14:52 (GMT +7) - Thursday 12/12/2019

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Something in the air

Released at: 07:31, 17/11/2019

Something in the air

Photo: Viet Tuan

Hanoi and HCMC both have some serious air quality issues to grapple with.

by Le Diem

After using a “beehive coal” stove at her food stall in Nghia Do Market in Hanoi for more than ten years, Ms. Hong Hanh recently changed to a mini gas cooker. Though the cost is higher, she is happy to accept it after seeing warnings about air pollution in the media and being persuaded by local authorities about the harm coal stoves cause. The latter was among recent efforts by authorities to fight air pollution in Hanoi and also in Ho Chi Minh City, which both have hazy skies these days. 

Multiple causes

Hanoi’s particularly poor air quality over the last few weeks was the result of low air circulation in the atmosphere during the transition between summer and fall, which has become more common in recent years, according to the Vietnam Meteorological and Hydrological Administration. Air could not rise by convection, so there were no cloud formations to produce rain and cleanse the atmosphere. There was also no wind to move the polluted air away. It lasted longer this year than in previous years, with many factors making their presence felt. 

One of the main factors, in both cities, is the huge amount of vehicle emissions, according to the two cities’ people’s committees. There are about 8.2 million people in Hanoi with some 5.8 million motorbikes and 600,000 cars, while 1.2 million vehicles from elsewhere also come to the capital every day. The 13 million people in Ho Chi Minh City, meanwhile, have nearly 8 million motorbikes and 700,000 cars, joined by nearly 2 million vehicles from surrounding areas. 

Rapid urbanization also brings a lot of construction sites and plumes of dust fill the air as old buildings are torn down and trucks remove the rubble. 

Industrial and agricultural production and waste treatment are among other factors. There are more than 1,000 factories in Ho Chi Minh City, with many in residential areas, while there are some 1,300 trade villages in Hanoi, which both contribute to pollution.

In Hanoi in particular, the use of coal for cooking and the burning of waste and straw after the harvest in the capital’s outlying areas also create haze. There are about 55,000 beehive coal stoves used in the city, which burn a total of more than 528 tonnes of coal each day and produce around 1,870 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the its Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The department also estimated that farms in the city generate more than a million tonnes of agricultural waste a year, with about 65 per cent being straw.

Efforts intensify

As the issue triggers widespread public concern, local authorities are taking action. 

Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will soon install monitoring stations for environmental and air quality, including both fixed and mobile automated stations making information public on a daily basis. Every five minutes, data collected will be published in the media and on smartphone apps to keep residents updated. This year and next, 23 monitoring stations will be installed in Hanoi and ten in Ho Chi Minh City.

The transport departments in the two cities also have projects in place to improve traffic vehicle management to ease congestion and pollution by 2020 and a vision to 2030. Motorbikes will be banned along several busy streets during rush hour and city centers in the first stage, from 2019 to 2025, in certain central districts during 2025-2030, and in other places after 2030. The registration of new motorbikes owned by people living in central districts will be restricted from next year and in other districts from 2025. Furthermore, not only motorbikes but also motor cars will have certain limits placed on them under these projects, with cars subject to a fee to enter the city center. China has been successful with a similar model and taken the country out of the world’s most-polluted list.

The limits were controversial when announced, as motorbikes have long been the most popular and convenient form of transport for many people. But after the alarming levels of air pollution seen recently, more agreement has come. Mr. Van Dinh, a 25-year-old salesman in Hanoi, said he supported bans if they result in better air and quality of life from lower emissions and encourage people to use public transport. “My hometown is in Chuong My, about 30 km from Hanoi, and I always used to ride my motorbike between the two,” he said. “But since a bus route opened, I prefer to take it and enjoy the air conditioning and no dust and noise. If good public transport is available, I think many people would be happy to use it.”

The two cities are intensifying efforts to develop public transport networks such as buses, metro lines, and bicycle sharing programs. “Public transport is a good solution addressing the twin issues of traffic congestion and air pollution,” Professor Truong Quang Hoc, Chairman of the Science and Education Council at the Central Institute of Natural Resources and Environment and the Center for Eco-Community Development, told a recent conference on environmental issues. “Hanoi has recently introduced free bus passes for poor families, the disabled, and people over 60 years of age, to promote the use of public transport.”

A92 petrol, meanwhile, is being replaced by the more environmentally-friendly RON 95 and E5, which are mixed with ethanol and natural materials to produce less emissions. Stricter quality standards on vehicles have also been proposed recently, to limit the number of older motorbikes and motor cars on the streets.

To manage air pollution from construction sites, the Environmental Protection Agency in the two cities will boost inspections at new projects to ensure demolition and building is carried out under standards protecting the environment. Trucks removing rubble will also be checked more regularly to ensure the back tray is covered and as little dust and dirt as possible escape. 

To deal with pollution from factories, Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Industry and Trade has intensified investigations into their activities and imposed heavy fines on violations and encouraged enterprises to apply environmentally-friendly production models using natural materials. It is also moving seriously polluting factories out of the city to nearby industrial zones, following China’s lead, which closed thousands of factories and denied registration of new plants in seriously polluted cities like Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei. 

Meanwhile, the Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment has started a project on environmental protection at trade villages in the 2020-2030 period. With investment of over VND1.3 trillion ($56 million), it gives people in trade villages access to credit to purchase new production technology to cut pollution and is also funding new water and waste treatment facilities. 

Hanoi also encourages people not to use coal any longer and replace it with more environmentally-friendly materials, with a target of eliminating all beehive coal stoves by the end of next year. Supporting the move, Ms. Hanh said she had to increase her food prices a little and was concerned she would lose some loyal customers. But when she explained why her prices had risen, most were supportive. 

The ban on burning straw after the harvest will also come into effect shortly and farmers will be given guidance on using straw residue to create organic fertilizer, use it for animal feed and mushroom cultivation, or recycle it for children’s playgrounds. The districts of Dong Anh, Dan Phuong, and Phu Xuyen in Hanoi have been chosen for a pilot program on using biological products to process straw to make organic fertilizer and it has been welcomed by residents, according to the Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Additionally, more green spaces are being added in the two cities, with a million trees already planted and about 600,000 more to come before the end of next year in Hanoi, while a million trees are to be planted in Ho Chi Minh City each year. 

With ongoing efforts by authorities and local residents, air quality is expected to improve greatly in the two cities sooner rather than later.  

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