Although access to clean, safe water is a basic human right, one in 10 people still drink water from unprotected sources. The global water crisis is such that its effects are felt in the wealthiest of nations, and even more severely in developing countries where water supply is either scarce or increasingly strained by rapid urbanization.

When it comes to water safety and equal access, governance largely determines water accesibility, with the poor and marginalized most often losing out. But it isn’t the only factor. When the political will exists, sometimes governments cannot keep up with the unfolding demands of rapidly growing urban areas and how new urban configurations shape those demands.

“What areas receive better quality water than others also depends on the urban typology,” says Lucía Wright, a Mexican-American alumni of our program and coauthor of a new study on how urban typologies have determined the quality of water supply in suburban Hanoi. In 2013, a decade-long study found that massive over-pumping of groundwater sources to meet surging demand for water was drawing arsenic into the country’s village wells. It’s just one example of a recurring problem in the fast-growing suburbs of cities in the Global South, where periurban villages (PUVs)—embedded in urbanizing rural landscapes—resort to the traditional use of private wells to get their water. New urban areas (NUAs), on the other hand, usually run by private housing companies and characterized by highrise apartment buildings, have decentralized water access and their own water treatment facilities.

The research project, coordinated by Dr. Sophie Schramm of the Technical University of Darmstadt, aims to “unveil the current splintered infrastructure systems of centralized piped water schemes, privately owned wells, and additional solutions that users implement to make up for obtaining safe drinking water.” Identifying the dynamics behind the highly differentiated water infrastructures of these two urban typologies in Hanoi can help to inform better policy around water service provision that is tailored to specific needs and socially equitable.

In the following interview with Lucía, who spent the summer of 2014 gathering research on ground in Hanoi, we learn more about what led her to take part in the study, what its findings are, and how they can be applied to cases in other cities across the world.

1_suburban Hanoi_WrightUrban landscape in suburban Hanoi

As an architect, what led you to study water issues in Hanoi?

My working experience as an architect in Mexico allowed me to develop a deep understanding of the vulnerability of low-income families living in (semi)informal settlements on former ejido land. I worked for two years for a nonprofit called Casita Linda AC building houses for people living in extreme poverty. It was then that I realized that the problem was not just related to housing, because we were working in areas which legally had no access to services and designing structures which had to work off the grid. Regularization of ejido land is a long and tedious process and I don’t agree that the legalization of tenure should be a prerequisite for access to basic services. There are successful examples of integrated urban water management in informal areas in Colombia which Mexico could learn from.

I ended up in Vietnam because during my studies at Technical University of Darmstadt for my double-degree master studies of Mundus Urbano, I worked as a research assistant for the Chair of Spatial and Infrastructure Planning of IWAR Institute and spent two months in Hanoi gathering data on water coverage, quality, and costs. I was able to participate in the 37th Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) International Conference in Hanoi that year, which was a great starting point to connect with national ministries, international aid organizations, and financial enterprises related to the topic of water. With the help of my friend and translator, architect Duong Nguyen Anh, we covered the city’s urban, suburban and rural fabric carrying out over 100 surveys, collecting tap water and groundwater samples, and organizing at least 100 questionnaires. Thanh Ha Ngo, an environmental engineer, helped me understand key points in the historical and technological development of water infrastructures in Hanoi. Thanks to this experience, what I set out to find turned out to be the tip of the iceberg, which is why now I am pursuing my doctoral studies on water infrastructures and multi-level water governance in South East Asia.

2_Hoang Mai district_Ha Dong district_WrightNew urban area of Linh Đàm in Hoàng Mai district vs. periurban village of Vạn Phúc, in Hà Đông district.

Can you paint us a broad picture of the state of water supply in Hanoi?

So an important point to make is that there is no clear division between urban and rural areas in Hanoi. Suburban areas in Vietnam do not correspond with the classical image of American suburbia. Asian suburbanity is a patchwork of urban and rural landscapes. The boundaries between urban and rural areas blur as NUAs pop up around existing PUVs. This is why is it not easy to state which areas have adequate water supply and which do not. According to my observations, I concluded that the built environment of NUAs conditions the use of smaller technological systems such as privately owned wells, which are used by PUVs as an alternative to the piped-network system. So what areas receive better quality water than others also depends on the urban typology. My mission was to identify trends and decipher the governance models and financial mechanisms which allowed for certain technological systems to develop in some areas rather than others.

4_Built environment_Thanh Tri district_WrightBuilt environment and public scene in periurban village of Triều Khúc in Thanh Trì district

The study uses the concept of “splintering urbanism” to explain this phenomenon.

Yes. “Splintering urbanism” is a term often cited from Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin used to define the fragmented growth of cities and the unequal access to services. Other authors like Olivier Coutard make a point to include a historical analysis and local forms of resistance to this so-called splintered urbanism, by indicating that inequality is not only dependent on “unbundled networks” (as opposed to networked services) and the “infrastructural bypassing” which Graham and Marvin speak of. Ultimately, what we are interested in is social and environmental justice.

5_ New urban area vs Periurban village_WrightBuilt environment and public scene in new urban area of Linh Đàm in Hoàng Mai district

Is the provision of adequate water in these areas an issue of politics or poor planning?

The challenges that Hanoi is facing in urban water planning are similar to those faced by all rapidly urbanizing areas around the world. Authorities are struggling to keep up with fast-growing populations, rural to urban migration, and on top of that trying to overcome setbacks caused by disasters related to climate change and human conflicts. This is why governance is a key point. Is it up to local authorities to keep up with the demand for services? Are we looking at every side of the issue? Who are the actors involved and what are their vested interests?

I really recommend diving in a bit into Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw’s book: In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. In the study of Hanoi, we use urban political ecology to help understand the power relations mediated through the production and distribution of water and how urban water planning has shaped the development of cities. One of the first diagrams I produced was of Hanoi’s water cycle and existing production and distribution companies. In forthcoming articles, I plan to explain the ownership models of these companies, water supply zones, as well as spatial, jurisdictional and institutional scales of management.

So, to answer this question, I think national ministries in Vietnam are working hard to increase coverage and improve water quality through the piped network system. A huge network of international actors are involved urban water planning in Vietnam. And now, in line with the sixth Sustainable Development Goal of UN’s New Urban Agenda, which highlights “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” there is a clear set of targets which prioritize building resilient infrastructures, and inclusive, safe, sustainable cities. In this sense, as theorists, academics, planners, consultants, delegates, and officials, it is our duty to fully grasp the interplay of institutions, scales and contexts, as well as the politics of the development of cities facing global environmental challenges in order to achieve socioecological justice.

3_Built environment_Hoang Mai district_WrightPrivate water treatment facilities in new urban area vs. private water distributor in periurban village

What steps are being taken to improve water supply in Hanoi?

One of the programmes I investigated more thoroughly was Vietnam’s National Target Program (NTP) for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWSS) (phase 3 from 2012 to 2015, also called NTP3). The NTP3 illustrates the incidence of national and international policies in Vietnam, the role of international funding bodies, and the responsibilities of national ministries and local actors for water supply. There are steps being taken to connect urbanizing areas to the piped-scheme network through Information, Education and Communication (IEC) campaigns following UNICEF’s approach of Communication for Development (C4D). Together with other ministries, the Ministry of Construction (MOC) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) are responsible for water provision at provincial and city levels. Between MOC and MARD, water supply in suburban areas of Hanoi is determined depending on the nature of the settlement, whether it is an NUA or a PUV. So if we are talking about adequate water infrastructures, there are major improvements in deliver safe water to the whole of Hanoi’s population. However, we do want to question if these technological systems are considering context-specific economic, socio-technical and cultural processes, as well as users’ perceptions of water quality and affordability.

6_Water truck outskirts of Hanoi_WrightWater truck in the outskirts of Hanoi

Can we extrapolate these findings to inform similar cases in other cities?

The findings in Hanoi can definitely inform urban water planning in other cities. There is a need to zoom out from the household level and understand the cross-scale dynamics and the networks of actors which play a role in the development of water infrastructures and water governance. Most importantly, we have to understand cities as complex and adaptive systems. I don’t believe in piling our work onto the mountain of case studies which already exist, but rather, use these cases to discuss the direction of planning visions, create tools to map and visualize the challenges of urbanizing areas, re-evaluate processes and policies, and advocate for an equitable distribution of resources and services to increase distributional justice and social equity.


Lucía Wright is currently a doctoral candidate at Technische Universität Darmstadt. Her next project is a collaborative research project with UN-Habitat’s initiative Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA), concerning the city of Da Nang and the effectiveness of water operator partnerships in transferring knowledge and building capacity amongst water utilities in Vietnam.

You can request a copy of her Hanoi paper here.

SONY DSCLucía, right, with architect Duong Nguyen Anh

All photos ©Lucía Wright

One Comment

  • Saul Whynman says:

    Dear Lucia,

    Thanks for including me in this. Your work sounds tremendously satisfying, although probably depressing at times. Our son, Dustin, is a water treatment engineer. Lately, he is doing most of his work in California, although he and his family live in Idaho.

    Love to you. Please let us know if you plan to visit San Miguel.


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