Just south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)’s dense urban sprawl lies Can Gio, its only coastal district. Blanketed by dense forest (46 percent) and water (32 percent), the district is renowned for its biosphere reserve – the “green lung” that protects HCMC against air and water pollution and shields its citizens from storms and natural disasters.
Low-lying HCMC ranks among the world’s top 10 cities most vulnerable to climate change largely due to rising sea levels. In 2011, the city began researching an action plan to prevent future natural disasters resulting from such threats. Local scientists joined with flood-management experts from Rotterdam and two years later revealed conclusive findings that left little room for doubt. Can Gio is HCMC’s bulwark against climate-change calamities and must be protected.
“From a climate adaptation perspective, the South of the city is not suitable for large scale urbanisation,” they wrote. “This area is under the frequent impact of rising sea levels, and the low bulk density of the soil here makes it vulnerable to future erosions and collapses.”
They also warned that the Can Gio biosphere reserve, a UNESCO-listed site southeast of the city, was a crucial shield and should be spared from development. “This forest has a natural capacity to prevent coastal erosion and storm-induced coastal flooding,” they said.
The scientists’ findings were accepted by the HCMC People’s Committee in August 2014 and duly incorporated into city planning.
Then, barely two years later, came a remarkable U-turn.
In October 2016, the same People’s Committee decided to transform what at that time was an already extensive, 600-hectare ecotourism proposal on the reserve’s edge into a vast 2,870-hectare city-scale venture on reclaimed land that would house 230,000 people along with extensive infrastructure, including a deep sea port.
In April 2017, the revised land-reclamation project was approved for inclusion in the 2030 masterplans for Can Gio and Ho Chi Minh by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Experts slammed the move as a 180-degree turn from the endorsed research findings and HCMC’s strategic objective of climate change adaptation. Also warning against urban development south of the city were multiple previous studies on HCMC climate adaptation conducted by international agencies, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
In the path of climate change
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Can Gio Tourist City project evaluated just one climate change factor, rising sea levels, which Vu Hai, former secretary-general of the HCMC Water and Environment Association, says was flawed.
The project is to be sited on low-lying land. It will need to be raised with fill, but it is unclear, he says, to what extent the proposed height fully takes into consideration the ever increasing impacts of sea-level rise being forecast for the Mekong Delta over the next 50-100 years.
Furthermore, Le Thi Xuan Lan, who conducts research on storms in the South China Sea, notes that violent storms in the area are on the rise in both frequency and intensity. The former Forecast Department deputy head at the Southern Meteorological and Hydrological Station says that in the past, storms were rare in the South, with an average likelihood of 20 percent per year. That has now risen to 60 to 80 percent. Recent records show at least one major storm per year now hits the district or scrapes its coast. Le predicts this trend will continue, with more frequent and stronger storms hitting Can Gio and HCMC.
“The location of the Can Gio estuary is shielded by the land of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and the island of Phu Quy, but it still suffers from serious damage whenever a storm passes by,” she observes. “If a storm hits HCMC and Can Gio directly, I’m afraid a city built on reclaimed land will not survive.”
Tidal waves also poses a threat, adds Le, and they too were unaddressed in the EIA. She notes that scientists at a conference in the United States 10 years ago warned that if a powerful earthquake struck the west coast of the Philippines, tidal sea waves arriving in Vietnam would reach heights of about eight metres in Da Nang, four metres in Nha Trang and three to four metres in Can Gio. Would a new city built entirely on reclaimed land be able to endure these massive waves, she asks.
Studies show that most districts of HCMC are at risk from natural disasters. ADB research warns that damage will be most severe in vulnerable rural districts like Can Gio, Nha Be and around the Dong Nai river mouth.
Meanwhile, Can Gio is now more vulnerable than ever, thanks to a separate megaproject off its coast. Plans for a 23-kilometre-long sea wall ostensibly to protect HCMC from flooding are going ahead despite opposition from scientists.
According to Professor Ho Long Phi, former director of the Centre for Water Management and Climate Change at HCMC National University, the Go Cong-Vung Tau sea dyke project together with the Can Gio Tourist City would pose serious risks of erosion, flooding and water stagnation, and will become a liability for the public in the long run.
Professor Ho predicts climate change impacts will be more severe than official projections. Even if carbon emissions are reduced in line with the Paris Accord, sea levels will rise by two to three metres within the next 150 to 200 years, he says.
Currently, Can Gio lies just above sea level, but its low-bulk density means that in 10 to 20 years it will have sunk several centimetres below sea level. By that time, the burden of protecting developments on reclaimed land will fall on the national budget rather than the project developer, he adds.
Architect Dr. Ngo Viet Nam Son, warns that without an extensive system of drainage canals, the tourist city itself risks becoming a dyke that prevents the release of flood run-off from HCMC out to the sea.
Property development in the guise of ecotourism
Because of its proximity to the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, the Gan Gio Tourist City project has been designated as an ecotourism development.
“The design of the project has to reflect its role as a marine ecotourist hub, with a vision to create the best marine ecotourist city in Vietnam, taking into account such issues as wave stopping, sea water quality, and natural climate conditions,” states the project’s masterplan.
However the “eco” in ecotourism contradicts the essence of the project and disguises what some argue is just another property development. The Can Gio Tourist City plans to accommodate 230,000 residents over an area of almost 3,000 hectares of reclaimed land, more than three times the current population of Can Gio (70,000 residents spread over 70,4000 hectares). It also anticipates attracting nine million tourists annually.
Project documents reveal that 58 percent of the project area will be covered by buildings and urban and transport infrastructure. Less than 17 percent is reserved for green space, and some 25 percent is to include an artificial lake. This hardly conforms with the natural ecology of the surrounding area says, architect Dr. Son.
He says the Can Gio Tourist City should be re-designated as a property development, and the documents and decision-making should reflect this. HCMC city officials have a duty to ensure the project benefits are real and not wrapped-up in artificial branding, he says. The truth, he fears, is that the development will not only cause harm to the environment and the local community, but become a public liability with incalculable expenses.
One of the obvious concerns, he says, is the plan to construct an elevated road to run over the Can Gio biosphere reserve, which must be paid for by the city authority.
“This is an absurd demand,” says Dr. Son. “Without this property development project, Can Gio would not need such an elevated road.”
Another worry is the vast scale of the project. Presently, new urban compounds throughout Vietnam remain vacant despite boasting comprehensive infrastructure. These “ghost towns” exist in Hanoi and Binh Duong and even close to downtown HCMC.
Dr. Son warns that without careful plans to support livelihoods and everyday needs of residents, projects like this risk standing empty, generating long-term harm to both investors and locals.
The 2,870-hectare Can Gio Tourist City land reclamation project includes over 13 kilometers of coastline in Long Hoa Commune and Can Thanh Township of Can Gio District, HCMC, Vietnam. As this promotional video illustrates, the true objective is property development not ecotourism.
Is such real-estate speculation worth the risks?
Another question HCMC authorities must answer is why this land-reclamation project has been chosen over sites to the east and northwest where strong regional connections already exist, and urbanisation is well underway.
A former official at the HCMC Climate Change Office, who asked to remain anonymous, says the Can Gio Tourist City plan is much more akin to a conventional city than a marine focussed ecocity. Any development in such a sensitive marine environment, the expert suggests, should incorporate floating buildings and infrastructure that preserve local ecosystems with high investment costs and low land-use percentages. In contrast, the Can Gio Tourist City is to be erected on reclaimed land that would seriously disrupt the local ecosystem, altering coastal currents and aggravating coastal erosion.
The expert suggests that the project should be postponed until it has been concluded that urban expansion in this area is not only necessary, but capable of overcoming the many identified shortcomings and risks.
Doan Manh Dung, secretary-general of the HCMC Marine Technology and Economics Association, questions the Can Gio Tourist City project’s economic viability.
He says the project appears to be modeling its fast-developing neighbour Vung Tau as well as other coastal tourist hubs around the country. But Can Gio’s natural attraction is its extensive mangroves, he argues, not white-sand beaches for swimming and sunbathing. If the HCMC authority wants to promote tourism in Can Gio, it first must demonstrate the market for mangrove-based ecotourism, then develop appropriately-scaled infrastructure to support it.
Instead, the Can Gio Tourist City plans to incorporate and maintain a large artificial beach.
Sweeping away the locals
Another priority, says Doan Manh Dung, should be to optimise value-added aquaculture to create sustainable livelihoods for the local community and make them less vulnerable to property speculation.
“We are dependent on the sea. I don’t know how we will live without it,” said Huynh Thi Phuong, voicing the fears of thousands of fellow-Can Gio residents who are living under the shadow of this vast land-reclamation project.
She knows little about the project, other than it will be implemented sometime in the near future. Her clam digging, together with her husband’s shoreline fishing earns the family about nine million dong (US$388) per month, enough to keep their children in school.
Another local, Nguyen Van Thang, said the biggest downside of this planned land reclamation is that the resulting tourist city will be inaccessible to the poor. He worries that his fellow citizens will hardly benefit from the planned luxury homes, skyscraper, golf course and cruise ship port.
The project is designed to span the entirety of the 13-kilometre coastline of Long Hoa Commune and Can Thanh Township in Can Gio District, yet there is no evidence to suggest that the land for aquaculture and small-scale tourism the locals currently rely on will remain accessible. Locals include 1,969 residents in 767 households engaged in clam farming and shoreline fishing, and 856 residents with boats for inshore fishing.
According to Le Minh Dung, chairman of the Can Gio People’s Committee, there is no specific plan yet to help local residents find alternative means of living when the tourist city project breaks ground.
It is assumed that locals will somehow integrate into the new economy, which the developer estimates will generate 2.9 trillion dong (US$1.25 billion) annually in national tax revenue – nearly 30 times the district’s current contribution — and represent upwards of three percent of HCMC’s retail and services receipts.
Technically, depriving access to marine resources locals previously depended on for their livelihood is against the law. An official at the Department for Basic Inspection of Seas and Islands, who prefers to remain anonymous, explained that authorities are legally required to establish coastal protection corridors prior to determining which areas should be conserved and which can be considered for development.
But according to a report submitted to Vietnam’s prime minister by the HCMC People’s Committee, the coastal protection corridor in Can Gio would become subordinate to the project and must, “respect the scale and avoid affecting the activities of the [Can Gio Tourist City] project.”
In recent years, HCMC authorities have collaborated with many international institutions in seeking adaptation and mitigation measures for climate change, vowing to strive further toward sustainable development. Accordingly, the city has defined 10 priority areas for climate adaptation, namely urban planning, transportation, industry, water management, waste management, construction, health, agriculture and tourism.
“We will not trade our environment for economic growth” has been a mantra of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for almost three years now. In keeping with this spirit, regions whose ecosystems services could help alleviate the impacts of climate change should be prioritised for national protection.
These natural resources are invaluable legacies for future generations as well. To date, Vietnam has established 31 national parks, 69 nature reserves and 45 protected landscape areas. UNESCO has also approved nine world biosphere reserves in the country, including those with national parks or nature reserves in their core zones, which are protected by law. For the past decade, however, many of these areas have been impacted by a series of property development projects under the guise of “ecotourism.”
This includes Vietnam’s highest peak Mount Fansipan and the surrounding Hoang Lien National Park, the national parks of Ba Vi and Phu Quoc, Ba Na and Son Tra Nature Reserves, and Cat Ba and Cu Lao Cham biosphere reserves. All these actions have sparked heavy public criticism. And a slew of similar projects now await final approval, including the Can Gio Tourist City, with the fate of the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve in the balance.
Last August, the Politburo approved a review on climate change adaptation, natural resources management and environmental protection which concluded that the overexploitation of many natural resources is aggravating the impacts of climate change in Vietnam. The review emphasised the urgent need to “establish comprehensive environmental criteria and technical standards, as well as improve the environmental impact assessment and approval process for economic development projects.”
The fate of the Can Gio Tourist City land-reclamation project now lies in the hands of Prime Minister Phuc. Will his final decision reflect this promise not to “trade our environment for economic growth?” Or will it leave his government’s proclaimed commitment to sustainability ringing hollow?
Banner image: Ms. Huynh Thi Phuong, a resident of Can Gio who collects clams for a living, has received no information about a massive coastal reclamation project that will impact her family's livelihood / Credit: Le Quynh