Early storm floods Ho Chi Minh City

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The first downpour of this year's rainy season caused severe flooding and congestion throughout the city. Experts blame the sluggish work on the city's new sewers system.

Nguyen Huu Canh Street in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District following the rain on early Tuesday

Ho Chi Minh City streets flooded hours after an unseasonable downpour early this week, prompting experts to urge the city to finish its protracted drainage project.

Critics of the project also asked municipal authorities to shift their focus from the threats posed by climate change to unseasonable rains.

Representatives from the city say they've issued nearly a quarter of a million dollars in construction fines, which many contractors refused to pay. Their demands for repairs have likewise fallen on deaf ears, they say.

In Vietnam, the rainy season typically begins in May and ends in late November.

But a fierce thunderstorm ripped through Ho Chi Minh City, Monday night, leaving the city streets flooded and congested well into the following day.

Wading to work

"My motorbike broke down in a seriously flooded An Duong Vuong Street this morning, despite the fact that the rain had stopped four hours ago," said Vo Van Khanh, a resident of Binh Tan District's Binh Hung Hoa A Ward.

Le Thi Xuan Lan, an official at the Southern Hydrometeorology Station, said that different areas of the city found themselves coping with between 50 and 120 millimeters of rain.

Water did not recede from low-lying areas of Binh Thanh District, causing congestion on a number of its main streets. Traffic was backed up for kilometers along the Hanoi Highway, leading out of town.

Residents in Tan Binh, Tan Phu and several other districts also found themselves in severe gridlock Tuesday morning.

In Tan Phu District, many people living in rented homes on Au Co and Luy Ban Bich streets were forced to stay at friends' houses due to serious flooding.

Mai Thi Loan, a resident of District 12's Tan Thoi Nhat Ward, said that Le Van Hon Street was so flooded that many passers-by were forced to wade their motorbikes through the water.

"Stinking sewer water spilled out," she said. "This was the worst flood on this street since I moved here five years ago."

The water level rose to between 60 centimeters (1feet 11 inches) and one meter (3.3 feet) high, on several streets, including Le

Thuc Hoach, Nguyen Son, Tan Huong, Pham Van Xao, Dam Than Huy, Binh Long, Vuon Lai and Van Cao.

Nearly 3,000 students at the Tran Phu High School on Tan Phu District's Le Thuc Hoach Street were forced to return home after serious flooding shut down the school on Tuesday.

Slapped on the wrist

The large-scale flooding at the beginning of the rainy season prompted questions regarding progress on the city's already unpopular new sewage system.

Corrugated metal construction barriers became a constant and bothersome feature of the urban landscape during the project's lengthy construction, prompting numerous citizen complaints.

Do Tan Long of the HCMC People's Committee Anti-Inundation Management Authority attributed Tuesday's flooding to ongoing construction on some sewer systems.

Ironically, the work has blocked the flow of water to certain street drains.

He said that such floods began when the drainage project was launched in 2009. The municipal authorities have ordered the contractors to repair the problems, but many have failed to do so. Since then, he says, the problem has gotten worse.

"Forty seven spots suffered from serious flooding in March, but the number has increased to 64 recently," he said.

Hoang Duc Hau of the Vietnam Bridge and Road Association said some investors form shady partnerships with contractors they are supposed to supervise leading to poor construction quality and oversights.

In some cases, he claimed, investors and contractors have developed untoward relationships. In others, he said, the contractors are [state-owned] companies and effectively outrank the project investor.

"For example, the HCMC Transport Department invested in the Environmental Sanitation Project," he said. "However, some contractors working on the project are companies that belong to the department itself or other transport and construction ministries."

Nguyen Bat Han, vice chief inspector of the HCMC Transport Department, said that many contractors have paid fines for sluggish and sloppy construction of the drainage system. However, some contractors have delayed or refused to pay up.

"More than 300 contractors have not paid some 1,400 fines valued at more than VND5 billion (US$239,233) in total," he said.

Paved over and out of drains

Nguyen Do Dung, deputy director of the HCMC-based Thanh Binh Company (which specializes in urban planning) said that rapid urbanization has become a major cause of flooding.

Moreover, Dung said, the city needs to shift its priorities, when considering a future drainage system.

 "International researchers tend to simply focus on climate change risks in the city while the local partners are often the ones most concerned with the role of rivers and tides instead of [the city's] drainage capacity," he said.

He said that HCMC's flooding problems are not caused by rising sea levels.

"Actually, 75 percent of the flooded areas in the city are located at more than 2.5 meter above sea level," he said.

Rampant construction has paved over natural surfaces, ponds and canals obstructing the city's natural ability to absorb rainwater into the ground, he said.

He cited a 2009 report by the International Center for Environment Management which said that "without upgrading the drainage systems, tide control polders may play only a minor role in the flooding situation in HCMC, especially under pressure of the increasing trend of heavy local rainfall."

Professor Le Van Trung, director of the Geomatics Center at Vietnam National University in HCMC, recently studied the flooding problems and identified 95 flood-prone areas in the city.

New roadways are being built without effective drainage systems, he said. The problem has been compounded by the rapid urbanization of surrounding farmland.

Trung claimed that flood prevention has become one of the biggest concerns for local authorities and large-scale work has begun to build new sewers.

Trung credited the city with making repairs to the existing drainage system, excavating new canals, and reinforcing river banks.

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