong the availability of water to farmers within the delta will serve to reduce dry-season water discharge and thus increase rates of saline intrusion, increasing soil salinity. Furthermore, the development of flood/drainage controls will also inhibit natural overbank flow, changing natural erosion and deposition processes and increasing the occurrence of flooding downstream.

Potential for Trapped Populations:

With negative net migration the recent norm across the Mekong Delta region, out-migration has become relatively common. In addition to being undertaken for a range of non-environmental reasons, migration, both temporary and permanent, represents an avenue that inhabitants of the region may pursue in order to sustain or adapt their livelihoods in the face of environmental changes such as flooding, loss of land and salt water intrusion.

However, while migration may be a viable option for some inhabitants of an area affected by flooding, loss of land or salt water intrusion, it may be beyond the means of others. Such means may be constrained by the actual/perceived ability of a potential migrant to access livelihood assets (human, natural, social, psychological, public and financial capitals) and, if insufficient, may prevent an individual from developing or being able to realise an intention to migrate. Individuals finding themselves in such circumstances may match Foresight's description of 'trapped populations' because they are unable to move away from an area that is extremely vulnerable to environmental change.

While those individuals that develop an intention to migrate but are unable to do so because of their limited access to livelihood assets might easily be referred to as 'trapped', those that do not develop an unrealisable intention in the first place may not be so easily classified. While this distinction may be conceptually valid, however, such a distinction may or may not exist in real terms.

This research has received
funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme
(FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement number PIOF-GA-2012-329589.

European Commission

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