CAN THO, Vietnam -- It is five o’clock in the morning and the city of Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta and the 4th largest in Vietnam, is already buzzing with activity. At the famous floating market, boats selling vegetables and fruits almost completely block the Hau River. Nearby, people are taking their morning baths or doing the laundry on the decks of stilt houses crowding the river embankment. The river and the extensive canal system are closely intertwined with people’s everyday lives and livelihoods.
An hour later, the district of Ninh Kieu, the city center of Can Tho, is under water.
"Whenever the tide is high, this street gets flooded. Water often spills into our houses and shops. We have to protect our furniture and goods,” says Cao Van Buon, a business owner. “The water stays up for about four hours each time. No one enters this street for shopping during that time,” he adds.
Over the next few hours, children on their way to school wade through the muddy water and a myriad of motorbikes make their way through dangerously flooded roads and alleys.
Hua Viet Thang, a high school student, and his friends are used to it. “Whether it rains or not, it gets flooded,” he notes. When kids fall on their way to school like they often do, their clothes and books get drenched.
Still, at the city market it is business as usual. Flooding is a chronic stress that the city has learned to cope with, considered a “way of life”. Less than 5 percent of the city is over 2 meters above sea level and already the maximum annual flood water levels exceed this threshold.
A quiet, persistent disaster
After a couple of hours, the water has receded. During the wet season, lasting from May to November, the city floods on average twice a day, though only for a couple hours at a time. Flooding occurs due to high tides combined with river discharge. Over the last 10 to 15 years maximum tide levels have increased by about 20 to 30 cm (or 8 to 12 inches) due to a combination of upstream activities, sea-level rise and land subsidence.
Unlike acute shock events like hurricanes that generate high levels of damage, this type of seasonal flooding comes quietly but causes significant, indirect economic losses related to business interruptions, delays in the transport of goods, inaccessibility of jobs, and indirect health impacts.
“Wading in this water makes our legs itchy,” says Huynh Van Son, a resident of the Cai Rang district, as he bends to sweep the dirt left behind by the latest flood.
The city of Can Tho has been dealing for some time not only with chronic seasonal flooding, but also with occasional flood disasters triggered by extreme rainfall, while undergoing economic transition and rapid urbanization. New challenges include a labor force that is unprepared for high-technology industries, and a growing urban population that expects high quality infrastructure and services from its government.
These challenges are interlinked —encroachment on canals and riverbeds increases flood risk, while flooding and rampant growth impacts the safety and quality of life in urban areas—and they put at risk the city’s potential for growth and wellbeing.