Hanoians living beside filth remember an 'unbelievable' past

By Thanh Lam   November 21, 2019 | 03:51 pm GMT+7

Whenever it rains, Nguyen Thi Dua sits on her bed and watches trash of all kinds floating about in her flooded home.

This has become a fact of life.

Dua, 83, lives with her five sons in a two-story house next to the Ke Khe Canal in Van Phuc Street, Ba Dinh District. The canal, once a part of To Lich River, is now a dumping site for all kinds of wastewater from Ba Dinh's Doi Can and Kim Ma Wards.

A man walks near piles of trash along a ditch that flows into To Lich River in Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A man walks near piles of trash along a ditch that flows into To Lich River in Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

But Dua has seen something that is unimaginable now.

She remembers that the river used to be big enough for three boats to move around comfortably. She remembers children jumping into the river and farmers growing vegetables and fishing on the banks. She remembers how people would light up lanterns and sail along To Lich in the middle of the night to harvest their produce, before selling them at the crack of dawn. She remembers how the morning glory in Van Phuc was the best you could get in Hanoi.

"When it rained in March, fish as big as a human arm would jump out of the river onto the yards," she remembers.

The river and canal gave Dua and her villagers everything they needed to survive, she remembers.

But that was 50 years ago, and memories are all Dua has left.

The assault on the water bodies in the area began soon after Hanoi was liberated from the French in 1954. The Cay Khe Pond in the area has disappeared since. People started to dump soil and erect poles around it, narrowing its area drastically. And as the capital's population kept rising, it turned from a pond into a sewer.

It was only towards the end of the 1990s, that Hanoi authorities and urban planners began to acknowledge the bad environmental consequences of such a make-shift wastewater discharge solution. They realized that the To Lich River cannot be a place where both rainwater and wastewater was collected, but did not have funds needed to separate the two. So the situation kept getting worse by the day.

The residents have had no choice but to adapt. Families living along the To Lich River's banks do not open their doors and windows, trying their best to keep the foul smell of trash and garbage from invading their homes. But they keep dumping more trash into it, every day.

A woman throws trash into a section of the To Lich River, Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A woman throws trash into a section of the To Lich River, Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Dua has new memories now. A few years ago, a friend of her son could not have a meal at her home because he could not stand the smell coming from the nearby canal.

"I don’t understand how you can live here all year long," he said. Since then, her family members are not inclined to invite friends or relatives to their home.

"The only things that can live here (in Ke Khe Canal) are rats and mosquitoes," Dua said.

Today, the life-sustaining canal is so polluted that it has become a palpable health risk to the neighborhood. Around 30-40 people in Kim Ma Ward suffer from hemorrhagic fever every year, mostly during the rainy season, authorities say. This year, as of mid October, 38 cases of hemorrhagic fever have been recorded.

While the dumping of wastewater might not be the direct cause of hemorrhagic fever cases in the area, it does "severely affect people's health and daily lives," said Nguyen Anh Tuan, deputy chairman of Kim Ma Ward People’s Committee. Authorities are cooperating with the Hanoi Sewage and Drainage Company to clean up the canal twice every year, he said.

"The amount of trash collected amounts to several dozen cubic meters each time," Tuan said.

Abandoned plants

Living about 10 km away from Dua, Nguyen Thi Xiem, 62, from Tan Trieu Commune, Thanh Tri Ward, harvests vegetables between 2 and 6 a.m. every day. Her family's plots are tucked in the middle of plastic recycling and waste collection facilities in Trieu Khuc Village.

She seems unperturbed by the fact that the canal leads to a sewer system that collects wastewater from the entire village. The sewer is exposed and situated right next to the fields, leaving them inundated in stinking, blackish water every time it rains.

"It's just water from people showering and washing things, nothing dirty about that," Xiem said nonchalantly.

Actually, the wastewater also comes from some 300 households that buy and recycle waste and trash for a living.

About 500 meters from Xiem's house is an industrial complex spanning 98,000 square meters and a VND1.3 billion ($56,176) wastewater treatment plant. The plant has been abandoned for the last 14 years, meaning wastewater from the complex is dumped directly into the environment. A representative of the Thanh Tri District People's Committee said that the plant was abandoned as the amount of wastewater from the industrial complex was "too little."

A 2016 water pollution report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said 800,000 cubic meters of wastewater, of which 550,000 are untreated household wastewater, are dumped into the Nhue River, which receives water from Hanoi's Lu, Set, To Lich and Kim Nguu rivers, every day. A 2018 report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment said water quality in certain sections of the Nhue River was "abysmal."

Tran Van Ky and his wife, who live in Ta Thanh Oai Commune, Thanh Tri District, have been living next to the Nhue River for a long time. The 71-year-old fisherman speaks wistfully of how people used to use water from the river for cooking, how they used to catch ducks living near it and so on.

"But if I swim in (the Nhue River) now, I would die from skin infections."

A man sails a boat to catch fish in the Nhue River in Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A man sails a boat to catch fish in the Nhue River in Hanoi, November 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Ky still catches fish from the river, but uses those to feed other fish in another location. And like other people in the neighborhood, Ky will not consume any kind of food derived from the Nhue River.

But he still counts himself lucky, as the neighborhood his family lives in "is still several times cleaner than those next to To Lich."

As for octogenarian Dua, she's never had any intention of moving elsewhere, as her family has been living in the "black water neighborhood" for generations.

She said she doesn't expect to live to a hundred years old anyway, but she yearns for something that might never happen.

"If I live only for one more day, it is fine by me. But I would just like to live clean."

 
 
go to top