A sustainable future for the Mekong Delta region?

The UNU Media Studio was invited to attend the ProSPER.Net (Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research) Young Researchers’ School in Ho Chi Minh City recently. ProSPER.Net is a network of higher education institutes in Asia and the Pacific, convened by the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies in Yokohama, working to integrate Sustainable Development into postgraduate courses and curricula.

Hosted by the RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) Vietnam campus, the purposes of the workshop were to “enhance the understandings of all participants in a range of key imperatives for sustainable development” and  “build research capacity in sustainable development within and across universities of the Asia- Pacific region.” The 15 or so emerging scholars received training on how to communicate their sustainability-related research to academic and wider audiences including through articles for Our World 2.0.

Sustainability, whatever that means

‘Sustainability’ and the phrase ’sustainable development’ would have to be two of the least defined, and most over-used terms in the English language. And although sharing local experiences about sustainability can be fruitful, discussions rarely give us a sense of the true costs and benefits of economic development models.

To their credit, the RMIT organisers arranged a bus tour of the burgeoning South Saigon Urban Development.The multi-million dollar partnership between Vietnamese authorities and construction companies from countries like Taiwan, Japan and China is a reflection of HCMC’s growing wealth and internationalisation. Office towers and high-rise apartments, new roads and utilities are being built on what was previously paddy fields and swamp land.

HCMC is predicted to experience significant sea-level rises as a result of climate change and also house an expanded population of 25 million by 2050. Therefore serious road, public transport, housing and disaster mitigation infrastructure will need to be developed to alleviate the problems of an already overcrowded and polluted city. But is a South Saigon development model catering to Vietnam’s elite and international investors sustainable? With no major accompanying public transport initiative underway, inhabitants will be living the high-octane automobile-dependent lifestyles of people in developed countries and increasingly, developing world megacities.

Good morning Starbucks

Beyond sustainability, what really struck me about these developments was how much of a Vietnamese character they lacked, especially in comparison to the uniquely Vietnamese hustle and bustle of HCMC.  Like growth-hubs in many Asian megacities, there is a predictable replication of western-style gated unit blocks, sterile thoroughfares, McStarbucks food joints and high-end fashion and shopping facilities. That is what attracts the developers and grows an economy, they tell us.

Japan resident Pico Iyer writing about Tokyo recently said that:

“Now that Shanghai looks in parts like Beverly Hills, and Delhi is lighting up with Thai restaurants, there are few cities on the planet that are less Western than Tokyo…”

Perhaps Tokyo’s uniquely Japanese feel is an exception? Or perhaps the underlying Vietnamese character of modern HCMC will shine through as time goes by? Overall, I get the feeling that such economic developments dependent on international contractors have little incentive to reflect both local culture and sustainability, however you define the them.

by Mark Notaras on November 14, 2010 Comments (00)  
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