Infrastructure, the government's 'debt' to the Mekong Delta

March 1, 2023 | 03:27 pm PT
Tran Huu Hiep Economist, legal expert
Nghia's tea time stories for his group of elderly friends often revolve around the long line of vehicles that inch little by little along the road.

His house is on National Highway 1 in a section known as the "bottleneck" in Tien Giang Province, which is in the Mekong Delta and next to Ho Chi Minh City.

Every day, from his doorstep, Hai can see cars backed up for kilometers on the highway and hear their engines as they wait for their turn to escape the congestion.

Some 20 years ago, when already in his 60s, Hai traveled to neighboring Vinh Long Province to witness the inauguration of the historic My Thuan Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge in Vietnam, over the Tien River, a branch of the Mekong.

Before it was built people had to take a ferry between Tien Giang and Vinh Long.

A decade ago he and his friends went to Can Tho City to witness the inauguration of the second cable-stayed bridge over the Hau River, another tributary of the Mekong.

And now, in his 80s, Nghia still follows news in which officials promise to build more roads and bridges in the delta, the nation’s agriculture hub that does not just serve domestic demand but also exports.

But despite as much hope as they pin on those promised projects, Nghia and his friends are still worried those projects would be completed on schedule or be delayed like the Trung Luong-My Thuan Expressway, which took 13 years to complete.

Will the dreams of older people like Nghia of seeing better transport infrastructure remain just dreams?

Cars and trucks are stuck in a traffic jam on Trung Luong - My Thuan Expressway, an extension of the Ho Chi Minh City - Trung Luong, the only expressway linking HCMC with the Mekong Delta, July 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Cars and trucks are stuck in a traffic jam on Trung Luong - My Thuan Expressway, an extension of the Ho Chi Minh City - Trung Luong, the only expressway linking HCMC with the Mekong Delta, July 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Transport infrastructure is the lifeblood for the development of the Mekong Delta. It is the key to attracting investment and developing trade and tourism.

Developing transport infrastructure is the first step to developing the region. But the Mekong Delta is still awaiting expressways and roads as bottlenecks delay them. Without resolving these issues, the country's agriculture and fisheries hub will remain at the country's bottom.

Two decades ago Vo Van Kiet, the late former prime minister, had named transport, irrigation and human resources as the three issues that lacked attention, restraining the region from developing.

His successor, the late Phan Van Khai, gave directions on "three breakthrough stages" for the region's development, including approving a transport development plan for the delta for until 2010.

In recent years several major projects have been completed in the delta, but generally, considering transportation is the spearhead for development, the region's infrastructure remains poor.

The government has for long owed a "debt" to the people of the delta.

What needs to be done to overcome the bottlenecks, where will the funding come from, which projects need to be prioritized, and how to implement them are all major questions that need convincing answers.

To develop transportation in the region, it is necessary to first address the lack of funding, construction delays and fragmented implementation.

Funding is the central issue and one that also determines the second issue, that of construction progress. Spread over 40,000 square kilometers (15,500 square miles) and with 12 provinces and a centrally administered city, the delta accounts for around 12% of Vietnam's land mass.

It has an important strategic location adjacent to Ho Chi Minh City and the southeastern region, is home to many industrial hubs, and contributes half of the country's rice output and 95% of exports, 65% of aquaculture, and 70% of fruits.

But yet it has only around 90 kilometers (56 miles) of expressways, less than half the length Quang Ninh Province in the north has, and only 7% of the country's total of 1,239 kilometers.

According to a report by the Ministry of Transport, in 2011-15 the government outlay for transport infrastructure in the Mekong Delta accounted for 12.5% of the total for the country.

Over the next five years it increased to over 15%, equivalent to VND65 trillion (US$2.7 billion).

For 2021-25 the allocation is VND86 trillion, or 14%.

But many of the key transport projects that are recipients of funding are being undertaken over large geographical areas, and involve land acquisition and lengthy implementation time.

Meanwhile, the rising prices of materials and fuel could push up costs and cause delays. Therefore, in addition to investment by the government, private sources of funding are also needed (as Quang Ninh has been managing to get).

The delta still lacks rail transport while its roads and waterways are fragmented and lack cohesion as a consequence of the interrupted investment process. Therefore, for the implementation of projects in 2021-25, it is necessary to have a regional coordination mechanism that prioritizes inter-provincial transport projects and inter-regional links, especially with Ho Chi Minh City and the southern key economic region.

In order to achieve this, the role of a regional coordinating council is key.

The council, if functions properly, will ensure that funds are not spread too thin or hijacked by parochial interests, and have a control mechanism to ensure quality and transparency.

The lessons from key transport projects that were delayed such as the Trung Luong-My Thuan and Ben Luc-Long Thanh expressways are still valid.

The lessons about the promises and the "debt" to the people of the delta need to be reiterated so that the task of upgrading the region's infrastructure does not stop at planning and promises.

Of the key infrastructure projects, Nghia is most interested in two: the eastern section of the North-South Expressway through Can Tho, Hau Giang and Ca Mau, work on which started earlier this year, and the Chau Doc-Can Tho-Soc Trang Expressway, which will get under way later this year. These will contribute to opening up new economic spaces, reducing the traffic load on the section of National Highway 1 in front of his house.

At this age Nghia does not expect to have the strength to go and see the highway's completion like he used to do in the past.

But he hopes he will no longer have to see the constant traffic jams from his home he does now.

*Tran Huu Hiep has a Doctorate in Economics and is the deputy chairman of the Mekong Delta Tourism Association.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top