Magazine article Geographical

Delta Blues

Magazine article Geographical

Delta Blues

Article excerpt

In the second of her reports on rising sea levels In Southeast Asia, Melody Kemp looks at how Vietnam's race against time, nature and misguided policies is putting Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho Into an impossible situation

Nguyen Trung Viet, Director of the Ho Chi Minh Climate Change Bureau, is addressing a collection of journalists and is clearly angry. 'What keeps me awake at night?' he asks rhetorically. That there is so much at stake, so much to do, but we get paid so poorly that we cannot devote our time to climate change. Instead we work at three jobs to survive. How can we be effective? The section head gets US$200 per month.'

Until 2009, it felt to many as though no one in positions of power in Vietnam knew or cared about climate change. To address this, Viet took government officials on a visit to Seoul and opened their eyes. 'They [senior Party cadres] know Ho Chi Minh is at most risk but there are 16 departments steering the boat. Hah! Stupid!' he exclaims with exasperation. 'They have to be young as this needs long-term planning. They have to speak English as technical information is all in English. No one understands the urgency.'

'The Vietnamese committee system is really a systematic way of doing nothing,' a nearby disaffected journalist laughs. 'It will only become serious about matters when either the nation's rich or senior Party members are affected.'

GOING UP

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon, is alight with Christmas trappings. Young women wearing red antlers hand out fliers, and a man in a royal blue Santa suit stands outside Vietnam's biggest bank. The Dong Nai river which joins the Saigon river just north of Ho Chi Minh City is riotous with lights and floating restaurants. Commercial pragmatism in a Confucian nation, especially prevalent in this rambunctious, creative city.

HCMC is clearly Vietnam's economic powerhouse, but it's also the part of the country at greatest risk from an interactive mixture of climate and non-climate related factors. Its reticulation of rivers and canals, which occupy around 15 per cent of the city's urban land, are all situated in the pathway of devastating typhoons. The Dong Nai river watershed was subject to intense chemical deforestation during the American War in Vietnam. The chemically barren valley, now an industrial centre, is the source of erosion, with polluted runoff exacerbating periodic city flooding.

With a population of some 6.2 million in 2010, unofficial estimates say it's already over ten million, the figure the Asian Development Bank predicted it would only reach by 2025.

But who really knows? Factory owner 'Ms Chang' suggests official estimates of migration from the Delta were unreliable. 'At least two million migrate from the Delta each year,' she says, 'some seasonally, some permanently and that will increase as conditions there worsen.'

In densely populated areas like District 6, people complain of annual flooding. 'Going up' is how locals refer to raising their floor levels to deal with incoming flood waters. However, major roads linking the districts have also been raised which increases domestic flood levels as water squeezes into skinny alleys. 'We're getting more rain in less time,' all residents agreed.

Ho Chi Minh City's regular and extreme flooding is increasingly determined by climatic influences, such as increases in monsoon rainfall coupled with more frequent severe storms and storm surges.

'This was wetlands and rice fields when we first moved here 36 years ago. Now this area is so famous for floods, we cannot sell our houses,' say residents who have raised their floor 20cms. Canals clogged with plastic and other nonbiodegradable refuse are already putrid, so black and bioactive that the clouds reflected in the canal shimmer. Currently, 154 of the city's 322 communes and wards are regularly flooded, affecting 40 per cent of the city's population. …

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