Sustainable Urban Coastal Human Settlements in Southern Vietnam

Living With Water: Formal Models of Settlements in Vietnam Mekong Delta
Arlene Christy D. Lusterio
Executive Director, TAO-Pilipinas, Inc.
The study looks at sustainable settlements development in river basin and coastal environments. It examines three
rural settlements in Vietnam Mekong Delta: one in Mekong River basin, and two in coastal area bordering the South
China Sea. Settlements development in the Delta is anchored on the policy to live with and control water, increase
agricultural productivity and alleviate poverty.
The selected settlements highlight four measures: water control system and disaster considerations in planning,
compensation and rehabilitation measures, poverty reduction, and environmental protection. Planning and design for
river basin and coastal settlements require considerations for the following:
Site conditions and seasonal changes bringing floods and typhoons and their impact on the living condition,
movement of people and goods and socio-economic activities;
Environmental limits of natural and human-induced processes that affect biodiversity and ecological
balance; and
Linkages between the natural and built environment that influence the socio-economic development of the
affected population.
Sustainable river basin and coastal settlements development requires respect for environment keeping the symbiotic
relationship between man and nature, and the attainment of national economic objectives.
This study focuses on sustainable human settlements development in coastal areas and river
basin of Vietnam Mekong Delta. The study was conducted to present models of river basin and
coastal settlements to determine considerations for planning and design.
The option to develop formal settlements on water is hindered by the absence of an acceptable
concept of formal living on water1 and the environmental and sanitation issues surrounding such
settlements. It is further challenged by the lack of guidelines, standards and a legal framework.
The study of settlements under the policy of living with water, though focuses on structural
measures and engineered sites that are not necessarily environment-friendly, will provide a
broader picture and a better understanding of the crucial components of our ecosystem that are at
play and must be considered in the planning and development of settlements in river basins and
coastal areas of similar situation.
This research aims to document planned settlements and propose planning and design criteria for
formal coastal human settlements development. Taking Southern Vietnam as a case study, the
following are the specific objectives:
1. Document one planned settlement in the Mekong River basin affected by periodic
flooding; and two planned coastal settlements along the South China Sea affected by
climatic changes, coastal erosion and salinity intrusion; in all cases poverty is a factor as
target groups in the selected cases are all poor.
2. Based on the analysis of case studies, propose planning, design and development
considerations or guidelines.
Research was conducted in two levels: preliminary research made use of secondary data for site
background research; and primary research involved initial site visits to six provinces and
follow-up site visits to three provinces (Ca Mau, Tra Vinh and An Giang) selected from the
initial six provinces. A survey and key informant interviews were conducted. The survey
questionnaire was designed to: (1) validate initial information gathered about the projects and
gather information on experiences of families in their before and after resettlement situation; (2)
draw out community perception of the old and new settlement on how it responds to their needs.
A total of 45 respondents from the 3 three sites and 8 key informants directly involved in the 3
projects participated in the surveys and interviews.
A short visit to Cambodia was made to look at government initiatives to address flooding that
may directly impact on flood mitigating measures planned and undertaken in Vietnam. Visits to
provinces affected by the periodic overflowing of Mekong River tributaries were made. Key
informant interviews were also conducted.
1.4.1 Site Selection Criteria
Provinces were selected based on geographic location as typical examples of settlements in
two settings: (1) those within the Mekong River Basin; and (2) those along the coast of South
China Sea. (3) Another consideration is the presence of a contact international nongovernmental organization (INGO) with settlements-related projects in the area, Swiss Red
Cross (SRC). Three sites were selected:
1. Ho Gui Resettlement Project in Nam Can District, Ca Mau.
2. Gia Vet Resettlement Project in Duyen Hai District, Tra Vinh.
3. Hoa Binh Resettlement Project in Phu Tan District, An Giang.
The study deals with sustainable settlements development focusing on: the physical and
environmental conditions, and socio-economic processes and activities, available building
technology and covers only Hoa Binh Resettlement Project in An Giang, located within the
Mekong River Basin, and Ho Gui and Gia Vet Resettlement Projects in Ca Mau and Tra Vinh
respectively, in the coastal area along the South China Sea. The cases studied are rural and some
findings may not apply to urban setting.
The Delta lies at the southern tip of the Mekong River system with an area of 3.9M hectares
(39,000 km2) (van Zalinge et al, 2003; Hashimoto, 2001) and is home to more than 16 million
people approximately 22% of the country’s population (Hashimoto, 2001), the highest
population is in the Lower Mekong Basin growing at a rate of 2% annually (van Zalinge et al,
2003). The Delta is generally below 5m above sea level to the north and goes below sea level at
the south and western regions. It is subjected to annual flooding covering 1.9M hectares (19,000
km2) and inundation above 1m covers 1.0M hectares (10,000 km2) (Tin and Ghassemi, 1999 as
cited in Hashimoto, 2001). Highest flood levels reach up to 4 meters and last for 6 months
(Hashimoto, 2001). Flooding coincides with the rainy season (May to November) that brings 90
to 94% of the total annual rainfall (Can Tho University, 1995; Hashimoto, 2001). During the dry
season (December to April), salt water intrusion goes as far as 40 to 50 km inland (ESCAP, 1998
as cited in van Zalinge et al, 2003; Wolanski et al, 1998 as cited in Hashimoto, 2001) covering
an area of about 2.04M hectares (20,400 km2) (Can Tho University, 1995). The floods from the
north carry sediments that are eventually deposited at the southern tip of Ca Mau Peninsula
through tidal movements. This gradual deposition of sediments expands the Delta by 10 to 20
meters per year (Nguyen et al, undated).
Soil type in the Delta is dominantly acid sulphate soil (43.20%) covering Dong Thap Muoi, Long
Xuyen Quadrangle and Ca Mau; Alluvium (38.09%) is found along the banks of Hau and Tien
rivers; saline soil (18.04%) in the coastal area along the South China Sea; and peaty soil (0.67%)
in U Minh Thuong and U Minh areas (Le, undated.; Can Tho University, 1995). Current land use
in the Delta is dominantly agricultural (75%) and residential or homestead land covers only
2.5%. (Landsat ETM and Spot Images, 2002; Vo, undated; Statistical Yearbook, 2001 as cited in
Environmental Research Center, 2005).
Settlements development in Vietnam is defined by a resettlement policy embodied in a
resettlement action plan2 (RAP); a socialist concept of security of tenure defined by Land Use
Rights Certificates3; and the physical environment that is generally wetland subjected to periodic
flooding, soil erosion, saline water intrusion, strong winds, typhoons and storm surge.
Three projects were studied: (1) in Mekong River basin, Hoa Binh Sluice Resettlement Project in
Phu Tan District, An Giang; (2) in the coastal area, Gia Vet Resettlement Project in Duyen Hai
District, Tra Vinh and Ho Gui Resettlement Project in Nam Can District, Ca Mau.
The main source of income in An Giang and Tra Vinh is providing farm labor, while in Ho Gui
most people work as fishing crew in big fishing vessels. Second highest source of income is
business/small trade in An Giang, and fishing in Tra Vinh and Ho Gui. Ho Gui and Tra Vinh
households earn less than poverty line of VND183,0004 (US$11.44) per capita per month. An
Giang residents are more stable than other cases studied, with only 2% of the project affected
households (PAHs) earning below poverty line.
Houses in Hoa Binh, except for some PAHs living near the market whose houses were made of
bricks and tiles, were temporary. In Tra Vinh and Ho Gui, all houses were temporary mostly
made of thatch and wood.
2.2.1 The Project Description
1. Hoa Binh Sluice Resettlement Project
Phu Tan District experienced flood levels ranging from 2m to 5m and lasts more than 6
months in 2000 (Major Flood Depths Map year 2000 of Cambodia and Vietnam Delta,
Mekong River Commission, 2003). It is surrounded by three rivers Tien (Mekong), Hau
(Bassac) and Vam Nao. The Hoa Binh Sluice Resettlement Project is a resettlement for 55
PAHs affected by the construction of Hoa Binh sluice gate, part of North Vam Nao Water
Control Project (NVNWCP). The resettlement site is developed as a residential cluster5, with
a land area of 31,500m2 and accommodates 105 households in 9m x 16m lots. Overbank
flooding from Tien to Hau River is prevented by the dike system. Storm and wind pose no
threat in the river basin, hence no buffer area has been provided in the residential cluster
2. The Gia Vet Resettlement Project
The Gia Vet Resettlement Project is part of the Coastal Wetland Protection and Development
Project (CWPDP) which aims for long-term rehabilitation of mangrove forests in the coastal
area, along with economic development of poor farmers depending on mangroves for
subsistence. Project affected households living within the Full Protection Zone6 (FPZ), were
relocated to a resettlement site in the Buffer Zone7 (BZ) where an integrated livelihood
program (shrimp farming) is provided. Compensation and rehabilitation measures determined
the resettlement package for each PAH (Draft Resettlement Action Plan, 1999). Gia Vet
Resettlement Site is located in Phuoc Thien Hamlet, Dong Hai Village, Duyen Hai District,
Tra Vinh. The area is surrounded by permanently saline soil and dry season saline soil (Can
Tho University, 1995) suitable for shrimp farming. Gia Vet, has an area of 2.7 hectares for 44
residential lots with an area of 250m2. Additional shrimp ponds of about 1 hectare are
provided for each PAH (Gia Vet Site Plan, 2002). The FPZ serves as the main buffer against
the wind and storm coming from the South China Sea. Along the coast, a dike protects the
shoreline of the four provinces (Tra Vinh, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and CA Mau) against coastal
3. The Ho Gui Resettlement Project
The Ho Gui Resettlement Project is part of poverty reduction program and resettlement of
families living in areas prone to bank erosion and landslides of Ca Mau Province. It is
located at the south bank of Ho Gui River, about 2 kilometers from its original site, in the
southeast portion of Ca Mau Peninsula. It has an area of 25 hectares elevated at 1.0m to 1.2m
above the highest water line. It houses 204 households provided with water and power
supply, primary school, market and health clinic. The houses face the inner channel and away
from the river to shelter people from the direct wind and storm. A 50-m wide buffer area
from the bank of the river is provided for protection. The inner channel is shaped in such a
way as to provide protection to the northwest portion of the site where monsoon winds are
The following are the planning, design and development considerations noted in the cases
studied. Groupings are made according to sustainability factors: social, economic and
3.1.1 Social Considerations
1. Minimizing dislocation and social impact
To minimize project impact on existing settlement fabric and reduce resettlement costs strict
documentation and development plan adjustments were made. Resettlement sites were
located near the original site, or within the same village. Where possible, pre-existing social
structures was maintained through group resettlement. The host community represented by
the hamlet leader is involved in project planning and implementation, to minimize the
adverse impact.
3.1.2 Economic Considerations
1. On Security of Tenure
All PAHs who can prove consistent occupation of land for a long period are eligible for land
compensation of equal value, area or productivity to their occupied land. All PAHs are
accommodated in the resettlement site as long as they prove to live in the site before cut-off
date. All relocated PAHs are issued a red book as proof of legal tenure.
2. Compensation and Rehabilitation Measures and Community Participation
Careful mapping and documentation of affected properties serve as bases of compensation
based on market or replacement value. Valuation is also subject to discussion with and
agreement/approval of the PAHs. Rehabilitation measures are provided to PAHs whose
livelihoods are affected by resettlement.
3. Livelihood Development, Increase in Agricultural Productivity and Poverty Reduction
Livelihood development in the Delta comes in three levels: (1) large-scale infrastructure
development for agriculture and aquaculture production in support of Vietnam’s economic
objectives directly benefits the landed farmers and indirectly the landless farmers dependent
on providing farm labor; (2) small-scale support for backyard farming or landless farmers
directly benefits the individual households and is more effective where livelihood space is
allocated with the residential plots; and (3) household member skills training support directly
benefits the individual and household but is not very effective in the cases studied.
3.1.3 Physical/Environmental Considerations
1. Site Selection
Site selection is primarily dependent on availability of land administered by the Provincial
People’s Committee. Other criteria include: (1) safety from natural hazards such as floods,
erosion and typhoon; (2) proximity to social infrastructures (market, place of worship,
school, health center) and the source of income.
2. Planning
Critical planning considerations includes:
 Site orientation and protective buffer – in the coastal areas, orienting the site away from
monsoon and typhoon paths is important in reducing damage to property and life. A
protective buffer of trees shield the site from strong wind and typhoon.
 Accessibility – in coastal areas, access to water is important for efficient movement of
people and goods between settlements, especially during construction. In cases studied, no
car access is provided. Suitable docking infrastructure should be provided to accommodate
water transport. Car access is only possible in the river basin settlements.
 Site Layout –General layout is influenced by the land and water structure. Centralized
location of facilities in a linear plan leaves those located at the edges at a disadvantage.
Easements are defined by utilities and public space in coastal sites. In the river basin,
residential clusters are sprawling and residential dykes are linear similar to coastal
 Intensity of Use – low density is maintained for residential use. Non-intensive agricultural
production is highly recommended for shrimp and rice farming.
3. Site Development
Notable and innovative approaches to site development include:
 Raised mound - ground level is raised from 0.5m to 1.2m above flood line.
 Inner channel construction – a 30m-wide inner channel is constructed away from the
direction of wind to provide protected access for fishing boats or canoes. The soil taken
from the channel was used to fill the raised mound.
 Fishpond and settlement combination – a fishpond is provided together with the
residential plot as part of resettlement package. Soil taken from the fishpond is used to fill
the roads and residential plots.
 Road-dike and sluice system – the dike that serves to protect farm land8 or a residential
cluster is built wide enough at the top for use as road accessible to motorbikes or
bicycles. The sluice gate serves as water control system as well as access points for small
boats crossing production units.
4. Infrastructure
Flood protection – the dike and sluice system was effective in protecting life and property
against flood but possible design adjustments must be made to make the solution
environment-friendly. See 3.2 At War with Nature: The Possible Consequences.
Basic services like water and power must be part of the resettlement package. Facilities
like school, health center, market and place of worship should be near the site.
5. Housing Materials and Building Technology
 Galvanized steel frames on screw pier foundation – the Swiss Red Cross employed
disaster-proof construction, the system enables screwed connection with the ground and
fast construction system suitable for emergency relief. Regular maintenance however, is
important especially in the corrosive environment of the Delta.
 Lightweight construction - generally, most of the houses built are lightweight and
temporary, such building materials are suitable only for rural settings.
 Incremental development – gradual improvement of houses that can take as long as two
years is a scheme that is suitable to poor households. Availability of building materials at
the site reduces the difficulty of individual procurement in less accessible resettlement
6. Mono-cropping
The unsustainable practice of mono-cropping (rice only or shrimp only production) may
eventually result to loss/extinction of some species of plants and animals reducing
biodiversity and adversely affecting ecological balance. Adjustment must be studied to
fulfill economic objectives with the least impact on the natural environment.
7. Sanitation and Solid Waste Management
 A toilet with septic tank linked to the sewer or drainage system is provided. Communitybased solid waste management should be considered especially in areas where garbage
collection is not possible.
The structural approach to address flooding though effective in protecting human lives and
property, significantly damaged the natural environment. As design assumptions of the dikes are
based on existing situation, occurrence of adverse environmental changes in the future, limits the
Delta’s ability to respond and adjust naturally to the changes. The worst scenario is the gradual
loss of active delta ecosystem comparative to what happened to the Mississippi Delta
(Hashimoto, 2001). Such changes in the responses of the Delta will only be visible after 20
As recommended by Hashimoto, adjustment to the design of the dike system in the Delta is
possible to both protect human lives and property from floods and at the same time allow the
Delta ecosystem to respond naturally to the systemic changes brought about by climate change.
Where the policy in Vietnam is “Living with Water”, Cambodia see the floods as the time to
move up and out of the water, search for dry land and return when it is gone. They move houses
to the mountains during the floods and move and build them back again when the water is gone.
Those who do not have the option to leave, live with it but not on it. They build tall stilted houses
that surpass the highest floods recorded. Living with water is absolutely not the Cambodian
tradition. The response to flooding in Cambodia is directed towards awareness and capabilitybuilding. The means of protecting life and property is by temporary relocation. Lack of
government financial resources makes it difficult to provide even the minimum of safety during
floods such as life jackets for school children and evacuation centers.
Where Cambodia has dry land for retreat, Southern Vietnam is generally enundated during
floods. Hence, living with water is the more feasible approach. Only it must be done in a more
environment-friendly manner.
Settlements development in river basin and coastal areas of Vietnam is primarily guided by the
country’s policy to live with water under the assumption that water can be controlled. Such an
approach has proven effective in the first 4 years of fighting flood in An Giang province. But as
government engineers estimated, the life of residential cluster/dykes were projected to last 30
years (Adam Fforde and Associates Pty Ltd, 2003) before it settles and may again be underwater.
Inner channel construction is seen as a trend in settlements development not only in Ho Gui but
in other newer resettlement projects in the coastal area. The pattern of settlement structure
following a strict linear form with ordered layer of river, settlement and inner canal is seen
anywhere in the Delta and is a visible organic settlement pattern, that seemed to have been well
adapted in formal settlements planning.
The aim to improve economic capacity and living condition was partial to protecting the human
environment and economic objectives and has not given equal consideration to the preservation
of the natural environment. Livelihood development in the bigger scale has benefited landed
farmers, but not the PAHs who are extremely poor. Integrating livelihood development in
settlements development as a means of sustaining the community, though a component of all
resettlement action plan, lacks financial support that will enable the program to take-off and
effectively improve the economic capacity of PAHs. Although Tra Vinh authorities boast of 80%
job generation among trained women in the resettlement areas in the province, none of those
women were in the case study site, Gia Vet. Skills training have not significantly improved job
creation for trained individuals.
The concern for environmental protection in the Delta in general has been translated to
controlling water and reducing damage to crops and human life and property. Consideration for
ecological balance and marine biodiversity however was undermined by the enthusiasm to yield
more rice and shrimp for the export market. The effects of ecological disruption induced by the
dikes and sluice system may not be felt in the next twenty years, but similar experience in
Mississippi Delta could give a good view of the future Vietnam Mekong Delta if structural
measures are not redesigned.
A good complimentary research could dwell on the following topics that could lead to more
feasible options in dealing with flooding in the delta environment:
1. Comparative analysis of structural and non-structural flood mitigating measures in a delta
environment looking at economic and environmental consequences and sustainability.
2. Design of floating settlements for flood season looking at considerations for safety, docking
infrastructure and location, economy and possible adaptation to local culture.
3. Environmentally-responsive design alternatives to structural flood mitigating measures,
looking at adjustment to typical dike and sluice system design applied to address flooding.
4. Settlements Pattern in the Delta: Densities and the Limits of Expansion.
5. Quantitative analysis and projections of geological changes due to tidal movement, floods,
typhoon and storm surges in the coastal areas as a tool in determining safe settlement zones.
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May mean living in a wetland environment, along the river bank or coastal area, or in a lake
under periodic assault by water, in a house –on - stilts on ground or floating on water
The Resettlement Action Plan defines compensation entitlements, rehabilitation measures and
financial assistance extended to infrastructure project affected households (PAHs).
Compensation for land and property in case the State recovers land is guided by the principle
wherein compensation to PAHs should improve or at least maintain their former living condition.
Compensation is based on type of impact (house, land, trees, ponds, fish, graves, etc.).
3 Security of tenure is established by the possession of a Land Use Rights Certificate (LURC) or
the red book3 which serves as a basis for entitlement in case the land is recovered by the State.
4 Set by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. Currency conversion is computed at
1US$ = 16000 VND.
5 A residential cluster, locally referred to as cum, is a concentrated residential area surrounded by
dikes, with a land area of 2-3 hectares for 100 – 200 households. It is composed of housing
foundations 80m2 to 120m2 in area, raised about 0.50m - 0.60m above the highest flood line; and
a house with a minimum area of 32 m2 (4m x 8m). Semi-self-disintegrating toilets were provided
but are not functional as report by Adam Fforde and Associates Pty Ltd, 2003.
6 Zoned for mangrove reforestation where tree felling, collection and destruction of live
vegetation , soil mining, settlements, commercial fishing with nets and traps, capturing or netting
fish, shrimp/shrimp larvae, hunting and trapping of wild animals and other forms of exhaustive
resource use is not allowed.
7 Zoned for settlements in existing community centers, subject to land allocation, use rights and
land titles issued by the District People’s Committee, aquaculture and mangrove forest
development, forest-cum-shrimp production under Fisheries-Forest Enterprise (FFE) or Forest
Protection and Management (FPMB), silviculture treatment, harvesting of forest products and
dead wood, breeding of bees and other animals, recreation, scientific research and eco-tourism
8 A region or sub-region of rice paddies defined by a system of canals and irrigation.
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