Nha Trang tragedy a painful reminder of long-standing neglect

By Thanh Nguyen   November 21, 2018 | 06:03 pm PT
Vietnam’s urbanization problems, particularly those affecting poor residents, are typically swept under the rug. When disaster strikes, the buck passing begins.
Thanh Nguyen, a journalist based in Hanoi

Thanh Nguyen, journalist

I could not believe that I was looking at pictures of the Nui neighborhood in Nha Trang.

Nha Trang, Vietnam’s beautiful beach town, which attracts millions of visitors each year, just cannot look like this.

But before my eyes, unforgiving, were pictures of crushed metal roofs, fallen electric poles, broken tree branches and rubble. The Nui neighborhood, today.

Two years ago, I’d reported on this neighborhood to find out what had been done, or was being done, to improve the living conditions of its residents.

Hundreds of houses stood next to the Hon Ro Mountain; all made of wooden planks, iron sheets and nylon covers clumsily thatched together. Most of the residents were poor workers, who’d left their homes from other parts of the country to try and make a living from the sea. In this neighborhood, trash was littered in every alley, vehicles made their way through the trenches and water-worn ravines on flimsy, wobbly wooden planks, and elders and children alike wore haggard faces and ragged clothes.

The Nui neighborhood was a stark contrast to the fancy resorts in the town, which is just 20 minutes away and where urbanization has happened and is happening at breakneck speed. I’ve been to many places, but nowhere have I seen so many skyscrapers, apartments and hotels sprout up every month along beaches, rivers and mountain slopes like in Nha Trang.

The residents of Nui were not asking for fancy constructions and urban comforts. They just wanted lower prices for clean water and electricity. Mai Thi Suong, a long-time resident, said all the electricity and water came from a single provider in the neighborhood, with each kWh costing VND4,600 (20 cents) and each cubic meter of water costing VND17,000 (73 cents) – twice the city average.

High utility costs have played a role in ruining many families’ finances, Suong said. Some people tried to reduce the bills by simply not building urinals and bathrooms, whereas in some extreme cases, some forbid their children from going to school to save tuition fees.

While city authorities mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ears to people’s repeated pleas for help, they finally had an unexpected and unwanted appearance on national newspapers last Sunday morning.

At least 17 people died last weekend in Nha Trang as heavy rains triggered floods and landslides in the city. Traffic was paralyzed and homes buried. The rains were brought by storm Toraji, which devolved into a tropical depression on Sunday, but ravaged central Vietnam’s coastal provinces.

Witnesses said houses collapsed mere moments after they heard the water rush down the area. In just a few hours, torrential rains and landslides transformed the roads they used to walk on into raging waterfalls. Hundreds lost their homes and loved ones.

Hundreds of rescue workers were dispatched to areas affected by landslides in Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province to look for victims possibly buried under rocks. Photo by VnExpress

Rescue workers are dispatched to an area affected by landslides in Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province to look for victims possibly buried under rocks. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

Meanwhile, in Nha Trang’s Vinh Hoa Ward, also devastated by landslides, an artificial lake on a local mountain exacerbated the disaster’s consequences.

When questioned, authorities resorted to blaming each other for the tragedy.

"The construction of the artificial lake was not brought to the ward’s notice. If we knew about it beforehand, we would have warned the people," said a representative of the Vinh Hoa Ward.

The Chairman of Nha Trang blamed its "late responses" to the floods and landslides on the fact that areas where landslides killed people weren’t included in the list of landslide-prone areas given to city authorities.

I’ve heard this too many times before. Years of reporting in places where natural disasters struck have numbed me to words and phrases spouted by the authorities whenever something like this happens - how they "didn’t know," how they were "surprised," or how the disaster was "beyond one’s expectations."

I also remembered how these same figures of authority said they wanted new resorts and new hotels, along with plenty of suggestions to boost tourism in cities and provinces under their jurisdiction.

But for the forgotten communities inside the very same cities and provinces, the big shots have done nothing. They have never received the help they need to relocate from disaster-prone areas. Such plans remain on paper and gather dust for years.

It was only after the floods and landslides pummeled and reduced areas of Nha Trang to rubble last weekend did the authorities pledge to "relentlessly" move forward with relocation plans. They only made up their minds once homes had forever been destroyed and lives had forever been lost.

The tragedy of the Nui neighborhood is not likely to be the last, because there are so many similar make-shift communities in many of Vietnam’s cities. Their poverty and lack of livelihood options have withstood attempts to disband them.

Will the cataclysm that struck Nha Trang last weekend be a real wake-up call for the government to step up and resolve this country’s urbanization problems that have been swept under the rugs for long with depressing regularity? Only time will tell.

*Thanh Nguyen is a journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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