Flooding Vietnam: Climate Change

Ho Chi Minh City (known locally as HCMC), Vietnam, a city full of rivers and canals,  has so far been spared a devastating flood, and donors have so far been eager to help. The World Bank, for example, has upgraded stormwater and canal infrastructure in a few central districts, and on April 8th, 2013 officials from the Dutch city of Rotterdam were in town to promote a joint Dutch-Vietnamese project designed to help HCMC adapt to climate change.Yet nearly half the city lies less than one metre above sea level, and scientists say groundwater extraction, which causes land subsidence, may be having a huge unseen effect. Nearly 70% of the city is already vulnerable to extreme flooding, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Flood risks are rising in HCMC’s lower-lying districts, in part because the property boom that accompanied Vietnam’s 2007 entry to the World Trade Organisation led many developers to build wherever they could. One potential victim is an Intel factory inside a high-tech park on HCMC’s eastern outskirts. The threat to such a big firm is troubling because the city accounts for more than half of foreign direct investment in Vietnam, and exports have helped offset weak consumer demand. In Vietnam urban floods also pose public health risks in the form of outbreaks of cholera or dysentery…

The government is promoting a plan to build a 172-km (106-mile), $2.6 billion system of ring dykes to protect urban areas west of the Saigon River. But the financing is not yet secure, and the World Bank has said such large flood-control solutions may be unsustainable.

A better option may be a smaller $1.4 billion dyke proposed by Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch consultancy that has managed similar projects in New Orleans and other flood-prone places. But officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development typically prefer expensive infrastructure projects, which offer opportunities for kickbacks. “They love dykes,” says Ho Long Phi, a professor at Vietnam National University in HCMC.  Mr Phi may be Saigon’s best flood-control asset. Unlike many Vietnamese officials, he understands that bigger flood-protection measures are not necessarily better, and that if the city is to prosper in the long term, it will need to work with, rather than against, nature. Today’s policies will only transfer flooding risks to future generations. In Mr Phi’s view, the only thing that may change the government’s short-sighted approach to flood prevention is a catastrophe,

Up a creek: A low-lying city must take drastic action to prevent flooding, Economist, May 4,  2013, at 41

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