No country for rivers

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   July 8, 2019 | 04:44 pm PT
Vietnam used to be rich in water resources, but pollution has all but killed most of its rivers and other water bodies.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

I was born and raised in An Hoa village to the north of Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam. My village has a communal house overlooking a river.

For generations the river, also called An Hoa, was the center of the village universe, the place where locals joined each other for public activities, for swimming and fishing, for just getting some fresh air.

I can never forget the feeling of dipping in the cool water of the An Hoa during the Hue summers.

I left Hue 25 years ago, and homecoming trips are never complete now partly because I can no longer frolic in the river. The An Hoa is still there, flowing next to the communal house, but to me and the people living in the village, it has become a stranger. We can barely go near it now because it has become too polluted.

What about you? For how long have you been unable to jump into the river you used to swim in during your childhood? I know I’m not the only one in this situation because there are more than a few rivers and canals in Vietnam that are "dying," the term used by the late, great Trinh Cong Son in his famous song "Co mot dong song da qua doi" (There’s a river that has died).

In the song he compares a river with a breakup. He likens a river that has died to a broken heart. My river has literally died, whatever connotation of "die" you can think of.

Vietnam is rich in water resources. It has 3,500 rivers that run more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and 16 river basins.

But the nation’s efficiency in using water to achieve economic growth is among the world’s lowest. On average, thus, one cubic meter of water only adds $2.37 to Vietnam’s GDP, lower than Laos ($3.53) and Cambodia ($8.26) and only one-eighth of the world average of $19.42.

We have squandered away our wealth. The wasteful use of water and a lack of infrastructure to collect and treat sewage, both from households and factories, are the major reasons for the death of our rivers.

Ministry of Construction data shows that this year only 12.5 percent of wastewater in cities from household use is treated before being released into the environment. To put that into perspective, out of every 1,000 cubic meters of wastewater 875 cubic meters went straight into streams, rivers, canals.

Worse still, systems have been installed to treat only 70 percent of industrial wastewater, and the rest, needless to say, flows directly into the environment.

The final nail in the coffin for our rivers and canals is people’s habit of treating them as a place to dump their waste.

A man picks up trash in the To Lich River, Hanoi, May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Hai.

A man picks up trash in the To Lich River, Hanoi, May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Hai.

Not many people know that four ministries are directly involved in managing water resources in Vietnam, five others indirectly and local authorities in 63 cities and provinces.

Aiding them in managing and protecting the water bodies are 15 laws, 25 decrees and dozens of circulars, decisions and standards.

But in the 25 years since the Law on Environmental Protection was passed major rivers have still been dying -- To Lich, Kim Nguu, Nhue, Day in northern Vietnam, Thi Vai, Cai Lon in the south, and my river, An Hoa -- as have canals in urban areas.

Water bodies that were close to people’s lives for generations no longer provide water for daily activities or farming but instead spread odor and diseases.

If we do not act now to stop the water pollution, Vietnam’s economy could lose 6 percent of its GDP annually by 2035, according to the World Bank.

If the 3,500-odd rivers die one after another, by 2035 Vietnam will lose over $60 billion, which is almost 25 percent of its current GDP.

The government has already approved a plan to build water treatment and drainage plants along three major rivers, the Dong Nai, Nhue-Day and Cau. It plans to build 100 water treatment projects at a cost of $18 billion by 2030. But more than five years after the plan was announced, nothing has been done mainly because of a lack of funds.

The government collects $3 billion worth of environment taxes every year, which means with this money the government can build the 100 water treatment plants by 2025 if it starts now.

The world’s most successful water management models, in China, India, the U.S., and Israel, are carried out through public-private partnerships (PPPs). It means the government and private investors strike deals for 10-50 years and share risks and benefits and other responsibilities during that period.

The PPP model allows the government to take advantage of the private sector's financial resources and know-how in infrastructure development.

The time when nature was strong enough to cope with the pollution caused by humans has long passed.

Investing in environmental protection, including in wastewater treatment, to save our rivers is tantamount to protecting the economy, the future of our country and our very race.

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is a Vietnamese expert on energy and environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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