Vietnam needs to get wise about being healthy and wealthy
It has been my privilege to live in Vietnam for 16 years, nearly 40 percent of my adult life.
I am a global citizen without national affiliation who sees the goodness and even greatness, past, present, and future, of every country.
I also care deeply about those issues and areas – sometimes openly discussed, other times lurking just beneath the rhetorical surface, and still others not something to be spoken of in public - that are in desperate need of improvement.
One of the most pressing problems in the world that you and I share are widespread air and water pollution. These are not academic or long-term issues but rather existential and immediate ones that affect the people and natural world of Vietnam in the here and now.
I am saddened and angered by the total disregard so many people show for Mother Nature and their country by throwing trash out of their car windows, dumping garbage into lakes and rivers, and burning all manner of waste as an expedient yet toxic means of garbage disposal. These are acts of ecocide, defined as the destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.
The far-sighted renovation Doi Moi reforms that ushered in a market economy with socialist orientation and created a multitude of benefits for most Vietnamese also gave rise to a flourishing consumer economy without systematic measures in place to deal with the mountains of garbage generated on a daily basis.
Vietnam has the dark distinction of being among the 4th worst polluters of the world’s oceans. According to a recent World Bank survey, plastic items accounted for 94 percent of all solid waste collected at 38 riverbank and coastal sites around the country, the majority of which were single-use plastics. The plastic consumption rate per capita in Vietnam rose 10 times between 1990 and 2019 - in tandem with the expansion of a consumer economy.
As Carolyn Turk, World Bank country director, pointed out in a compelling, heartfelt, and fact-filled essay, "A plastic pollution-free future requires a transition from the current, linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model to a circular ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ economy. In a circular economy, very little plastic will become waste or pollution."
Other key challenges
It's safe to assume that every body of water in Vietnam is polluted to varying degrees. Analysis of surface sediment samples collected from the fabled Red River reveals heavy metal contamination with concentrations ranging from moderate to serious pollution levels. Heavy metals can damage the brain, kidneys, lungs, liver, and blood. Chronic exposure to some may result in cancer.
Vietnam only treats 13 percent of its urban wastewater, according to a 2019 report published by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The country would need $8.3 billion to provide drainage services for its urban residents in 2025, according to the World Bank.
Only 60 percent of households in Vietnam are able to access public water systems. Groundwater is obtained primarily from tubewells that have high concentrations of pollutants such as ammonium (NH4+), arsenic (As), iron (Fe), and manganese (Mn).
People routinely burn trash, one of several sources of air pollution that also include gas emissions from vehicles, especially motorbikes and, trucks, smokestack emissions from factories and coal power plants, and dust from construction sites.
According to the WHO, polluted air exposes us to fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing medical conditions such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and respiratory infections.
Finally, landfills are an untenable long-term solution to garbage disposal. In a presentation on their elimination that he has given to many audiences in Vietnam, Dr. Paul Olivier, a U.S. expat and environmentalist who lives in Da Lat, asserts that what is generally seen as a problem is in fact a solution: waste is our greatest resource. This is advice worth heeding as soon as practicable.
The good news is that health has emerged as a major concern among many people. This relates to the food they eat, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. However, this recently evolved consciousness has not modified the behavior of most. Green – clean – and beautiful remains an empty slogan, as does the use of "eco" to sell many products and services that are not.
Time for action
Trash left on a street in Hanoi after unpaid collectors went on strike, November 19, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Tuan.
On a macrolevel, there are many steps we as individuals and the country as a whole can take to address the vexing problems of environmental pollution. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and includes some items that have been proposed and will soon become a reality. The use of technology is key.
From a conservation standpoint, the things that can be done include: harvesting rainwater; using infrared or ultrasonic sensors to automatically turn lights on and off; use organic substances instead of chemicals for insect control; transform agricultural byproducts like rice straw into food, feed, fertilizer, fuel and biochar; and switch off electrical appliances when not in use.
For its part, the government can make a huge difference by: banning single-use plastic immediately (plastics take anywhere from 20-500 years to decompose); creating an app that people can use to report violations of environmental laws; creating more incentives for entrepreneurs to establish social enterprises that address nagging environmental problems; offering financial rewards for whistleblowers; and implementing an environmental education curriculum beginning early primary school.
It should also implement a mandatory national recycling program that taps into the strengths of the existing informal network and impose heavy fines on individuals and corporate polluters to deter further violations.
There are several ways technology can be applied to advance environmental protection and reduce air and water pollution in the country. These include: creating an app that people can use to report violations of environmental laws; creating a website to document examples of air and water pollution throughout Vietnam and as a repository for suggestions and ideas; using combined heat and biochar gasifiers to replace the burning of wood, coal, charcoal, and even bottled gas (over half of Vietnamese households engage in the direct combustion of solid fuels; in rural areas, this figure jumps to 72 percent.); and using solar panels for hot water and basic electrical needs.
In the key sector of transportation, we can: use hybrid cars, which are ideal for Vietnam’s urban stop-and-go traffic and promote widespread use of electric bikes, motorbikes, cars, and buses (gas-powered motorbikes are the main source of vehicular carbon emissions.)
Laws are meaningless unless they are strictly enforced. Look at what happened in 2007 after helmet use became mandatory for all motorbike drivers and passengers on all roads. One day virtually no one was wearing a helmet. The next morning almost everyone was. So, too, it could be with a crackdown on crimes against nature.
Patriotism and pollution
I am touched by the fact that most Vietnamese are patriotic, meaning they love and are devoted to their country, and are proud of its achievements now and throughout history. I wonder how many people who pollute the environment either as individuals or corporate leaders think of themselves as patriots.
In fact, many are faux patriots who pay lip service to love of country while they assault it with garbage and poison. To say you love your home and then besmirch it is the height of hypocrisy.
If they really loved Vietnam, they would adopt an environment-friendly attitude and act accordingly. True patriots must become part of the solution, not exacerbate the problem. We must all do that which is in our power individually and collectively – you, me, and the government.
Vietnam emerged as an international role model rightfully praised by the global media for its success in containing Covid-19. This singular achievement was the result of quick government action, hard work, and the cooperation of most people.
Why can't this collectivist approach be applied to other urgent and even existential problems such as environmental pollution?
Over the past year and half, there have been references to the coronavirus as a war against an invisible enemy. Environmental pollution is both invisible and visible, a merciless and dangerous domestic enemy that is waging war against every living being and everything in Vietnam.
The country and its people must act now before it's too late. The clock is ticking. Inaction will spell disaster not only for continued economic growth but, more importantly, quality of life for all of us. There are no second chances. There is no other choice. Pollution must be vanquished. Vietnam and Vietnamese people have overcome great challenges throughout their millennia-long history.
They face one fight now that they can't afford to lose.
*Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. The opinions expressed are his own.