Meet the people adjusting to life among the rising tides

The delta of the Mekong River is one of the most threatened delta areas in the world. As a result of climate change, the country is plagued by more rain, more floods and salinization of the lower reaches of the river.

In 2009 architect Joep Janssen lived and worked in Ho Chi Minh City for four years and in his book, Living with the Mekong, Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, he gives a personal account of how Vietnam and the Vietnamese people cope with the consequences of climate change and urbanization.

The following is an edited excerpt from his book. For Part 1 of this 2-part series, click here.

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Tini (17) lives in one of the many huts by the Te Canal in Ho Chi Minh City, and as I look at her from the steps in front of the door she sits on the floor, kneeling. Long, black hair. Dimples in her cheeks. And jeans with a t-shirt. Both blue. A double mattress is on the floor of the room. A computer sits on a low table. On the walls are pictures of relatives, Uncle Ho and the Holy Mary. At the foot end of the bed is a lounger. An old woman mashes up herbs with a mortar. The smell mixes with the stench from the river. Next to her, a fan is blowing on full blast.

Tini and her grandmother

Tini and her grandmother

I met Tini during a meeting of Smile Group, an organisation that supports disadvantaged children from families hit by HIV and AIDS. I explained to the head of the organisation that I wanted to do some interviews for my book, and that I was looking for people living by the water. She introduced me to Tini, a girl that immediately stood out because of her cheerfulness. She invited me over to show me her home. It is the fifth place I am visiting today. A morning breeze blows between the cracks of the corrugated iron roof as Tini pours us a cup of tea. “My parents died of AIDS, so now I live with my 80-year-old grandmother,” she says. We talk animatedly, also about their home that is easily accessible via the water. Just like the other huts it is built on stilts. And for a good reason, Tini says. “Every three years, they raise the houses a little bit. I’m glad they do, because the water keeps on rising. The water used to come up to my ankles. But nowadays, during the monsoon, it comes up to the threshold of our house.”

Poor people are usually the first victims of climate change. But the flooding of Tini’s house is not solely caused by an increase of rain. Groundwater abstraction lowers the ground. Also, many waterways have been filled up over the years and replaced by asphalt roads.

The illegal building of huts on the riverbanks has also made the waterways a lot smaller. The water has nowhere to go—it can only rise. In the corner of the hut is a toilet, no more than a hole in the floor that drains directly into the Te Canal. Opposite the toilet is a makeshift kitchen, looking out on the water. Tini: “As the number of inhabitants increases, the quality of the water in the city decreases. The people living by the river dump their waste in the canal. Rubbish is floating everywhere. The black water smells and is swarming with mosquitoes.” For Tini and her grandmother, plans to improve the quality of the water are vital.

We shake hands in the small yard in front of her door. Through an alleyway I walk back to my motorbike, which I had parked on the main road. I cross two bridges that take me to the Tau Hu Canal, the former Chinese river, which was also known as the ‘rice street’ of Saigon as it was the most important trade route between the Chinese river harbour in Cholon and the French sea harbour in Saigon. As I am driving past it, I see small houses with shops on the streets on both sides. On the left sides they are two stories high, old and derelict; on the right side, they are five stories high, new, and so colourful they form a nice contrast with the black canal. They remind me of the grachtenpanden — canal houses — of Dutch water cities. I drive past the Chinese district, Cholon, and when the Hau Tu Canal changes into a winding river — a sign I am approaching the Mekong Delta — I turn right and follow the Lo Gom Canal. I can see the water tower in the distance. That is where I need to be.

LO GOM

Via a small bridge I reach a public courtyard. Mrs. Mai (70) is sitting on a chair, peeling onions for her shop she runs from home. We have met before and she greets me warmly.

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It is lunchtime. She pours me a cup of cold tea and I eat xoi bap, sticky rice with beans and coconut. She tells me her husband peels onions as well. They earn 60 Euros per month. “My home is light and there is enough wind on the courtyard where my grandchildren can play,” she says. But there are problems, too: “At night, the government switches off the lights and it becomes unsafe. People come and steal and use drugs.”

According to Mai, rich people in this neighbourhood live on the main roads, the poor live in the centre, in shacks by and sometimes in huts on the canal. Mai used to live in such a shack.

But she was lucky enough to get help from a Belgian organisation for development cooperation that executed a plan for the construction of quays and a sewer system, the widening of the canal, and the development of a market and an apartment building to house poor people in the neighbourhood. In the meantime, the security officer of the building has approached us. He asks me what I am doing here. I explain that I am interested in the building. Proudly, he shows me his office: “Here, we have our resident meetings and parties.” A dusty model of the building sits on the cabinet. Nhi: “The tenants had a hard time getting used to the staircases.”

I walk around the apartments with Nhi. We meet Mr. Van (65). He is a retired builder, and lives with his wife, four children and two grandchildren in an apartment on the second floor. Van is very impressed by the quality of the construction. “Look,” he says and points to the wall. “You can’t see any electricity cables.” Outside, on the gallery, rice is drying on a cloth. It will be sold to a fish farmer. His neighbour Bich (29) lives with five adults and five children in her apartment. Her husband is a labourer and works nine hours a day, six days per week. They own a computer and Bich has a mobile phone. When everyone is at work, Bich looks after the children. To earn some extra money, she ties incense together with string. “My children want to learn, but I cannot afford the tuition fees,” she says with tears in her eyes. Together with Nhi I walk down the stairs leading to the canal in front of the building. It looks like an open sewer. The jetty looks rickety.

When I ask Nhi if boats are still sailing here, he tells me goods for the market are now delivered by vans instead of boats. “The canal used to be full of boats from the Mekong Delta, nowadays hardly anyone sails here.”

I take several old post cards from my bag. “Look,” I say to Nhi as I point to the ditch on the other side that lies perpendicular to the Lo Gom Canal. “You used to be able to cross to the market in Cholon from here.” I show him four old postcards from Le Canal Bonard, showing the rise and fall of the canal. “The canal used to be surrounded by trees and a soft embankment; next, stalls started to appear on a quayside made out of bamboo, then we see the canal in all its glory, the quayside full of bags of rice, and so many boats are moored that we can’t even see the canal itself anymore, and finally the stalls are replaced by huts, that have been expanded later. Nowadays, there are so many huts the canal has turned into a smelly ditch.”

When I say goodbye, I notice I am impressed by the program, as it has given the people more confidence. They have decent facilities in their homes, such as running water to have showers, and they have access to a market where they can meet other locals. Unfortunately, this example has not been followed by other planners, investors and officials. All they have to offer is a lot of loose plans. It seems to me that long term planning for the whole neighbourhood is vital. The sizes of existing plots should be amended to improve the flow of water, and to increase green space. Also, the urban development of the area needs a booster, such as the renovation of historical sites, to incite new investments. However, the tenants of this building will not be too bothered about this. After all, unlike the shacks they used to live in before, their houses no longer flood.

My journey does not continue past the Lo Gom Canal, as it turns into a ditch and leads to a dead end.

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Living with the Mekong. Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta is also available in Dutch and can be ordered at: www.uitgeverijblauwdruk.nl, www.blauwdrukpublishers.com and http://www.amazon.com/Living-Mekong-Climate-Change-Development/dp/9075271948.

IMAGES BY WYTSKE VAN KEULEN