As Vietnam urbanises, air pollution grows in big cities

Thursday, 2016-08-18 10:57:00
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Residents in big cities are suffering from serious air pollution.
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NDO - Rapid urbanisation in Vietnam in recent years has posed serious challenges to the protection of the environment, especially the air, with pollution reaching an alarmingly unhealthy level due to the failure of control measures and lack of coordinated action.

The state of the air

Data from the Vietnam Environment Administration show that the air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City has been dirtied with particulate matter, or PM, a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets, for decades. The PM concentration in these two cities is twice to three times above the acceptable level, which means city residents are suffering from serious air pollution. The rate is even higher at construction sites, three to seven times the safe limit. On searing hot or crisp dry days, air pollution is further aggravated in places where there are traffic jams, high-rise buildings and few green trees, seriously affecting the health of children and the elderly.

In addition to small particles, the air in these cities is also polluted with chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOC), which have high vapour pressure at normal temperature, from fuels burned by cars and motorbikes. Data show that at all sites in Ho Chi Minh City and the nearby Bien Hoa where air monitoring devices are installed, the VOC levels always exceed the safe limit.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) warned in a 2007 report that the pressure of socio-economic development would lead to environmental degradation. In Hanoi, the amount of carbon dioxide will increase from 600,000 tonnes in 2005 to 1.4 million tonnes in 2020, while the amount of sulphur dioxide will also rise from 1,500 tonnes in 2005 to 4,000 tonnes in 2020. With such early long-term predictions, a national-level strategy should have been formulated at that time to control air pollution in the long run, but not much has been done.

The culprit and control plan

According to MONRE, the main offender of air pollution in big cities is vehicular traffic, which contributes 85% of the amount of carbon monoxide in the air. Other sources of small particles emitted into the air include industrial factories and construction sites. According to the Ministry of Transport, Vietnam currently has 1.9 million cars and 40 million motorcycles, which fume huge amounts of toxic gases every day, causing serious air pollution especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. A recent study by the Ministry of Transport’s Health Department suggests that air pollution causes annual damage worth VND165 billion (US$7.4 million) and VND135 billion (US$6.1 million) to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City respectively.

To deal with air pollution caused by motor vehicles, the Vietnam Vehicle Registration Agency (VVRA) formulated a plan to control emissions. But the plan has been met with obstacles since it was adopted in 2011 as many vehicle owners say it is unacceptable to pay the emission test fees. La Van Huynh from Trieu Khuc, Hanoi said when buying a motorbike, he had to pay various fees which added up to a large amount for poor people like him.

The authorities are also stuck on how to implement the plan due to a lack of agreement over the age at which a vehicle’s emission system must be tested, where to stick the qualification stamp to make it visible to traffic police, the fine level for violators and the roadmap for enacting the plan. It is apparent that the plan needs further work.

More action is needed to control emissions from cars and motorbikes.

Nguyen Huu Tri, deputy director of the VVRA said the plan affects a great number of motorbike users, so its implementation was difficult and has been delayed until 2017 pending amendments. He says usage of motorbikes, except for registration with the authorities, is not subject to any forms of control and the majority of users are not fully aware of the harmful effects of vehicle emissions, and fail to carry out regular maintenance to save fuel and reduce exhaust.

As a relevant party, the transport ministry’s Department for the Environment will step up publicity campaigns so that the people can support the exhaust control plan as a way to protect the air and their health.

For now, controlling air pollution remains a great challenge because the best solution, which is replacing fossil fuel with clean fuel, is not an easy option given Vietnam’s economic resources. Air purifiers are also a solution to making the air cleaner, but they can only deal with dust and sulphur dioxide while nitrogen oxide remains a big problem because the technology to treat this gas is prohibitively expensive.

Diminishing green spaces

In the capital Hanoi, trees and lakes - regarded as the green lungs to make the city’s air cleaner - are also shrinking to give way to residential buildings and other structures. A large numbers of urban residents are forced to live in cramped conditions without knowing how trees and lakes are managed, and who are responsible for the loss of green spaces.

Experts say trees and lakes can help filter the air in large cities but many lakes in Hanoi have recently disappeared quickly due to occupation by nearby residents and land reclamation for public or commercial buildings. Some green spaces have become schools, some are turned into car parks, while in other places tall buildings are rising from the ground.

Statistics from the Hanoi Department of Construction show that there were 122 lakes and ponds across nine urban districts in 2010. Figures by the Centre for Environment and Community Research show that during the 2010-2015 period, 17 lakes in the capital city were completely filled and only seven new ones were created.

Lakes in Hanoi are giving way to residential buildings.

According to Do Anh Tuan, chairman of Tay Ho district, lake management is inefficient because a lake is managed by different agencies, each of which is in charge of an aspect. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment is responsible for water quality, the Department of Construction for lake infrastructure and district authorities for geographical boundaries.

In addition to lakes, urban vegetation in Hanoi is shrinking, to the level now that a resident only has two square metres of green trees, equivalent to only one tenth of the world’s modern cities. Architect Ngo Doan Duc noted that if more trees could not be planted, action must be taken to stop green areas from further decreasing.

Sharing the same view, General Secretary of the Association of Cities of Vietnam Vu Thi Vinh says development of green and environmentally friendly cities is a good solution to reduce the stuffy atmosphere and protecting lakes and trees is absolute necessary, in addition to sound transport planning.

In its effort to become a sustainable city, the Hanoi government approved in March 2014 a plan under which Hanoi will become a green and clean city by 2030 and pollution in the city centre will be addressed. But many experts are sceptical about this vision, saying that such a goal can only be attained if the city government really attaches importance to protecting lakes, trees and preventing the invasion of green spaces and felling of trees. Truong Manh Tien, Chairman of the Hanoi Club of Ponds and Lakes, said in addition to maintaining the status quo, measures must be taken to always keep the pollution level at lakes under control.