Schwab, Maria: Nature and values of coping and adaptation : An evaluation of response mechanisms to changing water-related risks in rural areas of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. - Bonn, 2014. - Dissertation, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.
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author = {{Maria Schwab}},
title = {Nature and values of coping and adaptation : An evaluation of response mechanisms to changing water-related risks in rural areas of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta},
school = {Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn},
year = 2014,
month = oct,

note = {Drivers, characteristics and barriers of beneficial and adapted response mechanisms to water-related risks in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta (VMD) are at the centre of this PhD research. These subject matters owe their importance to a manifold range of factors. Water is at the fore as the most formative element for landscapes and societies in the VMD – not only in its function as a vital source of livelihood but also as a threatening natural hazard. Water-related hazards have changed and will continue to change amidst a vibrant socio-economic setting and a fundamentally changing climate. These looming threats and the ongoing changes require action if the prospering character of Vietnam’s rice bowl is to be maintained. Long-term and short-term-oriented response mechanisms have thus aroused a great deal of interest in science, practice and in the public debate. Strategic assessments of the nature and values of risk-related measures have, however, rarely been addressed in the Mekong Delta context. This research has therefore brought evaluation of coping and adaptation in the context of water-related risks into focus.
Quality judgements are at the centre of interest in the international community of evaluation research and practice. Within this community, evaluations commonly revolve around the identification of the most efficient strategy for a specific target group. Quality is, however, a measure of basic normative considerations on divergent implications and distinct values – aspects which cannot always be measured by a mere effectiveness assessment which judges “good” responses in seemingly absolute terms. A more comprehensive evaluation in combination with a profound understanding of the local context and individuals’ decision-making processes is an essential prerequisite for identifying barriers to “good” adaptation and coping. This is, in turn, a vital requirement for promoting more sustainable development pathways for the Mekong Delta. This thesis therefore aims at a holistic assessment of “good” risk-related response mechanisms, an identification of more than just economic barriers to the successful implementation of these strategies, and an exploration of context-specific and actor-oriented ways of overcoming the barriers.
The study consequently develops an innovative and adaptable evaluation framework which takes a multi-disciplinary perspective of risk-related strategies. This concept draws on three different schools of thought and combines them in an integrative approach. Firstly, it takes a social-ecological system perspective. In contrast to most of evaluation research and practice, this framework thereby explicitly addresses the risk context. It allows actors at various scales to be addressed and considers multiple dimensions. Vulnerability, as a concept arising from this line of thought, provides an expedient baseline to judge the relevance of taking action, grasp the complexity of strategy outcomes, and identify barriers emerging from the overall risk context. Secondly, the vulnerability concept is linked with an actor-oriented perspective derived from a socio-cognitive model of adaptation decision-making. This provides a, widely neglected, actor-oriented perspective to evaluation. It explains why decisions to adapt or cope are taken and involves a subjective and actor-specific evaluation component. Thirdly, the framework involves a more structured analysis of the actual adaptation/coping process along the lines of so-called “theories of change”. It comprises the assessment of strategy implementation, outcomes and impacts on the vulnerability of different groups and can therefore facilitate outcome- and process-oriented evaluations. Such a multi-faceted analysis entails quite a number of methodological challenges such as empirically unfolding implicit preference structures, revealing underlying interconnectivities across scales, and facing difficulties specific to doing field research in Vietnam. A mixed-methods paradigm was used to address many of these challenges. A deliberately chosen set of methods in combination with a conscientious and flexible process created thereby the foundation for a more encompassing empirical assessment of risk-related strategies in the VMD.
The data demonstrate that the risk context was diverse and varied, most notably with regard to the geographic location of the production area and the agro-economic indicators. Rice producers were the least exposed group, but experienced the largest production losses. This was mainly due to the fact that the farmers raised their susceptibility significantly by introducing winter-spring rice in 2011. In addition, the vulnerability of rice farmers was reinforced by low risk-specific capacities to cope and adapt. Aquaculture and sugarcane producers were more experienced in dealing with water-related hazards and/or produced less susceptible commodities. Nevertheless, the hydrological and geophysical characteristics as well as the location with regard to the hydraulic infrastructure made these farmers more exposed to water-related hazards than rice producers. The analysis also shows that these vulnerability patterns have and will most likely gather momentum as the sea level rises and socio-political changes lead to agricultural modernisation and rural industrialisation. How far and why the past and the future risk context induces “good” coping and adaptation actions depended, however, not only on the actual but also on the individually perceived risks.
A social-psychology perspective motivated and guided by the social-ecological vulnerability concept indicates why intentions to act were formed and how different actors evaluated the quality of strategy options. The analysis of risk perception shows, for instance, that the perceived threats (i.e. hazard exposure and susceptibility) could differ substantially from the revealed threats. This became most apparent in the example of the individuals’ appraisal of salinity threats. Rice producers perceived a low hazard exposure in a year of high salinity values and also seemed to have misjudged their susceptibility. This was a major reason for their producing winter-spring rice in the season with the highest salinity exposure, i.e. an action which increased the susceptibility substantially. The perceived capacity of response and the subjective quality judgement of the acknowledged adaptation and coping options were also of central importance for forming an intention to act. The empirical data suggest that households had a clear preference for protective infrastructural measures, despite the subjectively perceived high costs and low income effects. This seemed to be due to the positively judged long-term effects. Corresponding to this finding, negative long-term effects were a major factor restraining the application of many strategies, most notably taking children out of school, selling assets and buying on credit. Income effects were, thus, of less importance to people than expected from the weighting of quality criteria in group discussions. Migration was, for example, rarely preferred over other strategies although it was perceived to have the most positive income effect of all strategies (in addition to the judgement that it is easily implementable and comes at a comparatively low cost). This is only one of many examples which show that subjective evaluations cannot always be explained with common evaluation criteria, are often context-specific and represent in many cases more of an intuition than a structured quality judgement.
Still, structured and “objectivity”-based approaches from evaluation research are essential elements in a more holistic judgement and analysis of risk-related response mechanisms and were therefore taken into consideration. They describe the revealed characteristics of the strategies, indicate their implications for the risk context, and provide a valid basis of comparison to the subjective evaluations. A theory-of-change-led assessment of the most common household strategies shows that strategies which induced a change in the exposure of the household were rarely applied in the context of flood and salinity risks. Households hardly ever sold exposed land although buyers were easily found and land prices were comparatively high. Moreover, strategies which caused a susceptibility reduction played only a minor role.
Susceptibility-reducing strategies, such as the construction and maintenance of dikes and a change of crops, were either rarely put into practice or had merely a short-term impact. Most of the measures were intended to strengthen the coping and adaptive capacity. Raising the short-term availability of financial capital by buying on credit or taking a loan were the most common measures. However, these strategies often reduced the capacity of response in the long-term. Measures which were intended to strengthen the stock of capital endowment, in contrast, came at a high cost in the short-run but had positive effects on the capacity of response in the long-run.
At the government level, the responsibilities with regard to flood- and salinity-related risk management were allocated hierarchically based on the centrally planned and highly technocratic Vietnamese state system. Protective and productive infrastructural measures were the most influential strategies from governmental side. The strong preference for the construction and management of dikes and sluice gates was largely based on their role in protecting a large number of people in the areas inside the dike. Nevertheless, these infrastructure-related measures had detrimental effects such as an increased flood risk outside the dike and strengthened the motivation to apply susceptibility-increasing strategies inside the dike (growing winter-spring rice, in particular). These aspects turn the construction and management of protective infrastructure into the most controversially judged measures in the research area. Susceptibility reduction seemed to play a merely minor role. Only the regular dredging of a canal had a substantial impact on the vulnerability of a large share of the population. The majority of strategies were applied in order to strengthen the capacity of response. The short-term oriented strategies, i.e. compensation payments and flood and salinity warnings, seemed to have had only a short-term effect, if any, on the capacity to cope. Agricultural training and public loan schemes were, in contrast, more common, had a longer-term effect, and were more positively judged. Overall, analyses of strategies along the lines of theories of change have been shown to facilitate a better understanding of the quality of certain strategies. In an integrative analysis with the previously outlined risk context and decision-making processes, this evaluation perspective provides innovative findings about evaluations of and barriers to “good” coping and adaptation at a region-specific, methodological and conceptual level.
The analysis of the risk context enabled an identification of many context-specific barriers and recommendations for action. The data, for instance, show that several of the geo-physical and ecological limits may not be limits in “real” terms - at least not when they are taken up at higher-level arenas. Without mitigation action on a global level, sea level rise may turn most other barriers into limits and make adaptation on site impossible. Further geo-physical and ecological characteristics constitute barriers which can be overcome by “better” infrastructural planning and coordinated international and inter-regional water-resource management. Most of the economic barriers have been shown to emerge from agricultural modernisation and rural industrialisation. De-industrialised and diversified forms of income generation could clear many of these barriers and provide a basis for more sustainable livelihoods. Cognitive and knowledge-related obstacles were identified at the level of individuals’ decision-making processes. Knowledge barriers arose mainly at the level of non-agricultural employment. A more adapted vocational education system could help seize the opportunities that rural industrialisation policies provide. Knowledge barriers to the implementation of “good” risk-specific strategies could be addressed by a more explicit inclusion of salinity-and flood-specific content in agricultural training. A participatory approach would, in this context, be conducive in strengthening the trust in expert know-how, involve local knowledge, develop context-specific solutions, and convey an understanding for diverging interests and implications. Many of the cognitive barriers emerged from too strong a reliance on the actions of other actors, most notably on governmental measures. In addition, cognitive processes converted some barriers into perceived limits. Too strong a hierarchical thinking and an often subordinate mentality made people believe that an order from the respective higher level is inviolable. It has thus been shown to be of particular importance to raise awareness with regard to the fallibility of infrastructural measures in addition to a reinforcement of the household’s belief in its own capability to implement “good” response mechanisms.
At the institutional level, the multifaceted approach revealed that a lack of official demand for evaluations, an unclear structure of responsibilities, vaguely defined criteria and insufficient control mechanisms inhibited an expedient evaluation practice. These barriers (as well as several other obstacles identified before) often relate to general institutional barriers such as prevailing elitism, a lack of participatory decision-making and the technocratic nature of the system. Many barriers thus have to be defeated at the level of national regulations and can be supported by technical cooperation from international partners. At the local level, stronger cooperation between NGOs, development organisations, researchers and the local government would provide a pertinent basis for more evaluation-based data exchanges and appraisals. Besides this lack of evaluation activities, the analysis has revealed methodological shortcomings in existing evaluation practice. It has been shown that there is a need to include more than just economic criteria, improve the competences of local evaluators in participatory and qualitative methods, specify and enforce the evaluation guidelines, and increase local participation in evaluation practice.
In conclusion, the concerted analysis of risks and risk-related strategies on multiple levels and a comparison of revealed and perceived realities have been shown to put the often assumed “objective” vulnerability into perspective. At the same time, a vulnerability-centred lens in a socio-cognitive decision-making model has added agency to the often one-sided reflection of risk perception as a mere function of the individuals’ appraisal of probability and magnitude of an event. It has also been demonstrated that the identification of “good” strategies is highly complex and specific to the evaluation method, the stakeholder, the spatial-scale and the time-scale. Many drivers, opportunities and barriers would therefore have remained uncovered if the conceptual framework had not included multiple scales and actor groups; single data sets had suggested a less reliable evaluation result; and an analysis based on a single evaluation approach would have depicted a merely one-sided judgement of a strategy’s quality.
In the end, this thesis has not presented the “ultimate” strategy in response to water-related risks in rural areas of the Mekong Delta. On the contrary, it is argued that such absolute judgments are neither achievable nor desirable. The suggested context-specific and actor-oriented evaluation approach, instead, has acknowledged and grasped the distinct nature and diverse values of risk-related strategies and has thereby made a contribution to promoting flexible and adapted measures for more sustainable development pathways for the Vietnamese Mekong Delta.},

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