Saigonese lose out to erosion, bureaucracy

By Ha An   May 16, 2020 | 06:33 pm PT
Riverside dwellers in HCMC have lost both homes and land to erosion, yet talks over site clearance and compensation have stagnated.

Dao Trung cycles over a kilometer each day from a rented house to his own home in Binh Trung Tay Ward in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 to make sure the latter remains in situ.

Built in 1995, his subsiding home now merely clings to the Giong Ong To Channel bank, a branch of the Saigon River.

"It hurts but I don’t know what to do anymore. Now I use the house for storage and as a place to hang out the washing."

With HCMC and the rest of southern Vietnam about to enter the rainy season, Trung, 59, said his worries have intensified.

Erosion started eating away at the residential area skirting Giong Ong To 10 years ago. To save his home, Trung spent over VND100 million ($4,300) to create a concrete "barrier" more than 10 meters in length and four wide, now long washed away.

In early 2017, Trung was woken by the noise of water spouting from a hole in the floor five meters in depth, forcing him to hastily relocate.

"People are surprised to hear I rent while owning a house, but how could I continue to live there in constant fear?"

The house of Dao Trung, a resident in HCMCs District 2, leans towards Giong Ong To Channel. The back of the house has been subsided and part of its will be submerged under water during high tide or when the rainy season comes. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

Dao Trung’s home in HCMC's District 2 leans towards Giong Ong To Channel, its back periodically submerged by water during high tide or the rainy season. The sign reads "Area with high risk of erosion. Danger, entry is banned." Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.

Across from Trung in An Phu Commune stands the home of Nguyen Thi Huong. After 30 years, her 160-square-meter land has shrunk to only 20.

Three years ago, three tamarind trees hovering six meters above the front of her house washed away overnight.

Besides, erosion is posing a clear threat to Huong’s makeshift riverside coffee shop.

Two years ago, she spent VND200 million filling up the area along the Giong Ong To bank with rubble to reinforce what’s left of her land.

"If erosion is to last, I would be left empty-handed," she lamented.

The city plans to build an embankment spanning 77 meters along each side of the channel, but due to obstacles in site clearance, the project remains idle.

The Steering Committee on Natural Disaster Prevention, Control, Search and Rescue and municipal Department of Transport stated last September the city has developed an estimated 18 "severe" and 19 "extremely severe" erosion hotspots in nine districts.

Home to 19 families, the residential area along Giong Ong To is listed "extremely severe."

To the south of the city, Nhon Duc Commune of Nha Be District suffers a similar fate.

The house of Phan Thi Kim Lan and those of 27 other families straddle an extremely severe erosion hotspot running 146 meters along the Phuoc Kieng River.

Seventeen years ago, Lan bought a 30-square-meter plot near the river to build a 18-square-meter home, which she planned to expand in time.

However, two years after making the purchase, subsidence crept in, forcing her family to raise the floor twice by a total of 1.5 meters.

To save the rest of the land, Lan’s family bought wooden piles measuring five to six meters long with a diameter of a grownup's calf, plunging them into the river and covering them with concrete slabs.

Despite every effort, erosion has washed away nearly all her land, causing Lan’s home to lean to one side and pulling its walls away from the central structure, leaving a gap of almost two centimeters. Beneath the floor, some parts are no longer land, but water.

Phan Thi Kim Lan sits in her house by the Phuoc Kieng River in Nha Be District in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

Phan Thi Kim Lan sits in her house by the Phuoc Kieng River in Nha Be District in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.

"Every time I hear the cracks followed by the sound of something falling into the river, I know more soil has been washed away. Whenever this happens, my entire family would rush outside."

The city had planned to build a VND21-billion embankment along this section of the Phuoc Kieng River but site clearance has yet to commence.

Local authorities have more than once advised Lan and her family to move but she refused.

"Living with fear is terrible but this is the house I’ve been in for all these years, I could not just abandon it. I wish for authorities to provide reasonable compensation or relocation incentives so we could enjoy better conditions," she said.

The city’s Steering Committee on Natural Disaster Prevention, Control, Search and Rescue said Nha Be District is hardest hit by erosion with seven "extremely severe" hotspots, followed by Can Gio District with six and District 2 with five.

As authorities pointed out, the city's waterway system, which stretches 7,955 kilometers (4,500 miles) and makes up 16 percent of its total area of over 2,000-square-kilometers, is threatened by climate change and fast urban development.

As a result, local riverside areas have suffered from salt intrusion, subsidence and erosion.

Over exploitation of sand deposits has further disrupted the natural flow of water, causing imbalance in the mud and sand ratio and worsening erosion.

Nguyen Duc Vu, head of the Steering Committee on Natural Disaster Prevention, Control, Search and Rescue, said plans to build embankments had been completed, but that only one project had been finished. 22 remain under construction, with six stuck at site clearance and another six yet to commence.

Addressing site clearance issues, Vu said compensation remained a sticking point and that many families have refused to move despite the danger, highlighted by several warning signs.

A boy sits in a house that has been subsided due to erosion by the Phuoc Kieng River in HCMCs Nha Be District. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

A boy sits inside a house subsiding due to erosion by the Phuoc Kieng River in HCMC's Nha Be District. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.

A survey of 339 locations in the Mekong Delta and HCMC last year found 306 have sunk by 0.1 to 81.4 cm over the last decade, with 19 in Saigon, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment revealed.

An Lac Ward in Saigon's Binh Tan District has sunk the most over the decade at 81.4 cm. In the Mekong Delta, Can Tho City, as well as Soc Trang and Bac Lieu Provinces have sunk the most, by between 52.4 and 62.6 cm, it added.

The total subsided land areas is approximately 24,000-square-kilometers, or about 91 percent of all locations surveyed.

Subsidence was caused by a combination of both natural and human activities, including excessive groundwater extraction and the impact of urban construction, infrastructure and traffic, it was found.

Last year, Climate Central, a U.S.-based nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, revealed most of southern Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta and HCMC, could be flooded by 2050.

A study by Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2016 found that sea level would increase by one meter by 2100, and would potentially flood about 18 percent of HCMC and 39 percent of the Mekong Delta.

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