The resurrection of Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe: How HCMC brought the black water canal back from the dead

By Thao Vi - Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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Once a lush river, then a stagnant ditch, the World Bank now regards the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal in Ho Chi Minh City as an example of smart urban development work. Whether dumping, cut corners or climate change will threaten that success remains to be seen.
Garbage collectors head to the bank of the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal to unload trash on July 16, 2014. A team of 36 workers collect around 15 tons of rubbish and water hyacinth in the canal every day. Photo: Thao Vi
Nguyen Van Hoang stirs his coffee and smiles at the pigeons pecking grains of rice off the pink tiles along the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal.
“I love sitting here every afternoon, enjoying a coffee and a cool breeze,” said Hoang, a 60-year-old resident of Truong Sa Street which runs along the Ho Chi Minh City waterway.
Hoang's happy the canal is now the kind of place you'd like to hang out.
“It used to be a dead, smelly canal full of garbage," he said. "People clutched their noses when they passed through this neighborhood. Now the water's turned from black to green. The canal's like a park where people exercise, children play and birds gather."
The Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal runs roughly eight kilometers through seven districts in Ho Chi Minh City. These days, every drop of rain that lands inside the canal's basin (e.g. the entire northern half of the city) finds its way into a complicated system of drain pipes that, for the moment, spares the town from flooding.
It wasn't always so.

At one time, the Nhieu Loc was known as the river that formed the city's northern border. The French renamed it the Arroyo De L'Avalanche after the Gunboat Avalanche sacked the city's defenses in the late 19th century. Toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the city became home to scores of squatters. Rapid urbanization in the next two decades reduced the water body to a polluted "black water canal" that flooded much of the city with raw sewage in light rain. File photo

White paper river to black water canal
What now serves as a tidy concrete catchment was once a lustrous river.
A 19th century poem extolling the beauty of Gia Dinh (Ho Chi Minh City's name before it was Saigon) described Thi Nghe as a "white stream like a sheet of quyến paper unfurling into the city."
In 1859 a French general sent the Gunboat Avalanche up the river that formed Gia Dinh's northernmost boundary to spy on the Chi Hoa Fortress.
Historical records suggest that the boat was likely 30 meters long and 5 meters wide.
After sacking the fort, successive French Colonial governments referred to the body of water as Aorroyo de l'Avalanche.
Though they built Parisian-style opera houses, post offices and cathedrals, the French left little underground save an unreliable combined sewage system that mingled the contents of scattered household septic tanks with street drains during heavy rain.
The American-backed regime in Saigon never implemented several comprehensive plans to address the problem.
But, as late as the 1950s, many in the city still considered the water clean enough to drink.
In the ensuing decades, as the battle for reunification moved south, Saigon swelled with refugees who squatted on public land along the river.
The first arrivals settled along the banks; those who came after built stilt homes over the water out from tin or plastic.
Along with effluent from neighboring factories, these houses dumped all kinds of rubbish, including human waste, directly into the water.
In a graduate thesis submitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Urban Studies and Planning, Le Ngoc Tran noted that it wasn't until the late 1960's and early 1970's that the body of water began to be called “Kinh Nuoc Den” (Black Water Canal).
"Whereas former literature referred to the river as 'river', or 'creek', (Song or Rach Thi Nghe), it is now called 'canal' (kinh or kenh), probably due to the degradation both of its physical condition and its public image," Tran wrote.
Flooding grew more frequent, bringing untreated sewage onto streets and city records reflect high levels of water-borne illness in the basin: typhoid, dysentery and serious diarrhea, which most understand to be cholera.
By the mid-1980's, Tran was attending elementary school along the upper reaches of the canal, which flooded in light rain.
"Elementary school children would walk and play in the flood water, which could reach as high as their knees," she wrote.
A bold solution
In 1985, HCMC leaders piloted exploratory canoes into the muck in the hopes of developing a plan to clear it out.
“The stench was unbearable,” Nguyen Minh Dung, a former director of the municipal housing department, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. “Every time we took a field trip a few of us got sick.”
A project to clear the most congested 100-meter stretch of the canal, near Nguyen Van Troi Bridge, stopped due to complications, he said.

A satellite image of the canal, which stretches 8.3 kilometers back into HCMC. Each red dot represents a point where contractors dug deep underground to construct a 3-meter wide interceptor pipe that shoots a combination of raw sewage and rainwater out into the Saigon River. Photo credit: CDM Smith in HCMC

In 1993, HCMC launched a US$120 million effort to relocate residents living on the slums into subsidized apartments, dredge untold tons of sludge from the river bottom and build concrete walls, culverts and roads along its banks.
By 1999, the Boston-based engineering firm CDM Smith had drawn up a feasibility study on the canal's restoration using Japanese aid funding. Subsequent studies and reports were prepared as well as a Resettlement Action Plan.
All told, the 7,000 households were razed.
Legal residents were offered subsidized apartments built along the canal.
Those who received less than the cost of a state-built apartment were given zero-interest loans and ten years to cover the difference, according to a Swiss-led study published in a 2002 edition of Environment & Urbanization.
Those who lacked "household books" or rented homes along the canal received no compensation. Some relocated to precarious settlements on the edge of the city where problems with sanitation and water-borne illness persist until today.
Many who got apartments didn't like them or had taken on debt as they struggled to find a livelihood outside their traditional communities.
“Barely two years after the rehousing operation, more than a quarter of the families relocated by the state have sold their apartments,” the Swiss study researchers wrote.
While certainly complicated, the researchers noted that the relocation effort vastly relieved huge population density problems (60,000 people per kilometer) and public health issues in the city's core.
Picking a plan
HCMC leaders had committed to creating a modern sanitation and flood control system by the early 2000s, but questions about what the canal project would look like persisted for most of the next decade.
Malaysia and South Korean contractors suggested building an elevated highway over the entire length of the canal to relieve traffic, inspiring the resignation of several investors and protests from the World Bank, which had loaned Vietnam most of the $200 million it expected the project would cost.
The city eventually settled on a plan that would not only cut flooding, but increase property values and draw investment to the city's downtown.
Work on the project began in 2003, sending green construction fences up on main roads as builders dug a 70 kilometer network of drains, culverts and sewers in a town that never stops moving.


The project built by CDM Smith expanded the city's existing sewers (blue lines) in the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal Basin and linked them to the interceptor pipe under the canal. Photo credit: CDM Smith in HCMC


A pumping station was built near the Ba Son Shipyard to shoot the canal's contents into a massive underground interceptor pipe that emptied out near the western edge of Thu Thiem in District 2.
Trouble with unyielding clay, crooked Chinese contractors and a few other unforeseeable circumstances dragged construction on until August of 2012.
The cost of the first phase of the project shot to US$248 million worth of zero-interest loans from the World Bank and $68 million from Vietnam, according to the international lender.
That total doesn't include the roughly $120 million the city spent during the 90's on its initial dredging, relocation and clearance plans.
Despite delays, both the bank and city leaders have proudly touted the canal restoration as a model example of good urban development work.
Mission accomplished
Newly planted trees, wooden benches and fitness equipment now line the canal's attractive promenade.
In 2012, residents began holding picnics there on evenings and weekends.
“The objectives agreed between the Government of Vietnam and the World Bank at the beginning of the project have been achieved,” said Victoria Kwakwa, the bank's country director in Vietnam.
“Flooding has been reduced by increasing wastewater collection in the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe basin. The living conditions of over 1.2 million residents in the project areas have also been significantly improved,” Kwakwa told Thanh Nien News by email, adding that land values in the area around the canal increased from about $195 per square meter in 1999 to about $2,140 per square meter in 2012.

A rudimentary drawing produced by CDM Smith shows how storm drains and septic tanks water get combined during heavy rain. Prior to the construction of the interceptor pipe and the clearing of the canal, the sewage often had nowhere to go but up. Now it runs through three levels of screens before being pumped (untreated) into the Saigon River. The next phase of the project will pipe the sewage to a treatment plant on the eastern side of District 2. Photo credit: CDM Smith in HCMC

No other figures could be found for the estimated value of land along the canal, though the downtown section is now alive with bustling Al Fresco restaurants and drinking establishments catering to diners late into the night.
“This project has had a transformational impact on this area of Ho Chi Minh City,” Kwakwa concluded.
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Dumping on the canal
The city has engaged in a wide-ranging campaign to encourage residents to treat the nearly $500 million canal with respect, to little avail.
A sign on the bank of the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal reads: "No littering or taking pets to the park". Photo: Thao Vi
Longtime residents of the canal say they're committed to doing their part, but add that others aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
“We never throw waste into the canal. We can still remember the days when it was seriously polluted,” said Hoang. “Migrants who run late night eateries here and pushcart vendors [who serve their customers] continue to dump garbage into the water.”
L. Fernando Requena, CDM Smith's Chief Resident Engineer and, ultimately, the man who spent 14 years designing the canal system, said there is “no chance” that any amount of litter will return it to its former state—a specter that Vietnamese newspaper columnists and government officials keep alive, seemingly to scare locals into behaving better.
During a recent interview, Requena showed how three levels of screens filter debris and ensure garbage poses no actual threat to the canal's pumping system.
He further described the city's trash collection system as very efficient--mostly out of necessity.
“You see those poor [men and women] out there, every night, sweeping away with a lantern and a broom,” he said. “It almost seems part of the culture to give them something to do.”
Truong Phi Long, deputy head of the garbage collection team on the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal, plays an integral role in that system.
“Our team collects around 15 tons of rubbish and water hyacinth on average a day,” Long told Thanh Nien News. “Rubbish includes everything from plastic bags to the bodies of dogs and cats.”
Long’s team of four supervisors and 36 workers belong to the HCMC Urban Environment Company.
They sail out at 6:30 every morning loaded with empty garbage bins. Whenever the bins fill up, the boats return to the banks where a truck hauls away their garbage.
Then the team goes back out to continue collecting trash until 4 p.m.
“Rubbish also floats in from the Saigon River, which receives wastewater and trash from other canals all over the city,” Long says. “So, it isn't right to blame those living in this area for all the garbage.
Gone fishing
Though the ecological recovery of the canal has proven hard to gauge, fish have returned to its waters.
Authorities and youth volunteers have spent the last two years releasing them, hoping to bring it back to life.
The project has proven something of a challenge.
During a meeting in May, Tran Dinh Vinh, head of the HCMC Fishery Resources Protection and Quality Management Department, said that a minimum five-year fishing ban would prove critical to protecting stocks of released carp, tilapia, catfish, and anabas meant to consume the organic sludge along the bottom.
On any good day, however, the new promenades fill with amateur anglers casting rods into the canal.


A man fishes in the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal while leaning against a banner, which says: "Not fishing in the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal will improve the environment and the beauty of the city." Government officials and residents have wrung their hands about fishing and garbage dumping along the canal, which was restored with roughly half a billion dollars in public money. Engineers and other experts say the canal's success faces more pressing problems from the effects of shoddy contractor work and climate change. Photo: Duc Tien


There are no laws prohibiting or restricting fishing in the city and the municipal justice department has ruled such a ban illegal.
As such, a propaganda campaign designed to discourage fishing through various cloth banners seems rooted in a dual desire to nurture the canal's ecological recovery and project an image of a civilized modern city.
But that project is running into a hard reality of folks hoping to catch something to eat or while away days of unemployment.
“Fish are plentiful. I usually catch carp, catfish, and anabas,” says Thinh, who lives on Hoang Sa Street -- which runs along the canal. “Most anglers here use fishing poles with five hooks.”
“I catch mostly for fun as I'm currently jobless,” the young man said. “I often give what I catch to my neighbors.”
“Many anglers, like me, fish for fun. Others sell their catch,” he said. “Sometimes, ward police come and tell us: ‘Stop fishing!’ But when they leave, we continue.”
Cleaning up HCMC's mess
While the city grapples with policing the bad habits of those living and working along the canal, it's also preparing to clean up its own act.
The project's second phase will reroute the torrent of untreated wastewater currently flowing into the Saigon River near Thu Thiem Ward to an enormous treatment plant in Thanh My Loi Ward -- on the other side of District 2 -- via a meandering underground pipeline.
There's even some suggestion that it may generate clean power by “digesting” its own sludge.
City leaders have pledged to ensure that the next phase is also cleaner in other ways.
Phan Chau Thuan, director of the canal's project management unit, told Saigon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper he'll strictly punish any contractor shenanigans, while “simplifying administrative procedures” to make sure they don't go over time and over budget.
That will prove critical, considering the costs involved.
The World Bank may approve a $450 million loan for the second phase of the project this November.
Another $45 million will come from the city and Vietnam's central government.
Though the loan conditions are certainly favorable, Vietnam will no longer enjoy the kinds of interest-free preferences it enjoyed as one of the poorest countries in the region.
Of the World Bank funds, the International Development Association will provide a 20-year $200 million loan at roughly two percent annual interest -- plus a five-year grace period.
The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development is still negotiating the terms of the other $250 million loan, which some envision as a 30-year US-dollar loan at something close to the LIBOR rate, which banks use to provide one another short-term loans.
Hard to judge
It's fairly difficult to find someone who can evaluate massive infrastructure projects that isn't currently or formerly employed by the World Bank.
Judging them, anyhow, can be a tricky game.
“It's very hard to tell with these sorts of projects,” said Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It usually takes at least 10 or 15 years until you can look back and say: 'OK, this was done well; this wasn't.”
Those issues are already making themselves known. 
In June, during one of the first big rains of the season, a small stretch of Hoang Sa Street under Bui Huu Nghia bridge buckled, creating a loud boom.
No one was injured and the city has already assembled a task force to investigate the cause of what they called a “gas bomb.”
Requena, CDM Smith's Chief Resident Engineer, blamed the explosion on the road contractor's failure to properly ventilate a series of manhole shafts, causing a release of steam just below the surface of the macadam.
Requena said the “gas bomb” represented the kind of inevitable hiccup associated with such enormous projects -- hiccups that pale in comparison to the benefits.
The World Bank estimates that phase one saved residents along the canal $90 million in flood damage.
But it's unclear how long those benefits will last.
Last year, a team of climate scientists warned that the rapid rise of major storms could threaten those same residents and considered, among other things, the feasibility of relocating them.
“The soon-to-be-completed infrastructure may reduce risk in best estimates of future conditions, but it may not keep risk low in many other plausible futures,” they wrote of the canal.
Robert Lempert, a RAND Corporation scientist who led the study, noted that during the project's planning most people around the world operated on the assumption that future climate would be roughly the same as present climate.
“Had they not built it, risk [of catastrophic flooding] would have gone up much higher,” he said.
Requena said the city is considering installing a floating dam at the mouth of the canal—one that would necessitate a complicated pump system that could remove rain pouring into the canal while holding the river at bay.
“There was no way anyone could have foreseen this,” he said.

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