Polluted Saigon canal drives citizens to the brink after two decades

By Ha An   March 22, 2021 | 04:43 pm PT
Polluted Saigon canal drives citizens to the brink after two decades
Nguyen Thanh Duc overlooks a section of the polluted Xuyen Tam Canal in Binh Thanh District, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.
A cleanup of the Xuyen Tam Canal in Saigon proposed 20 years ago never took place, and an unbearable stench assails the thousands of people living around it.

One day in 2001 Nguyen Thanh Duc saw a group of local officials come to his alley. With writing pads and measurement tapes in hand, they walked back and forth, pointing at things and writing stuff down before leaving.

The 51-year-old, like the rest of his neighborhood in Ward 2, Binh Thanh District, was ecstatic. They had heard that the 6.2-km Xuyen Tam Canal would be renovated and cleaned up. But no such thing happened, and now, two decades gone, the canal remains badly polluted and putrid.

In the 1990s the water used to be a glistening blue and so clear one could see its bottom, Duc remembers wistfully. Children would often swim along the banks, hunt for birds and look for coconuts near the Son Bridge in the evenings. Nature was kind to humans then, he says.

But all that changed as more and more people came to the area. Makeshift houses with rusty roofs started to sprout in the neighborhood. People took advantage of any space they could find to cook, wash their laundry, even defecate. Garbage and other pollutants eventually filled up the canal.

"It felt like the canal was being narrowed down by the presence of houses and trash," Duc says.

The trash included bottles, old clothes and carcasses. An occasional sighting would show the canal's bottom covered with mud and sludge black as tar. On hot days, the smell would be unbearable as people kept dumping all their waste onto the canal. Duc's house did not even have a window but he was only too familiar with the foul smell.

A short distance from Duc's house is Nam Huong's in Ward 15. At noon on a hot day when the mercury reached 37 degrees Celsius, she was fanning herself. For the past week she had been camping in the alley outside her house to escape the heat radiated by the metal roof.

Like others in her neighborhood, she too has been hoping in vain for two decades that the Xuyen Tam Canal will be cleaned up.

The 70-year-old remembers a time before 1975 when the canal was a thing of beauty. Boats would sail back and forth taking children to school, and she and her friends would chat on the banks with an afternoon breeze gently blowing. Then the trash began to show up. Then people, seeing how the canal was becoming dirty anyway, did nothing to save it.

She says: "Most of the people here did manual jobs. Some came from other places and had little awareness of the importance of environmental protection. So the canal just kept getting more polluted."

She wishes to move away as soon as possible since she can no longer stand the stench of the canal.

Aerial view of the Xuyen Tam Canal. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Aerial view of the Xuyen Tam Canal in Binh Thanh District, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Duc and Huong’s are among over 1,600 households who would have benefited from the cleanup approved by the HCMC People’s Committee in 2002 at a then cost of VND123 billion ($5.3 million).

In 2015 the Department of Planning and Investment requested the People’s Committee to approve a new project to renovate the canal, this time at a cost of VND5.1 trillion and to be done within five years.

Instead of simply cleaning up the canal and building new roads along it, there were to be investments to turn the neighborhood into a "smart" urban area. Again it was shelved, this time considered not feasible.

Recently the Department of Construction’s Urban Infrastructure Construction Investment Projects Management Unit said it plans to submit a VND9.3 trillion proposal to clean up the canal at the next meeting of the city People's Council.

The work will include cleaning the canal, improving the drainage system and building roads along its two sides.

Nguyen Hoang Anh Dung, deputy director of the HCMC urban infrastructure construction and investment project, said the work would finish by 2025 if the relocation is done quickly.

Ho Phuong, deputy chairman of the Binh Thanh District People's Committee, said local authorities have been trying to remove trash and sludge from the most polluted areas of the canal while waiting for the project to begin.

But due to the sheer amount of rubbish, the canal's length and the limited resources, this work could not be performed regularly, he said.

"We will install surveillance cameras and tell people not to dump trash into the canal."

HCMC has some 170 canals that stretch nearly 700 kilometers. It spends VND1.1 trillion ($47.4 million) a year to maintain its drainage system and VND2.8 trillion ($120 million) to collect garbage.

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