Hanoi burning its way to pollution

By Thanh Lam, Tat Dinh   December 27, 2019 | 08:02 am GMT+7

The habit of burning charcoal, rubbish and straw is causing smog in Hanoi, affecting the city’s appearance and people's health.

Every day people burn more than 500 tons of charcoal and 700 tons of waste, which emit carbon dioxide, PM 2.5 and toxic gases. 

In December in the suburbs of Hanoi and northern provinces of Vinh Phuc, Bac Ninh and Bac Giang, farmers burned grass and stubble to clear fields to prepare for a new crop. In the city itself, thousands of honeycombed charcoal stoves burn every day. 

All this means the air quality index is constantly at an alarming level.

Smoking fields

One late afternoon in mid-December fields in Vinh Phuc Province, 40 km from Hanoi, were covered in flames and smoke. Pham Thi Chuc had just finished burning four acres of fields to prepare it for plowing in spring.

Hanoi burning its way to pollution

Fields in Vinh Phuc Province, 40km from Hanoi, in mid-December, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

The 18-day streak of pollution from September 12-October 3, and the pollution period in early December coincided with the rice harvest and preparations to get the fields ready for the spring crop. Hundreds of thousands of hectares around Hanoi were simultaneously burned.

According to Hanoi's Department of the Natural Resources and Environment, some 300,000 tons of straw is burned annually. 

A survey by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s department of crop production of 180,000 households in three provinces in the Red River Delta in 2012 found that 58 percent burnt the straw in the field. The region emits 1.2-4.7 million tons of CO2 and 28,000 -113,000 tons of CO.

On average, a ton of finished paddy leaves one ton of straw, and Vietnam produces 44-45 million tons of straw a year, the majority of which is burned.

500 tons of charcoal per day

It is 4 a.m. and Truong Thi Tam, 58, owner of a vermicelli noodles restaurant in a small alley on Nguyen Khoai Street, Hanoi, places a pink honeycomb charcoal pellet in the kitchen. The charcoal from the stove was brewed the night before outside the door.

She said: "The daily profit is about VND250,000 ($10.8). The charcoal costs VND3,000 ($0.13) each and that makes it only VND2,000 ($0.5) for a day. The cheapest electric stove is around VND3 million ($128.8) plus VND60,000 ($2.6) for electricity per day. Where is the profit there?" 

She has heard a lot about the honeycomb charcoal stove being hazardous, but she does not really believe it: "My family has been using it for 10 years, and no one is sick".

The popularity of gas and electric cookers in the last 20 years has led to a reduction in the use of the honeycomb charcoal stove. Within the city, they are used mainly by those who run street food stalls.

But according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, there were still more than 22,000 of them as of November 2019. Hanoians still burn 528 tons of charcoal every day, equivalent to 1,870 tons of CO2 emissions.

Research by the Hanoi Environmental Protection Department found that the charcoal also generates dust, including PM2.5 dust and other emissions such as CO2, CO, SO2, and PAHs.

Nearly 10 years ago Dinh Cong Vinh delivered honeycombed charcoal in Thanh Xuan district. Then he shifted to making charcoal. He thought he would soon lose his livelihood.

Luckily for him, his worst fears did not come true. The "golden age" of charcoal has lasted many more years. 

Hanoi issues directives to stop the use of honeycombed charcoal stoves by December 31, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Hanoi issues directives to stop the use of honeycombed charcoal stoves by December 31, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

In his alley in Thanh Xuan district, more than 20 factories work from morning to night. Vinh’s is possibly the smallest in the alley, but at one time he had four assistants and a cyclo team to supply more than two dozen wholesalers, and tens of thousands of pieces are made and distributed every day. 

Hanoi's socio-economic development plan requires localities to encourage people to minimize the use of coal. Last October, during the peak pollution time, the city issued directives to stop the use of honeycombed charcoal stoves by December 31, 2020.

People in Hanoi produce 4,000-5,000 tons of garbage every day. Ninety percent of it is collected and buried in landfills and the rest is mainly burned on site. Thus, Hanoi burns 15,000-18,000 tons of waste a year. While this is considered a cause of air pollution, incineration activities have not been many properly studied or quantified in terms of emissions. 

Hanoi suffers extreme air pollution around 300 days a year, with over 60,000 related deaths, a 2016 report by the World Health Organization stated.

With records toppling in 2019, the capital’s Air Quality Index (AQI), a metric to determine how polluted the air is, was recorded at more than 200 for four consecutive days starting November 7, reaching over 300 on November 12, according to the Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment. An AQI level above 100 is considered unhealthy for humans.

Last year, Vietnam ranked 159 out of 180 countries and territories surveyed by World Bank on air quality.

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