Cam-Tu Tran visits the Saigon community on the frontline of the city’s flood defence scheme. Photo by Vinh Dao.

I take a rest at a small beverage stand on Kinh Duong Vuong Street in Binh Tan District. It has been a long drive. Ten kilometres from the city centre, the landscape and environment seem so different to other parts of Saigon. A section of the street here is under construction; a massive road elevation project to prevent flooding during the rainy season. Huge manmade foundation stones are scattered randomly, ready to form the base of the new carriageway, and new manhole covers lie on the roadside ready for installation. The air is thick with pollution, the whole place looking like it has just suffered a dust storm. And then I see it. The wall. The orange ribbon of bricks up to one metre in height and three kilometres in length, running across the fronts of hundreds of households and businesses from Mui Tau Phu Lam roundabout, all the way to the An Lac roundabout.

“They started the project early this year, after the Tet holiday,” says Hoang Thi Phung, the owner of the beverage stand. “The brick wall blocks the front view of the houses here, you see. We cannot see the full face of any of the houses now.”

Phung has been selling drinks here for 11 years and tells me that many of the residents firmly oppose the project. “The road surface is much higher than the floors in our houses and it is inconvenient for people’s lives. There might be no flood on the street, but when it rains, the houses are still flooded. Most of us do not have enough money to renovate our homes, so we struggle a lot.”

Business Woes
Like most parts of Saigon, the worst floods here come in September, the waters getting so deep that the local children use them for swimming practice, but the flood defence and road elevation projects are beginning to affect the local residents’ livelihoods.

Nguyen Ngoc Thanh Ngan, the owner of a little roadside bubble tea stand, explains how passers-by no longer stop at the shops and food places on the roadside for a meal or a drink. “The road is so rough,” she says, “so they want to go past this area as soon as possible. The dust is everywhere so people are afraid of dirty street food.”

Ngan used to sell food out of the ground floor of her house. When the project began, she had to change her business into selling bubble tea to adapt to the new conditions while continuing to support her family. It is still not ideal. Looking at Ngan’s stand from outside, her livelihood wedged awkwardly in the middle of an 80-centimetre-high brick wall and blocking the door to her home, it’s not easy to see whether it is open to customers or not, which is why less and less people are visiting it.

“There are still floods whenever it rains,” she adds, “because the road elevation project has not finished yet. Many people have fallen off their bikes because of slipping on this rough road in the rain.” Mishaps on the road are just one problem, and with each rain storm the local residents have to be extra careful with their belongings on the ground floor, and always be ready to move everything up to higher floors to keep their possessions from floating away.

A Flawed Design
At the time of writing, the project on Kinh Duong Vuong Street has been postponed since encountering such strong opposition from the local residents. “The contractor of this project has delayed it for about one month,” says Pham Thanh Long, a mechanic who has lived here for 15 years. “Most of the residents here do not agree to let them elevate the road up to 1.3 metres higher than the old one.”

For years, Binh Tan district has suffered with flooding every rainy season. After the rains, many of the streets, particularly streets 1 and 7, Tan Hoa Dong Street and, of course, Kinh Duong Vuong Street, usually turn into rivers. The current solution in many of Saigon’s districts is to carry out the road elevation projects. But time after time, the road surfaces become higher than the floors in nearby homes and businesses, and people’s lives and livelihoods are adversely affected. Many householders are worried that their ground floors may turn into basements, so they have had to renovate their houses. For those who do not have money to make their ground floors higher, their houses face the very real risk of becoming subterranean.

The voices of residents like Phung and Ngan are not being ignored, however. The Ho Chi Minh City Transport Department is working with The Ho Chi Minh City Anti-Flooding Program Operation Center, along with the contractors and consultants involved in the road elevation project on Kinh Duong Vuong Street, in order to find solutions. The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee has also coordinated with the external contractors and consultants to collect suggestions from local residents about lowering the height of the new road, while supporting policies to protect households effected by the project. The People’s Committee has also suggested investigating and building a trench system along the road for flood drainage.

“Hopefully they will complete this undone project soon so our living conditions can be improved,” says Hoang Thi Phung. Then she looks up to the sky and wishes for a light rain, with just enough raindrops to dissipate the dust and not cause a flood.

A city at risk

Ho Chi Minh City currently ranks as one of the top ten cities in the world most likely to be affected by climate change. With around half of its population living less than one metre above sea level, and as the continual urban sprawl sees natural drainage routes like parks, gardens, ponds and streams covered by concrete, a combination of high tides and high rainfall can wreak havoc. As the world’s urban jungles grow above ground, so too must their sewers and drainage systems be expanded below. According to NewGeography.com,by 2025, Saigon’s population is expected to rise from 8.2 million (2015 estimate) to around 13.9 million. As more and more of the mangrove swamps surrounding the city disappear beneath the metropolis, these natural storm surge barriers must be replaced, but how, and when?