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Shifting Deltas: Multi-sited Fieldwork in Bangladesh and Viet Nam

Do one thing every day that scares you.

This bit of coffee mug wisdom flits across my mind as I narrowly dodge a motorcycle on the crowded street and grip my handlebars with renewed vigor. The objective when driving in Viet Nam is not so much to maintain a particular course as to continually position and reposition yourself relative to the hundreds of other ever-shifting motorbikes on the road, much like a school of fish, I imagine. The shimmering heat and sea of colorful helmets only magnify the sensation. Part steering and part steered, I gradually wend my way toward Can Tho University, where I am studying climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the Mekong Delta. It is a new project for me but has roots that extend back to my dissertation research in another Asian delta.

Kimberley Thomas research assistants

Enjoying a break with student research assistants from Can Tho University after a long week of fieldwork.

As a graduate student interested in water governance, I was struck by the apparent disconnect between studies of high-profile interstate negotiations and those of everyday water challenges on the ground. India and Bangladesh had brokered a landmark treaty over the Ganges River after decades of conflict, and I wanted to understand how such processes of international water dispute, diplomacy, and cooperation shaped people’s vulnerability to water scarcity and excess at the local level. In the course of this work, I became familiar not only with the mechanisms and institutions for managing competing claims to water resources, but also with the regulation of water itself.

During fieldwork in western Bangladesh, I sat among piles of fishing nets and talked with fishermen as they sorted their catch. I drank tea with farmers in the shade of mango trees, spoke with boat operators as they ferried me across rivers, and took refuge from the heat while talking with residents in their homes.

Their stories imparted on me an understanding that while they undoubtedly feel the impacts of India’s upstream water withdrawals and diversions, the original focus of my study, some of their most significant water struggles are much more local in origin. Specifically, water management infrastructure erected in the 1960s had radically disrupted the floodplain hydrology of the Ganges Delta, thereby exacerbating residents’ existing issues with flooding and high salinity water. These changes had knock-on effects as well. Formerly abundant fisheries collapsed, navigation routes withered, and poor drainage led to recurrent crop losses and increased disease risk. Such unexpected findings became a core component of my dissertation. The realization that climate change (and associated shifts in water distribution) would further complicate these dynamics formed the basis for my current research.

Kimberley Thomas fishermen Bangladesh

Talking with fishermen on the Ganges River in Bangladesh.

The Mekong and Ganges Deltas share a surprising amount in common, which makes them ideal for comparative study. They are densely populated, low-lying, primarily agrarian, and highly engineered mega-deltas that many consider to be acutely vulnerable to climate change. These regions face threats from seawater intrusion, cyclones, flooding, and drought. They have accordingly become targets for massive, capital-intensive interventions aimed at ensuring long-term delta sustainability. As with the flood management systems of the past, most of the funding for these adaptation measures is slated for water infrastructure like embankments, sea walls, sluice gates, and drainage channels.

My dissertation research had sensitized me to the gap that can exist between the intended and actual outcomes of water hazards mitigation projects, so I set out to investigate the socio-ecological impacts of climate change adaptation efforts in these two deltas with the support of a CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship.

Kimberley Thomas sluice gate Viet Nam

A sluice gate stretches 84 meters across the Ba Lai River in Ben Tre Province, Viet Nam. The gate is designed to block saline water from advancing too far inland during the dry season.

Ongoing security issues in Bangladesh precluded me from returning there for fieldwork, but the fellowship was crucial for establishing new research sites in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. Spending 11 weeks in Viet Nam developing institutional contacts, conducting interviews, and studying the language helped me realize that the complexity of the delta and the questions I bring to it require more sustained examination.

What started as an 18-month project has swelled into a 10-year endeavor, the LAVA Project (or, Long-term Analysis of Vulnerability and Adaptation), which owes its start to the generous CAORC funding and support that I received over the past two years.

So, the recent completion of my fellowship actually marks the launch of my project rather than its end. To be leading such a large and long-term study as a junior scholar feels incredibly exciting and a little bit scary—reminiscent of my first foray into Can Tho traffic. It looks like I’ll be following that sage advice for a good while yet.

Kimberley Thomas transect walk Viet Nam

Residents discuss water hazards during a transect walk in Ben Tre Provice, Viet Nam.

Learn more about CAORC Fellowships.


About the Author

Kimberley Anh Thomas is an environmental social scientist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She conducts research on international water governance, human vulnerability to environmental hazards, and climate finance justice in Bangladesh and Viet Nam. Her research has been published in Water International, WIREs Climate Change, Geopolitics, and Water Policy and has been supported by funding from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies, the Institute for Human Geography, and the CAORC Multi-Country Research Program (2017–2019). @kimberleyanh

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