We’re dying because we breathe, and solutions are up in the air

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   April 7, 2019 | 12:32 am PT
As long as the government does nothing to amend existing environmental standards, more lives will be lost just from breathing.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

The first time I went to Hanoi was 20 years ago. It was a field trip to test the air quality of the capital city for an infrastructure project subsidized by the Japanese government. 

We went to a corner of Tran Quang Khai Street to ready our equipment.

"You don’t need to do any testing. I assure you the air is still clean," said an old motorbike taxi driver nearby, as we took a tea break.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I have worked here all the time, day in day out for the last decade. But here I am, as fit as can be," he said.

Then he qualified his statement a bit.

"Well I do get sick sometimes, but it’s fine. A pill or two does the trick. If I’m sick for too long, who’s going to feed the family?" he said, laughing.

Sounds like an expert, I thought. 20 years ago, all air quality metrics in Hanoi were well within the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards. From those metrics, we evaluated how air quality would be affected once the infrastructure project got going, and from that, we devised measures to keep air quality within healthy standards. Anyway, for certain reasons, that project never took off.

But the motorbike taxi driver’s words have stuck with me. The one sentence he told us covered the environment, health and the economy, and showed how these were all interconnected. Maybe he was a genius.

But what would he say now? 

I feel he would not have imagined the current situation. 

Hanoi and Saigon were recently named among the 15 most polluted cities in Southeast Asia. Hanoi in particular was ranked the second most polluted, according to the latest World Air Quality Report by AirVisual.

Hanoi was recently ranked as the second most polluted city in Southeast Asia according to an air quality survey by AirVisual. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Hanoi was recently ranked as the second most polluted city in Southeast Asia according to an air quality survey by AirVisual. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

It does not stop there. 

Over 60,000 people died in Vietnam in 2016 from strokes, heart diseases, lung cancer and a myriad of other ailments, all related to air pollution. That means each day, 165 died simply because they breathed. 

If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.

They say it’s better to prevent a disease than to cure one. That also applies to protecting the environment, more specifically air pollution. The key to preventive measures are environmental metrics and standards; the only tools capable of directly measuring air quality and enabling technical barriers against pollution. 

The thing is, these standards are determined by the government, so whether they are high or low enough, whether they are effective enough, also depends on the government.

Unfortunately, Vietnam’s environmental standards are as sub-standard as they come.

First, emission standards in several of our industries are abnormally low and have not changed for the last 10 years. Case in point: the amount of emitted dust allowed for our coal thermal power plants is 20 times higher than China, seven times higher than India, 10 times higher than the European Union, 2.5 times higher than Thailand and two times higher than Indonesia.

Taking into account our population density, this means our people are being exposed to levels of dusts emitted by coal thermal power plants 40 times higher than those in China. And dust is not the only problem. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide standards for these power plants are several times lower than those of the aforementioned countries as well.

The situation is the same for many of our other industries: from cement to fertilizers to steel and whatnot. While changes are in the making, they are far from enough. For example, the emission standards for our steel industries from 2009 did get amended once in 2017, and are still undergoing revisions, but dozens of our steel factories from 2015 are still emitting four times the amount of dust and six times the amount of dioxin and furan allowed per the World Bank’s standards.

Second, environmental standards are determined through evaluating the risks posed by pollutants to people’s health. And once those standards are set, the consequence is that industries would also set their pollutant standards to match, no matter how low they might be.

What is the cost benefit analysis of the current situation? Will we invest more in technologies to curb and manage the amount of pollutants released into the environment, or just leave it as it is, save some money and let people’s health pay the price? 

This is the question we are facing.

Right now, Vietnam’s yearly standards on particulate matter (PM) are on average 2.5 times higher than the level allowed by the WHO. But I highly doubt Vietnamese lungs are 2.5 times stronger than the rest of humankind.

"Everyone has the right to live in a clean environment" is one of the clauses stated in our Constitution. 

And for the last several years, our policymakers have been following that clause by increasing our taxes and environmental fees. But these have all failed. Our money’s gone, and our health gets worse as air keeps getting more polluted day after day.

When will the government, more specifically the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, finally put improving our air quality first on its list of priorities, to protect our Constitutional rights?

Let’s hold our breath till we get the answer.

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

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