News - December 16, 2019 | 08:43 pm PT

2019: When environmental disasters hounded Vietnam

Vietnamese people suffered heat waves, waded through floods, breathed in toxic air and consumed badly contaminated water in 2019.

And this is just a taste of things to come, these things are likely to get worse, scientists and other experts have warned.

It got hot

With a wet towel on his head, a man walks past a LED board on Kham Thien Street in Dong Da District, Hanoi, which shows the outdoor temperature at 45 degrees Celcius in the afternoon of June 20, 2019. The corresponding indoor temperature at the same time was 39 degrees. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Vietnam suffered a summer that could be the hottest in history with average temperatures staying higher than that of previous years by 0.5-1 degrees Celsius, climbing to an average of 39-42 degrees in many parts of the country. The nation broke its highest temperature record on April 20 as the mercury hit 43.4 degrees Celsius, or 110 degrees Fahrenheit, in Huong Khe District, Ha Tinh Province.

April data over a hundred years showed Hanoi experiencing a record high temperature of 38.9 degrees Celsius this year.

Following the strong heat waves, many parts of Vietnam saw alarming ultraviolet indexes exceeding 12. UV levels above 11 are deemed extreme, with radiation that could burn skin and damage eyes with 20-30 minutes of exposure; and above 12, it could cause eye damage, overheating and dehydration, especially among children and babies.

Last summer, apart from Saigon and Hanoi, the UV index was recorded at 12 in Da Lat in the Central Highlands, Sa Pa in the northern highlands and Phu Quoc Island in the south, all usually thought of as cool summer escapes.

Water, water nowhere

A farmer walks in a drought-hit rice field in Tran De District of SocTrang Province in the Mekong Delta in July 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The Mekong Delta, the nation’s rice bowl and aquaculture hub, meeting not only the country's food needs but also serving exports in a big way, was hit hard by drought as both the seasonal rains and the annual flooding came late and ended early.

Starting April, farmers in the region saw their paddy fields left bone-dry and the situation lasted for months after. With freshwater reservoirs drying up, locals even had to buy water for their daily activities, a situation unimaginable just a few years earlier.

The annual flooding season usually happens late July or early August and lasts until November, bringing extraordinary fertility in the form of silt from all the countries the river flows through. When the flooding does not happen or is late, cropping and fishing activities in the delta are severely disrupted.

This year, the flooding happened as late as mid-September.

According to the Mekong River Commission, the water level in the Mekong at the beginning of this flooding season (June-July) was the lowest in several years. Its level in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province was 2.1 meters. as against the average of 3.02 m measured over the last 57 years.

Experts have explained that there are several reasons for such new phenomena. The El Nino phenomenon, the effects of climate change and the operation of dams upstream the Mekong River are responsible for the severe drought, they’ve said.

Water, water, everywhere

A mother wheels her dead-engine motorbike with her daughter on it through the flooded Me Coc Street in HCMC’s District 8 on the morning of September 30, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/HuuKhoa.

The seasonal tide in HCMC reached the highest level ever when it rose to 1.77 meters and 1.8 meters in the Saigon River and its branch Dong Dien on September 30, surpassed the previous high of 1.72 m set in 2017.

Scenes of people wading through or getting stuck on flooded streets in motorbikes and cars were once again repeated, only with higher water level.

Several experts cited climate change and rising sea levels among the causes for the river tides. Others have listed bad urban planning and development that caused erosion, referring to the constructions done on fragile ground, saying climate change could not have such a rapid impact on the southern metropolis. They said between 1995 and 2010 the sea level rose by only two centimeters whereas the tide levels have risen by 20-25 centimeters and pointed out that the swamps in District 7 and Nha Be used to drain the city, but have been filled up to build houses.

We are going under

A coastal neighborhood in SocTrang Province of the Mekong Delta is threatened by erosion, June 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Climate Central, a U.S.-based a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, shocked the nation early November, saying most of southern Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta and the nation's economic hub, HCMC, could be flooded by 2050.

The study, published in Nature Communications, said sea levels projected by that year would be high enough to consign an area, currently home to some 150 million people, permanently below the high tide line, which means rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought.

Vietnam has dismissed the warning as extreme and not having strong foundation, but it's not the only one.

In September, a group of Dutch scientists said the Vietnam's Mekong Delta has an "extremely low mean elevation" of just around 0.8 meters above sea level, which is dramatically lower than the 2.6 meters assumed earlier from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Missions data. Conducted by a team from Utrecht University, the study estimated that at its current rate of subsidence, the delta could be under 0.8 meters of sea within 57 years, requiring over 12 million people to relocate.

A survey of 339 locations in the Mekong Delta and HCMC released in late November found 306 have sunk by 0.1 to 81.4 cm over the last decade, and 19 of the sink-spots are in Saigon. The total area of subsided land is approximately 24,000 square kilometers, or about 91 percent of all areas surveyed.

According to the department of water resources management under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which conducted the survey, the subsidence was caused by a combination of both natural and human activities, including excessive groundwater extraction and impacts of urban construction, infrastructure and traffic.

Can’t take it any more

Garbage gets stuck along Trung Van Street in Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi, on July 3, 2019 as residents block trucks from entering Nam Son Landfill. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Home to a third of Vietnam’s 95 million population, urban areas discard 38,000 tons of domestic waste every day, or more than half of the country's total. Vietnam has been dealing with its domestic waste by burying it in landfills, where 70 percent of the total waste ends up. Its cities are now running out of space for trash, and people in the vicinity of landfills are unhappy with the pollution they suffer.

In the capital city Hanoi and the central hub, Da Nang, residents protested against the operation of landfills more than a few times by blocking entry, leaving garbage piling up along streets for days, with the wastewater and the malodor spreading.

Da Nang’s sole landfill Khanh Son receives 1,100 tons of garbage daily and has become overloaded as well as a pollution threat. In use for nearly 30 years, it has taken in 3.2 million tons and can only remain in operation for less than two months. In early July, people living nearby blocked entry to it after failing to persuade authorities not to turn it into a solid waste treatment complex, saying that would expose them to more pollution. The city has managed the situation by covering the entire landfill with high-density polyethylene mat and decided to stay with the treatment complex plan.

Also July, Hanoi protestors blocked roads leading to Nam Son landfill. They were people who’d lived near the landfill for two decades, protesting against the failure to relocate them last year as promised and to announce compensation rates for their agricultural lands. The 20-year-old landfill sprawls over 157 hectares (390 acres). It receives almost 5,000 tons of garbage a day and will not be able to take in more after December 2020. For now, the city has completed compensation payment and has come up with a plan, set to be carried out in 2020-2021, to relocated affected households.

Hanoi generates 6,500 tons of solid domestic waste daily and 89 percent of it is buried, according to official data, and as the city’s party chief Hoang Trung Hai said last year, the city "has no way back" and there should be no more delays in building waste treatment plants.

HCMC in August asked the companies operating the Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Binh Chanh District to find solutions to control the stench from the landfill. No time frame or deadline was given.

The order followed months of complaints by residents in the area that the stench was getting unbearable and affecting their daily life. Many reported having had to close windows, turn on air conditioners and stay inside because of the stench. Some suffered from headache and dizziness as well. The city had already requested that the companies clean up and check their waste treatment processes, among other actions, to reduce the stench, but it has had no impact.

Da Phuoc receives 5,600 tons of domestic waste, or more than two thirds of the city’s total, daily. So far it has been dealing with a majority of garbage simply by burying it, and this practice has been blamed for the pervasive stink.

No escape

A truck gets stuck in floodwater in Lac Duong District of Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands on August 10, 2019. Photo by Vietnam News Agency.

Urban flooding is no stranger to Vietnam, but for years, it has been a problem only in HCMC and Hanoi. This year, other urban areas like Da Lat and Phu Quoc discovered they were not immune to the problem.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s biggest island, experienced the worst flooding in its history in August. The island district off the southern coast was battered by continuous heavy rains for almost 10 days in early August. The rainfall measured that week was 1,170 mm, a record. Phu Quoc had 34 km of its roads submerged under 0.6 - 1.5 meters of water, nearly 3,900 houses were flooded, 14 others collapsed and lost their roofs and a large area of agricultural crops were destroyed, causing damages estimated at VND107 billion ($4.6 million).

District officials conceded rapid urbanization had worsened climate change impacts. They said the huge amount of rainfall combined with rising sea levels had affected the drainage system that takes water to the sea. Furthermore, the drainage system in the island’s downtown area was built 16 years ago, when the population density was significantly less. Over the past 10 years, along with tourism development, urbanization has been rapid and haphazard in Phu Quoc and it does not have the infrastructure to handle the growth, they said.

Also in August (6-10), the Central Highlands, including the popular resort town of Da Lat, was badly flooded as rivers and streams overflowed. At least 11 people died, over 12,000 houses were flooded, tens of thousands of hectares of crops damaged, and many heads of cattle, poultry and fish bred in farms swept away. Total damage thus far has been estimated at more than VND1 trillion ($43.5 million). Da Lat alone saw its streets and a dozen or so houses flooded, 20 hectares of crops and 3,000 square meters of greenhouses damaged.

Experts said the flooding in the area was much bigger and more serious than before.

Apart from climate change, the phenomenon was influenced by the profusion of greenhouses and concrete buildings in Da Lat, they said. The number of greenhouses in Da Lat and neighboring farming regions has grown by five times over the past five years.

Other experts cited deforestation as a main reason for the flooding. Official figures say the Central Highlands region has lost nearly 358,800 hectares (14 percent) of forests between 2008 and 2015.

Between September 30 and October 10, Can Tho City, considered the capital of the Mekong Delta region, saw almost every road, especially in its downtown area, submerged in flood waters. It was the first time ever that its residents had to wade through waist-high water. Many used boats to move around.

Experts said high tides and land subsidence caused the flooding. Climate change and rising sea levels led to unusually high tides, with water levels rising up to 2.23 meters in the Hau River, a Mekong River tributary. Rapid urbanization and excessive groundwater pumping were responsible for the city’s subsidence, the experts said.

The mercury scare

Soldiers from the chemical division of the Vietnamese People's Army collect toxic waste inside the Rang Dong lightbulb warehouse after a fire, Hanoi, September 12, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

On August 28, a blaze broke out in a light bulb warehouse located in a residential area in Hanoi.

Caused by a short circuit, the five-hour blaze that started at 6 p.m. destroyed a third of the warehouse of Rang Dong Light Source and Vacuum Flask JSC in Thanh Xuan District. The incident released an estimated 15.2-27.2 kilograms of mercury into the environment, which forced people in the area to evacuate.

Health officials said later that no mercury poisoning was detected in 1,000 people who were checked. Environment minister Tran Hong Ha said two weeks after the incident that areas surrounding the warehouse were safe. On October 6, it was announced that mercury has been removed from a total area of 30,000 square meters at the warehouse.

But Professor Jozef Pacyna of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Poland said a map detailing the areas affected by the mercury released from the fire was needed, as it might take several months or years before the element could become toxic. Mercury by itself would not immediately have an impact on human health, he said. The mercury released in the fire was inorganic, and it is its organic form that is toxic, he said, adding that the element could become toxic after it got absorbed in the soil and water and contaminated food sources like seafood.

For weeks after the fire, residents in the affected area began to shut down their businesses and sell their properties at low prices, raising concerns that real estate value in the area could be frozen in the future.

Supply of toxic water

Hanoians at a residential area in Hoang Mai District gather to get clean water from a tank provided by the city’s government after the portable water running to their home was contaminated with used oil, October 14, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Almost half of the capital city’s residents had their access to tap water cut for almost two weeks in October after the source was contaminated.

The disaster began with a 2.5 ton truck dumping used oil into a mountain creek in Hoa Binh Province, a northwestern neighbor of Hanoi, on October 8.

The creek is on an upstream section of the Da River, the biggest branch of the Red River that sends water to the water tanks of Vinaconex Water Supply Joint Stock Company (Viwasupco), which supplies 300,000 cubic meters of tap water per day for the entire southwestern part of Hanoi, including Thanh Xuan, Hoang Mai, Cau Giay, Ha Dong and several downtown districts.

Viwasupco was aware of the oil contamination but maintained regular supply until residents complained about the tap water’s pungent smell. Later, tests found the stinking water to contain high levels of styrene, a substance classified as "probably carcinogenic."

Worried residents had to resort to using bottled water, which saw sales and prices soar, and the scene of people carrying cans and bottles and waiting in line for hours to get some clean water from tankers sent by the city administration became a common sight for days.

On October 22, it was officially announced that the potable water was safe for consumption. Viwasupco, as the water supplier responsible, made a public apology three days later.

Breathing became dangerous

Haze covers the downtown area of HCMC, November 19, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

This year, Hanoi and Saigon have been blanketed repeatedly by a thick haze and air pollution indexes soaring to dangerous levels, especially since September.

The Air Quality Indexes (AQI) recorded by IQAir AirVisual, a Switzerland-based air quality monitoring facility, in the two biggest cities of Vietnam, frequently stayed above 150-200 and at some points, it even crossed the 300 mark. AQI levels above 100 are considered unhealthy.

On AirVisual scales, Hanoi and HCMC took turns to top the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world, out of more than 10,000 monitored in late September. Very unhealthy air quality has been lingering in Hanoi since early December.

The level of pollutants in Hanoi air reached a five-year high peak in September when its PM2.5 levels, denoting the existence of superfine particles 3 percent the diameter of a human hair, were consistently above 50 μg/m3 per day. The World Health Organization’s safe limits are 10 μg/m3 annual mean, or 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean. City authorities blamed the low air quality on large-scale construction, high proportion of individual vehicles and heavy industry activities, such as steelworks, cement factories and coal-fired plants.

In HCMC, authorities said exhaust from around 10 million vehicles was one of the three major causes of air pollution in the city, besides smoke from 1,000 large factories and dust from numerous construction sites.

Minh Nga