An April afternoon, Nguyen Hoang Diep, 60, crosses Hoang Sa Street in Binh Thanh District to take a walk along the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal.
Aside from physical exercise, Diep enjoys the fresh, cool air by the canal, a rare experience in the past.
“Around 20 years ago, I could detect the pungent odor from my house, stood 30 meters from the canal. Back then, no one could imagine that one day the canal could become this clean and beautiful,” she said.
Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal in 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
A life-long neighborhood resident, Diep has witnessed the canal, which joins the Saigon River, change over many years.
As a child, Diep used to swim in the canal with her friends, its water so clear you could spot passing fish. Some locals even took water from the canal for daily use.
But after 1975, with rapid urban development, thousands of houses and buildings had gone up along both sides of the canal, seriously encroached on by expanding construction projects.
Without a proper drainage system, the canal soon became heavily polluted with domestic trash and wastewater from production facilities.
“Families still using canal water for cooking or drinking saw their kids repeatedly suffer intestinal problems. Those who could afford property in other areas moved out, leaving poor households behind in their wake.”
Three kilometers away, Ly Hong Dao, 51, who lives in an alley next to Tran Khanh Du Bridge of Phu Nhuan District, remembers clearly the time when Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe was “intruded upon without restraint.”
One after another, homes were enlarged, makeshift structures built that jut out over the water, piled deep with garbage.
Some residents raised poultry or pigs, with all associated waste discarded into the canal, she said.
What’s worse, textile and garment dyeing workshops were also dumping wastewater straight into it.
Over the years, the canal water turned black, exuding a terrible odor.
“Those days, I could never dream the canal could ever become as clean as it is now,” Dao said.
Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal runs nearly nine kilometers (six miles) through Districts 1, 3, Phu Nhuan, Tan Binh and Binh Thanh.
The city had first planned to restore the canal in the 1990s, but due to financial issues, the project was postponed.
Then in 2002, via a World Bank (WB) fund of more than VND8.6 trillion ($374 million), the city eventually launched a master project to upgrade the entire waterway.
More than 7,000 families with 50,000 people were relocated before the construction of a sewer system of 8.9 kilometers, meant to transfer wastewater from production facilities, 70 kilometers of smaller sewers to collect domestic wastewater, and a wastewater pumping station in Binh Thanh District.
All wastewater is now transferred to one district facility for treatment before discharged into the Saigon River via the pumping station.
The project also saw 1.1 million tons of mud dredged from the canal bed and the construction of concrete embankments.
Dredding on the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal, September 2011. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Cong.
The city in 2011 had also spent more than VND550 billion of its own budget upgrading and expanding 15 kilometers of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa streets.
The project helped improve the living conditions of 1.2 million people across districts 1, 3, 1, Phu Nhuan, Tan Binh, Binh Thanh and Go Vap and mitigate the impacts of flooding.
Following the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe initiative, HCMC renovated several other canals suffering encroachment, garbage pollution, and wastewater discharge.
Overall, several cleanup efforts were commenced before a grand resurrection project worth more than $200 million with support from the World Bank was initiated between 2003 and 2012.
Canals marked for upgrade included Tan Hoa – Lo Gom, Tau Hu – Ben Nghe, and Kenh Doi – Kenh Te.
The project to upgrade Tan Hoa – Lo Gom Canal that flows nine kilometers through districts Tan Binh, Tan Phu, 11 and 6 cost more than VND5 trillion ($218 million), including $129 million funded by the WB, and took three years.
The project relocated 1,500 families, built 12 bridges, a 11.5-kilometer road along the canal, and a sewer system of more than 2.5 kilometers.
Tan Hoa – Lo Gom Canal in 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
As decided last week, the city would execute a master plan to renovate Tham Luong-Ben Cat-Nuoc Len Canal, flowing through seven districts – 12, Binh Tan, Tan Phu, Tan Binh, Go Vap, Binh Thanh, and Binh Chanh, within this year to counter urban flooding and improve waterway transportation.
Set to be completed by 2025, it will build concrete embankments and roads that run 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) along the canal, relocate a number of households, dredge the entire water body, rebuild or repair sewer systems, and build 12 docks.
All work is expected to cost VND8.2 trillion ($356 million), of which VND4 trillion will be sourced from the central budget and the rest from HCMC’s own coffers.
The project is expected to reduce pollution, improve drainage and prevent flooding in the seven districts served by the canal. It would also improve waterway transportation between HCMC and Mekong Delta as well as the neighboring provinces of Binh Duong and Dong Nai. This, in turn, would ease traffic jams on a number of highways.
“Dredging and embellishment of canals is a fundamental and sustainable solution to improve the face of the urban area and deal with flooding and pollution in the city,” said Le Hoang Chau, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Real Estate Association,
The southern metropolis has about 170 canals that stretch nearly 700 kilometers. It allocates about VND1.1 trillion ($47.4 million) to maintain its drainage system and VND2.8 trillion (about $120 million) to collect garbage each year, according to the municipal finance department.