More culpable, less capable: lessons from Da Nang flooding

By Nguyen Dong   December 27, 2018 | 07:43 am GMT+7

The lifestyle and habits of urban citizens make them more culpable and less capable of handling natural disasters.

Nguyen Dong is a journalist based in Da Nang

Nguyen Dong, a journalist

"I threw myself out on the streets. The water had already reached my chest, but I still waded through it to go to every single house and knocked on their doors," said a weary Thao after a sleepless night on December 9.

The memories of raindrops pounding on the roof and people screaming in the dark, looking for their loved ones are vivid in his mind. 

Thao's family had to retreat to a small cellar like space upstairs as a flashflood swept through their home and the water level kept rising by the hour.

Earlier this month, the port city of Da Nang, where Thao lives, experienced a historic flooding that killed at least 14 people. Within just two days, December 8-9, the city had received rainfall of 635mm, breaking all previous records, including the Great Flood of 1999 in central Vietnam.

Thao told me that he had elevated his house’s foundation by 30cm after the 1999 flooding. Other Da Nang citizens had also devised new countermeasures to prepare future flooding. One such idea was the erection of numerous ‘flood indicators’ around the city, which would show how deep the waters were and how fast they were rising, like a thermometer indicating temperature. These indicators were later adapted by neighboring provinces as well. 

But when the 2018 flood happened, people just didn’t know what to do next. No idea had been proposed to prepare for such disasters, even though everyone had witnessed first-hand how the floods had ravaged the city, destroyed properties and taken lives.

Why? Options had simply run out.

"If I elevated the house’s foundation any higher, I wouldn’t be able to park my motorbike inside the house," said Thao. He further explained that houses in Da Nang are too densely packed, leaving no room for infrastructural changes.

There it is. The rains and the floods have exposed one critical weakness of the central city: its urban planning. Da Nang’s sewage systems are terribly inefficient, thanks to the staggering amount of trash accumulating within them day after day.

People row a boat across a flooded street in Da Nang on December 9, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

People row a boat across a flooded street in Da Nang on December 9, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Every year, the city spends VND85 billion ($3.6 million) to get rid of about 300 tons of garbage from its sewers. But every day, people litter between 900 and 1,000 tons of trash into them. Da Nang is also running out of garbage dumps. 

It is not a far-fetched observation that its citizens’ lifestyle and habits contributed to the severity of Da Nang’s latest floods.

Climate change has played a role in exacerbating natural disasters as well, with erratic climate patterns throwing people off-guard. Da Nang’s rainy seasons typically last two months every year. But in 2018, the city had a water shortage for most of the rainy season, even rendering one million citizens without clean water for three days at one point. Not until the very end of the season did it rain, and boy, did it rain.

I’m not going to compare the 1999 flood to the 2018 flood in Da Nang. But I can see that as the city got richer and its urbanization rate picked up, people have become less capable of handling natural disasters. And its administration apparently isn’t helping much, rambling about "better sewage systems" or "new anti-flooding methods."

How did it come to this? How did people living in 2018 feel more helpless than in 1999? These questions do not just apply to Da Nang, but to every city in Vietnam.

We have no option but to figure out how to deal with the rising piles of trash in the country, how to better educate people in waste management, and how to conduct better urban planning. 

If we don’t do this now, we are staring at a disastrous future. 

*Nguyen Dong is a journalist based in Da Nang. The opinions expressed are his own.

 
 
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