Foreigners talk about air pollution in Hanoi the way people in other places talk about the weather. But how much of a talking point is it with locals and what are people doing about it?
In 2016 Green ID, a Vietnamese non-profit organisation released their study titled Air Quality in Vietnam which is a comprehensive appraisal of the city’s air pollution situation. According to their research Vietnamese people are seriously concerned about air quality and it has become a topic of intensive debate on social media – and for good reason. One study estimates that 90% of children under 5 years old in Ho Chi Minh suffer from respiratory illnesses.
In turn, the government have responded with an action plan to improve air quality. But how effective will it be?
Vietnam announced its intentions last March to double its share of renewable energy sources to 10% of the country’s total power needs by 2030 but also to build 30 new coal-fired power plants. Emissions from fossil fuel power plants create the dangerous PM2.5 particles that are directly related to the full range of health risks including premature death. It is safe to say that any progress made on clean-air initiatives would be cancelled out by this kind of increase in reliance on coal-fired energy.
So what are the main causes of air pollution in Hanoi?
Green ID ascertained that on 7 of the 8 most polluted days in Hanoi in 2016, emissions from coal-fired power plants (and possibly other emissions) from the industrial zone that spreads 200km East to Quang Ninh province were the primary cause of pollution. On those days wind transported the polluted air from the East over the city. The other contributory causes are those that we see daily in Hanoi; vehicle traffic, construction and casual burning. With economic growth and the increase in privately-owned cars, the city’s pollution is expected to get worse before it gets better.
But the government aren’t standing still. The Ministry for Natural Resources and the Environment (MONRE) is driving through an action plan to tackle air pollution in Vietnam, mainly through sustainable development strategies and also increased air quality monitoring and awareness. Monitoring stations will be set up across the country for data collection and for detection and warning in advance of air pollution events and data collection. Hanoi administration is already operating new monitoring stations in the city and sharing the data online. Another strategy from the Hanoi administration has not experienced an ideal start – a US $50m bus system with dedicated lanes to ensure faster commutes has not lured citizens from their motorcycles in droves as hoped.
But all these plans could be considered toothless in the face of the planned increase in coal-powered energy plants and the fact that Vietnam’s current standard on air emissions is so high as to be useless. Green ID proposes a series of measures which must be considered for Vietnam to have any real chance in beating its air pollution problems. As well as addressing the aforementioned issues, incentives to discourage private vehicle ownership need to be introduced as well as strategies to improve traffic flow in the city (traffic jams = more exhaust emissions). Poor urban and traffic planning must be improved and burning of waste and agricultural matter needs to stop. There are already laws against casual burning, so they just need to be taken seriously and properly enforced.
At a household level, cooking food indoors over open flames is a huge contributory factor to respiratory illness in Vietnam (and many developing world countries). Steps should be taken to educate families about this and assist people to convert to healthier cooking methods.
Finally, say Green ID, “data and the information on air pollutants and their effects on human health and environment should be shared through the whole country in order to allow real awareness of the citizens”.
Contact Green ID for the full report “Air Quality in Vietnam” firstname.lastname@example.org