Illustration by Hisashi Okawa
Illustration by Hisashi Okawa

Sewers and storm drains don’t stir most people’s deepest passions. But try creating a modern, economically vibrant city without them.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic capital, has spent the past decade building a modern sanitation and flood control system for the 1.2 million people living along its Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal. Cleaning up this once-filthy waterway and creating new sanitation infrastructure has changed the face of the city, transforming it into a model for improving urban infrastructure in difficult settings around the world.

Ho Chi Minh City residents recall the canal as it used to be: an open sewer snaking through the city’s central business district and several of its most densely populated neighborhoods. Waste from thousands of residential buildings, businesses and factories spewed directly into the water, giving the canal a perpetual stench and killing the fish that inhabited it.

Frequent floods brought pollutants and detritus onto local streets. Crumbling embankments did little to restrain flooding, and people living nearby experienced high levels of water-borne diseases.

By the early 2000s, political leaders resolved to fix the situation, but how to get started remained anything but clear.

Ambitious Plan

The project faced considerable technical and political hurdles. Large tunnels and trenches would have to be dug in the city’s unstable soil. And the construction would disrupt traffic in the congested business district. Meanwhile, thanks to Vietnam’s political decentralization, lines of responsibility between the city and the central government had become blurred. And a project of this scale seemed sure to aggravate political tensions.

Some experts recommended simply sealing the waterway with concrete.

But Vietnam’s leaders chose a more ambitious path. They decided to transform the canal from an eyesore into an asset that would not only provide wastewater and flood control but also raise property values and attract business and people to the city center.

Project planners engaged development banks -- including the World Bank -- and donor agencies from other countries, such as Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, to help them design, fund and deliver the project. Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Transportation and Public Works would manage the project with assistance from other national and city agencies.

The government and its partners chose a bold plan -- to run a 3-meter-wide sewer interceptor pipe for 8 kilometers (5 miles) underneath the existing canal. Tunneling would prove difficult, but it would help minimize traffic problems. To further limit disruption, city officials decreed that almost all construction would happen at night.

The work got off to a rocky start in 2002. The project management team lacked real authority and adequate staff, and the division of labor between the Department of Transportation and other agencies remained unclear. Bidding processes were extremely slow and inefficient, because design reports, bid documents, cost estimates, procurement plans, evaluations and contract awards required review from multiple levels of government, and all procurement decisions needed approval from the prime minister’s office.

Even with multiple reviews, project planners didn’t always draw on technical expertise to analyze proposals. For crucial pieces of work, contractors put in unrealistically low bids, then cut corners to meet their budgets.

Stuck Underground

The sheer difficulty of the job compounded these problems. As experts had feared, poor soil conditions made tunneling exceptionally difficult. Three times, huge boring machines got stuck underground, bringing the work to a standstill for months.

Even the highly experienced foreign companies hired for the toughest assignments struggled. When a broken cable snarled the tunneling machine in a half-finished gallery beneath the Saigon River, a main contractor quit the project, abandoning the machine where it stood.

As delays accumulated, local news media publicized the technical debacles, and citizens fumed about torn-up streets. By 2007, with the work years behind schedule, the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe project reached a crisis point. The government and its partners saw they had to either kill it or somehow turn it around.

They analyzed the project’s failures, mapped out solutions and gave themselves six months to get back on course.

Delegating all decision-making power to the Department of Transportation’s management team proved crucial. This move cut the average processing time for procurement bids by two-thirds.

Under the streamlined process, the government hired a local engineering company to finish the tunneling work. This smaller company learned from the foreign contractor’s failure -- and finished the job.

Meanwhile, other important pieces of the project came together. Workers dredged more than a million cubic meters of sludge from the canal, significantly expanding its hydraulic capacity. And as the new sewer network approached completion, the canal’s water quality improved. Neighbors could see, and smell, the difference.

Along the canal, gardens were planted, sidewalks were widened, bridges were upgraded and fitness equipment was installed. What had once been a place to avoid became a place for people to meet. In one news report, a longtime resident said, “The canal used to be smelly, full of waste. But now it’s like a park, where people of all ages can come to relax, exercise and enjoy the fresh air.”

Fish Return

Fish, too, returned to the waterway. This had symbolic resonance for Ho Chi Minh City’s residents, who customarily offer fish to the kitchen god Zao Jun just before the Vietnamese New Year. In May 2013, in a ceremony linked to World Environment Day, city authorities released an additional 200,000 fish into the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal and into another recently refurbished urban canal.

The project has also provided hundreds of thousands of residents with sanitation services and about 1.2 million with better flood control. The rejuvenated canal has also boosted Ho Chi Minh City’s emerging reputation as an economic hub with a high quality of life.

The canal cleanup offers four lessons for successful delivery of public works.

First, set ambitious goals. The Vietnamese government and its partners could have covered the canal with concrete and turned the channel into a subterranean sewer line. But this wouldn’t have transformed the global reputation of Ho Chi Minh City and raised property values in the area.

Second, get bidding procedures right. Evaluating proposals for major infrastructure projects takes technical skill, which needs to be sourced and paid for just like any other critical part of the project.

Third, give people with technical expertise the power to make decisions, because they have the most capacity to adapt to changing conditions. The sheer size and complexity of the canal project made people nervous, causing them to multiply administrative review procedures -- and that slowed things down considerably.

Fourth, use crises creatively. In this project, the day of reckoning that might have marked the project’s demise turned out to represent its real beginning.

Already, the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal has become a model for other waterway cleanup projects in Ho Chi Minh City. And work has begun on an advanced wastewater treatment plant that will take the new canal sewer system to its next level.

Finally, with climate change posing new challenges to Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis built on an already flood-prone river delta, the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe project has had the unexpected benefit of calling Vietnam’s attention to the vital role environmental sustainability plays in development.

(Jim Yong Kim, a former president of Dartmouth College, is the president of the World Bank. This is the last in a three-part series about the importance of delivery in the success of global development projects. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Jim Yong Kim at president@worldbank.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.