Stemming the rising tide: Flooding and local lives in HCMC

“It is not easy to cook and eat with all the water around” says Hai Minh – a student living in Nha Be District, Ho Chi Minh City. “I have to be very careful with electronic appliances, as well as my laptop. If the flood lasts long, it is hard to sleep because I’m afraid of an electric fire incident.”

Like many other people living in this economically booming metropolis, Hai is having a difficult time when the city suffers from serious flooding. During the rainy season, the city’s residents are confronted with this phenomenon in many central areas including Nha Be District, District 2, District 7 and District 8. Even without any rain, many houses can become partially-flooded, and the residents are forced to live with a half meter high water level.

HCMC’s growing problem with urban flooding

The Saigon River, running through the city, with its high tides and swelling due to heavy rain, is the direct cause of the flooding. Tide heights have notably increased over the recent years.1 It reached a peak of 1.55 meters in 2010, 1.58 meters in 2011, 1.61 meters in 2012, 1.68 meters in 2013, and 1.70 meters in 2014.2

Approximately 63 percent of Ho Chi Minh City is located at an altitude of less than 1.5 meters above sea level; some areas are even as low as between 0.6 and 0.9 m above sea level. Therefore, if the tide height exceeds 1.5 meters, even without any rain, more than 60% of Ho Chi Minh City is threatened by inundation if flood defenses fail or where they are inadequate, and where the drainage system is insufficient.

Waiting for flood water to drain. (Photo by Dinh Quang Tuan.)

Waiting for flood water to drain. (Photo by Dinh Quang Tuan.)

The situation, nowadays, is becoming worse with the effects of climate change. According to a report on Ho Chi Minh City adaptation to climate change by the Asian Development Bank, climate change is making tidal flooding more frequent.3 Moreover, sea level rise is really threatening the city: an average rise of 0.5 cm per year would endanger sixty percent of the city by 2050.

Besides, rapid urbanization due to the city’s growing population has resulted in thousands of its water bodies disappearing, which were crucial for flood management. Many lakes, ponds, canals and wetlands have been built over due to the construction of the city’s main transport routes and industrial zones, including 47 canals with a total area of 16.4 ha and also the 7.4 ha Binh Tien lake, which was one of the city’s most important water bodies.4 Despite decimating these earlier flood management systems, no equivalent or effective solution has been put in place to facilitate the city’s drainage. Thus, once water inundates land area, it is then difficult to drain it.

The economic damage at the national level is obvious because areas vulnerable to flooding in Ho Chi Minh City, which is the biggest economic and commercial center of the country, are also areas where there is a high density of skilled labor and manufacturing industry. Furthermore, more and more people are coming to the city looking for jobs. Therefore, the economic effects will be more severe if urban flooding becomes a major impediment to the city’s economic activities.

A challenge to daily life

At the same time, many people’s lives individually are also being affected, not only concerning their work or education but also their health, and their quality and stability of life. Routine daily activities are affected by flooding, even as they must be carried on with difficulties. Working adults have to face prolonged traffic jams or broken-down vehicles on their way to work; children also struggle while traveling to school; the elderly and people with mobility-related disabilities have almost no choice other than to stay at their home until the water has gone.

For Ha An, a young woman living in District 7, trying to find a way to work recently when her area had been inundated by 0.5 meter of water was frustrating. She was obliged to walk in the water and look for a motor-taxi once she could leave from the worst-flooded area. The traffic jam was exceptionally heavy and some of her colleagues were unable to even travel to work. She didn’t have another choice since her own motorcycle, which had been placed on the ground floor of her house, had been damaged by the flood water.

“It is very inconvenient to live this way” she says. “The water came from everywhere and was very dirty. If I don’t keep myself clean, I could easily get eye or skin diseases like red eye and scabies. Moreover, there are more mosquitoes when water is all around. Every day we are informed through the mass media about the risks of dengue fever and the need for prevention.”

Children, innocent of the risk of diseases, enjoy playing in the water. (Photo by Dinh Quang Tuan.)

Children, innocent of the risk of diseases, enjoy playing in the water. (Photo by Dinh Quang Tuan.)

Solutions urgently needed

A swift solution is needed to address the serious effects of urban flooding. Recently, the Prime Minister approved the Ho Chi Minh City Flood Risk Management Project, which will be implemented from 2016 to 2021. It is intended to help reduce urban flooding through improving the city’s drainage and sanitation system, as well as to improve public hygiene and the urban landscape. Ultimately, it is intended to improve residents’ quality of life.

In this project and more generally, it is important that the authorities and citizens work together towards planning a more sustainable city in order to mitigate and cope with climate change. Citizens should be able to raise their voice and to participate in city planning. In turn, this will build a greater awareness of the effects of climate change on the city and help push for a more environment friendly urban development plan.

The issues are urgent to the city’s residents. Hai Minh says “If the flooding becomes more often and more serious, I will look for another place to live!”

 

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Statistics appear to show that the river’s tide height is increasing year on year. However, there is not yet scientific consensus on the reasons for this. Several hypotheses include: (i) due to the rising sea level; and (ii) the loss of tidal drainage areas which makes the tides increase more than the sea level.
  2. Data from the following sources:

    For 2010 and 2011, see http://www.ttcn.hochiminhcity.gov.vn/thong-tin-hoat-dong/-/ext/articleview/article/48364/10182;jsessionid=04B0780B46706AF5E33934473D34C7B8

    For 2012, see http://www.talkvietnam.com/2012/10/high-tide-breaks-last-years-record-level-in-hcmc/

    For 2013, see http://www.ttcn.hochiminhcity.gov.vn/ban-tin-chuyen-nganh/-/ext/articleview/article/135221/10182;jsessionid=28B8DA9FBF71D249BF4C67893345AF76

    For 2014, see http://saigonnews.vn/doi-song/123666-tphcm-co-nguy-co-ngap-sau-do-trieu-cuong-len-cao.html and http://www.thanhniennews.com/society/recordhigh-tide-turns-parts-of-ho-chi-minh-city-into-river-32398.html

  3. ADB (2010) “Ho Chi Minh City Adaptation to Climate Change”, pp. 2-3
  4. See Da Ban, “Urban Flooding Will Be Severe” The Saigon Times, Apr 23,2012.
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