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Delta Blues Part 1: The Battle To Keep Ho Chi Minh City Above Water

Eve Troeh
Ho Chi Minh City's population is expanding rapidly at the same time as climate change places stress on its infrastructure.

Louisiana faces the highest relative rates of sea level rise in the world. As policy and funding debates rage over how to best restore and protect our coastal communities, local leaders also look for allies elsewhere.

On the other side of the globe, they've found sympathetic ears in Vietnam. That nation also has a below-sea-level city at the mouth of a great river. The 8 million residents of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, live along the Mekong River, as we do the Mississippi. The delta beyond that city, like ours, is sinking, and saltwater from the nearby sea threatens to eat away at the coastline.

Vietnam has one of the fastest rates of urbanization of any country in the world. Almost half of its nearly 90 million residents are expected to be living in cities by 2030. Many internal migrants are heading to Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic center, looking for jobs and money. But that metropolis is seeing some growing pains as it expands its infrastructure along the Mekong Delta region. Geography and climate change are combining to challenge the viability of Ho Chi Minh City, just as its fortunes are rising. 

Danh Duc hobbles around his apartment in Ho Chi Minh City’s suburban 7th District looking for a photograph. He’s just back from having an operation at a nearby hospital. The 63 year old Duc reports for local TuoiTrenewspaper. Duc points to the image he shot of his hospital room.

“The floor, what was shining on the floor?” Duc asks.

The photo shows glimmering tiles, the floor is covered with water.

“It's the flooding. The flooding at 9 p.m. in my hospital room. And we had to endure 3 consecutive nights of this flooding,” he says. 

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Vietnamese reporter Danh Duc describes recent flooding in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

Duc’s hospital visit happened during a full moon — high tide. Local rivers and canals, swollen with rain water, often break their banks then. 

That water used to expand into natural floodplanes along the Mekong Delta region. A ride from Duc’s apartment to the heart of the city reveals most of that green space is paved over.

Thousands of motorbikes and more and more cars pack modern highways. This six mile drive can take 40 minutes in traffic. Looking out the car window an endless line of cinderblock buildings hug the road. They house businesses and families and form a kind of city-wide wall. So much concrete means flood waters have nowhere to sink in. 

Dr. Ho Long Phi is the director of Vietnam University’s Center of Water Management and Climate Change. Dr. Phi says Ho Chi Minh City’s rise to megacity status has coincided with severe weather shifts. Dry seasons are more dry, and the rainy season, which typically runs from May to October, is longer and more intense.

"The water has its home, and now our home, used to be its home. That's fighting. And if we fight back one day, you will lose," says Dr. Phi. "This rainy season we observe more than 50 rainfall events that surpassed the drainage capacity of the infrastructure.”

Credit Google Earth
Like New Orleans, Ho Chi Minh is a city at the base of a river delta on a disappearing coastline.

It’s during those heavy rainfall events you see Ho Chi Minh residents waist deep in flood water, trying to get to school or work. An Asian Development Bank report lists it as one of 10 cities most vulnerable to climate change. 

One of the reasons Ho Chi Minh is in trouble is most of the city sits precariously at or just below sea level. And dykes built by local officials and nearby farmers have restricted the Saigon, Dong Nai, and Ben Nghe rivers. 

Dr. Phi says as a result, the city is both sinking and flooding. 

"Higher rainfall, higher runoff. But lower absorption capacity, infiltration rate, and water level increasing, that also plays a role. And land subsidence," he says. 

He laughs at the overwhelming size of the problem. Dr. Phi says most of the proposed solutions involve a lot of engineering, a lot of infrastructure, and a lot of money. He wants to see a balance of top-down engineered answers and community-based solutions. Citizens have to be proactive he says, and not wait for answers. 

“They will adapt. And they will change their livelihood, maybe of course, very negative side, they will move, resettle themselves.” 

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Dr. Phi is one of the climate scientists working to make sure Ho Chi Minh City stays above water.

In 2014 Ho Chi Minh City experienced multiple storms that dropped more than four inches of rain in three hours. That’s only supposed to happen every five years.

This weather shift is felt most in lower lying, working class neighborhoods like Alley 162, which sits off a major thoroughfare on the city’s south side. 

A woman in the iconic nónlá conical bamboo hat prepares noodles at her wooden cart at the entrance to the narrow street. Across the alley a man opens up a small cell phone stand. The adjacent wall is stained by a waterline left by a recent flood. It sits about a foot and a half off the ground.

A man pushes a wheelbarrow full of bricks into the alley. It's a concrete maze of small homes and businesses. If not for some hanging plants, and colorful laundry drying on outside lines, the entire scene would be grey. The wheelbarrow stops in 47 year old CaoBao Tin’s living room. Cao is in the middle of his own flood prevention project.

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Vendor at the entrance to Alley 162, a lower income neighborhood dealing with increased flooding problems

"Four years ago I raised the floor once, 40 centimeters, more than one foot. The water kept coming in, that’s why now I’m raising the floor again," he says.

The nearby street, a main thoroughfare, was recently raised by the city because of flooding from local canals. That meant storm water ran off the sides of the street, down into Cao’s neighborhood, entering his home and destroying some clothes and his TV. 

Cao says every time he raises the floor it costs him around $500. That money would normally go towards his kids’ education. 

A few years ago Cao’s neighbor HuynhThanhXuan saw his home flood up to his knees. The 60-year-old tractor mechanic reached his limit he says. 

"Dealing with flooding is of course my responsibility, I'm a father of seven, so I have to take care of them," Huynh says.

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Huynh Thanh Xuan is a father of seven who spent $30,000 to raise his house 4 feet to deal with flooding

Huynh spent $30,000 to raise his house up four feet. From his living room he literally looks down at his neighbors. 

“When I built this house, people said, wow, is this guy crazy, why is he so arrogant. But you know what, later on they found out I was right. Just three years later after I built this house, they raised the street again,” he says 

Huynh says he knows most can’t afford this level of long term solution. The materials are expensive, and most people in this neighborhood are poor. So many people raise just little by little. 

On a wider, more holistic scale, the VuTrongNghia architecture firm also explores adaptive solutions to flooding. White paper renditions of building designs line the office walls. The young staff of architects are also decked out in white. It’s the dress code in a work environment that requires staff to meditate twice a day.

Credit Nguyen Thanh Tuan
Green architect Vu Trong Nghia talks to WWNO reporter Jesse Hardman

Founder Vu TrongNghia is one of Vietnam’s few green architects. He points to a design for a low rise apartment complex called House for Trees. The stylish buildings are made from local materials. Trees and plants line the roofs and outside walls. 

"Now its covered all like this. Like big shadow. Like you are living in the park," Vu says

The House for Trees buildings absorb rainwater instead of pushing it back into the streets. Vu says with worse floods every year, and only one square meter of green space per person in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s time for city leaders to embrace his approach.

"They should release regulation to ask people if you don't do green roof we refuse the permission for the house, and then automatically you have all green roof in the city," he says. 

To press his point, Vu has started a one man letter writing campaign to get local zoning laws changed.

"I'm writing a hand letter almost every week to the government but still no answer," he says. 

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Ho Chi Minh City's Peoples Party(local government) recently started a Climate Change Bureau

The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, which serves as the local government, is making some strides on climate change. It started a climate change department, and developed an action plan. But progress so far is limited to some research, and awareness campaigns. They say they don’t want to alarm citizens about the potential impact of climate change.

It takes a ferry to get to Ho Chi Minh’s remote Can Gio area, which sits southeast of the city on the banks of the South China Sea. Some scientists say more frequent storm surges and predicted sea level rise make Can Gio an achilles heel for the city.

Off a narrow dirt road sits a small, white government building. The Vietnamese flag, red with a gold communist star flies out front. More than 70 varieties of mangrove trees, with their twisting roots, thrive here. They serve the same function as wetlands, but they're actual trees, not grasses.

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Ho Chi Minh City's Can Gio area includes more than 70 mangrove species and serves as a green defense system against storm surge

The Can Gio Mangrove Research Center was established almost four decades ago by Le DucTuan. In Le’s one room office, a dusty, struggling fan offers some respite from 90 degree weather. An admitted chain smoker, he lights a cigarette and tells the story of how he got here.

In the early 1970s Le Duc Tuan was a film student in what was then Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. US forces were fighting to maintain the Can Gio area, a coveted passageway to the sea. 

"Maybe more than 1 million gallon of toxic chemical sprayed in this area. By airplane. Most of mangrove be destroyed," Le says. 

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Le Duc Tuan was a film student in the early 70s. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese he was drafted to restore Can Gios mangrove forest

After the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, Le got involved in a youth volunteer force. Despite having no forestry experience, he found himself in charge of a program to regrow the Can Gio mangrove forest. Le hired local labor and replanted around 10,000 acres of mangrove trees the first year. After 20 years, the local ecosystem was more or less restored. 

"Big natural wall to protect Ho Chi Minh City from the storm. And some big storm come to the coastal zone of Vietnam. But Can Gio and Ho Chi Minh City it not affected so much. Because of this natural green wall," he says. 

But Le’s big green mangrove wall is now facing new threats. A slight rise in sea level could affect the brackish water balance that mangroves thrive on. If it gets too salty, the trees won’t survive. Without those tree roots, the land underneath will subside, giving sea water and storm surges easier access to the city.

Le still relies on local labor to help him keep track of the forest. His researchers say the water salinity balance is intact.

"They see the water level every day. And they know, the sea level rising in this area not so much that the mangrove can help them protect the land," he says.

The other threat to Can Gio’s forest is Ho Chi Minh’s population. City officials are looking for new areas to build housing.

"The government would like to maybe to move around 400,000 people come to this area from the core of the city move out to the outskirt of the city," Le says. 

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Boats on the Saigon river near Ho Chi Minh City

But he says he has convinced the government, for now, that cutting down mangroves to put up high rises is near-sighted. Vietnam University scientist Dr. Ho Long Phi says Le’s efforts to protect Can Gio’s forest are important. But betting on mangrove trees as a defense mechanism is precarious. 

"We hope they can protect us, but can we protect them to protect us?" Dr. Phi says. 

For his part, Dr. Phi is busy creating what he calls a climate change park at Vietnam University. Lab facilities will be built using green and blue infrastructure. And researchers will develop community outreach techniques for climate change, and business plans for new green technologies.

"We use it, we live with it, and we test it. And we use it like a demo," he says.

Credit Eve Troeh / WWNO
Developments in Ho Chi Minh City's suburban District 7 are covering the Mekong river delta with concrete

Dr. Phi points out that his city’s most recent master infrastructure plan, finished in 2001, cost billions and is already obsolete. Invest some money in infrastructure, Dr. Phi says, but know that you’ll have to adapt whatever you build. 

"Again we build minimum level. We know accept that it could be obsolete in the future, but we also think and prepare for modification, expansion, extension with some flexible component," he says.

But while Dr. Phi retreats to his lab to create his green vision, wealthy developers are busy expanding their own, grey, vision for Ho Chi Minh City. The view from the 23rd floor of journalist DanhDuc’s modern high rise, where we started our tour, in District 7, looks out over a mixture of in-progress high rise towers and soon to be developed farmland. 

"I love my city, I love this street, I love all the stores. I understand is the other side. What is the dark side of those stores. How many millions of concrete. I know. I understand. People say, oh, how wonderful. Oh how nice. Oh we are like New York City," Duc says. 

Credit Jesse Hardman
Government propaganda poster overlooking Saigon river and Ho Chi Minh City's expanding skyline

Duc opens the real estate section of the local newspaper and shows an advertisement for a nearby development called Central Park. The artistic rendering is a replica of midtown Manhattan. Thanks to projects like this, Duc’s district has a projected 1 billion dollar price tag for flood damage by 2050. Duc says Ho Chi Minh City is in serious need of a leader.

"My mayor, in my dream, he should be smart enough to say no to those kinds of projects. Where the water will drain?” he says.

Duc even has a particular hero in mind. He wants the reincarnation of Baron Haussmann, the Paris mayor who brought sewers and boulevards to the City of Light in the 19th century. But Haussmann didn’t transform Paris alone, he had a team. And with any luck, a similar group is forming in Ho Chi Minh, searching for ways to save the city they love from both natural and human disasters. 

This report was made possible with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.

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