Water Engineering

Vietnam has been ravaged by first of all war and then the poverty of an undeveloped economy. Unlike Cambodia and Laos, or even Myanmar, it has managed to rebuild lots of infrastructure. The roads are universally excellent, with flat tarmac surfaces. Bridges are easily destroyed in war, but now there are many new ones, including a magnificent one that I went over in the Mekong Delta. I’ve seen maybe even a dozen new bridges being built in my short journey through Vietnam.

Halong City has a population of 150,000 people, slightly more than Cambridge in the UK. Its water system has been badly maintained over the years, and so has been recently refurbished. What’s curious is how the refurbishment was funded… 90% by the Dutch government via a World Bank loan, and 10% by the local state Vietnamese water company. Evidently the people of Halong City needed an update to their water system, but it isn’t entirely clear to me why the Dutch government funded it, especially when it is considered doubtful that the loan will ever be repaid.

There’s more to this. It must be for industrial economic development, as it is essentially for an urban environment, rather than the much poorer rural Vietnamese. Also, it doesn’t seem a sensible use of development money as it isn’t very catalytic, like education would be. To back this up, the project isn’t very strong on training; the contractor doesn’t have to train Vietnamese people to replace it in future.

The project is managed by a Dutch consulting company, and run by a French contractor, SAUR. On Saturday I visited the French company’s offices in Halong City. They have 12 expat staff, mainly French but also some others, and 50 Vietnamese staff.

From a technical point of view water engineering is actually pretty interesting. There are lots of strategies to fixing damaged pipes. For example, you can slipline them by inserting a new rubbery pipe inside an existing pipe, or you can send a device down to spray line them with epoxy resin. To find the problems, one technique is called the pressure test, which involves sending high pressure water down to break the pipe. Then you look for where the water squirts out the surface in a fountain, and go fix it!

The water project has two major sources being a dam in one area, and a river in another. There is also some extra water gathered from boreholes. As well as fixing existing pipes, they’ve lain large tracts of new pipe (manufactured in Malyasia). This involves fun things like temporarily damming rivers so you can run a pipeline under the river bed.

Physically the pipe laying is very easy, as labour here is cheap. At the flick of a hand, an arbitary number of digging people can be mustered. The hard bit (for the contracting company, rather than the sweating labourers) is negotiating permits. Often while doing works people will come out of their houses and physically stop them digging in the back of their garden, demanding more compensation.

If you’re building a house, then once the site is secured and cleared, it is like painting a picture. With pipelines the environment always affects your plans while you are laying them – performing a thorough underground survey would be as expensive and disruptive as actually just trying to lay the pipe.

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