Challenges of water resources management in Vietnam and examples of present efforts

29 September, 2021

The following article discusses the current challenges of WATER POLLUTION and examples of present efforts in Vietnam. The next articles will present other challenges of water scarcity and dependency on transboundary water in Vietnam. The first blog article about water series is “Overview of water resources management in Vietnam“.

“Xóm Nước Đen”:
Black Water Village is a memory of the past? More than 20 years ago, in 2000, I moved from my home province to Hà Nội for university study. Living in a densely populated village, about one kilometer away from the university, me and a group of classmates, who had rented rooms at different families, named our group “Xóm Nước Đen” or “Black Water Village”. Today, I rethink the reason for choosing that name. We were negatively impressed by the stinking smell and black color of the wastewater in the open or partly open sewers and the canal crossing the village. At that time, this situation was not uncommon in Hà Nội. But how about the situation in other cities, for example, Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC)? It turns out our group was named after a famous Vietnamese film “Xóm Nước Đen1,2. The film was released in 1996. It describes the life of a poor residential group living nearby a seriously polluted canal in HCMC, a hotspot of crime and poverty in the city. By that time, there were more than one “Xóm Nước Đen”, that implicated the severe wastewater pollution in residential areas, in HCMC.
Back to Hà Nội in 2021, I am now living in another part of the city. However, I still can feel the stinking smell from the sewers in the village’s small alleys. And every weekday, I still witness the black and stinking (waste) water of the Tô Lịch river, when cycling along the river for work. I am wondering when I will be able to enjoy the clean air and the picturesque scenery of the river while cycling Hà Nội without wearing a facial mask?

Significant increase in water pollution

The major sources of pollution result from untreated domestic and industrial wastewater3,4 and illegal discharge of solid waste into water bodies.

Serious water pollution can be witnessed in the majority of rivers and water bodies, especially in the middle and downstream of river catchments and where craft villages, industrial zones, and dense populations like in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC) are located. The most serious polluted catchments belong to Nhuệ and Đáy rivers3, which flow across Hà Nội and provinces of Hà Nam, Nam Định, and Ninh Bình in the North of Vietnam. River and canal water in black and with floating waste and stinky smell is a critical issue, especially in big cities like Hà Nội and HCMC and some rural areas (particularly where craft villages and large animal farms are located).
Many rivers and water bodies have become open sewers and subsequently “dead rivers”4. According to the data of the Ministry of Construction, overall, approximately 12.5%3,5 of the urban domestic wastewater is currently treated in Vietnam, equal to 926,000 m3/day3,5. Alone for (inner) Hà Nội, the treatment rate varies from 20%3,6 to 29%7. Regardless of the actual rate, the volume of wastewater treated is equivalent to 276,300 m3/day6–8 (designed capacity of the operated wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs)) out of about 900,000 m3/day7 to over one million m3/day urban domestic wastewater. For HCMC, the rate of urban domestic wastewater treatment is from 10%3,9 to 13.2%10,11. Some other sources mentioned the treatment rate of 21%8. The volume of treated wastewater is reported differently, from 190,00011 to 370,000 m3/day8,9,11 out of about 1.4 million8,11 – 3 billion9,12 m3/day wastewater treated. However, those rates are calculated based on the designed capacities of the currently operated WWTPs, both for Hà Nội and HCMC; therefore, the treatment rates, in reality, are possibly lower or questionable. Another fact supports this conclusion is that the WWTPs are, in many cases, operated under capacities because many discharge points of wastewater haven’t been connected with the collection system to treatment plants, instead they are disposed directly into the river, for example, in the case of Hà Nội6,13,14.

Surface water and a sewer discharge point into Tô Lịch river, Thanh Xuân district in Hà Nội. The river´s length is 14 km which receives 150,000 m3 wastewater released from 140 sewer discharge points13,15. Photo taken on 24th September 2021 by Trần Thị Nguyệt.

Surface water and a sewer discharge point into Kim Ngưu river, Hai Bà Trưng district in Hà Nội. Photo taken on 27th September 2021 by Hoàng Lan Hương.

For industrial wastewater, no consistent data are available on the treated volume. A report of the Water Resources Group 2030 under the World Bank´s water resources group indicated that only 10% of around 450,000 m3 of industrial wastewater was properly treated in 20144. In the latest report of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), by end of 2020, about 90% of 377 the industrial zones and over 17% of 968 industrial clusters (each generates 15 – 20 m3/day on average) were equipped with centralized wastewater treatment plants5. Unfortunately, the volume of wastewater treated has not been reported. Nevertheless, the pollution situation has still not improved as many industrial wastewater plants are not under operation to avoid operation costs or wastewater is not properly treated before discharge. There have been many reported cases of illegal discharge of industrial wastewater into the environment. For example, in 2016, Taiwan´s steel production company in Hà Tĩnh province of Central Vietnam released toxic wastewater causing large-scale mass fish death and coral reef damage16,17. This was considered the most serious marine environmental disaster in Vietnam18 causing a great shock to Vietnamese. The situation of illegal wastewater discharge is especially critical for production establishments and animal farms, which are located within residential areas and generate a considerable amount of untreated wastewater and solid waste (e.g., animal manure). For craft villages, wastewater has been a significant concern since the beginning of the 2000s19. However, craft village wastewater is hardly treated3,19, although many (research) projects have been implemented but failed to upscale and apply in reality.

Wastewater illegal released by paper production establishments in Phong Khê recycling paper craft village in April 2021. The incident occurred when the local authority prohibited some production establishments to discharge wastewater into the river. Instead of stopping production and repairing their violation, they disposed of untreated production wastewater to the village roads, leading to the flooding of a local school and the surrounding. Photo & source: https://vtc.vn20

In the meantime, illegal or unsanitary discharge of solid waste in public areas and water bodies like canals, rivers, and sea, due to low environmental awareness and inadequate solid waste management worsens the situation. It is not surprising that Vietnam has been recognized as one of the five countries, that generate the largest ocean plastic waste in the world. Land-based sources of waste are the major driver of the problem of aquatic and marine plastic litter21. The latest report of MONRE on the environmental status of marine and islands in Vietnam stated that ocean plastic waste is one of the pressures for the marine environment in Vietnam5.

Solid waste disposed on a river across a village in the outskirt of Hà Nội: Inadequate wastewater management in rural areas is a critical issue. Lack of (proper) waste collection service results in illegal discharges of solid waste. Photo taken in February 2021 by Trần Thị Nguyệt

For groundwater, geogenic arsenic contamination has been reported in the Red River Delta as a result of extensive and long-term exploitation of groundwater22. Other investigations and literature review study also mentioned that besides arsenic contamination, groundwater is also contaminated by other metals like iron and manganese and ammonium in the Red River Delta and Mekong River Delta23,24. The situation is especially critical in Hà Nội25,26. Furthermore, groundwater is possibly highly contaminated as a consequence of uncontrolled garbage dump sites and mismanagement of animal manure from husbandry activities and effluents of septic tanks.

Examples of present efforts

Presently there are about 80 municipal WWTPs in Vietnam if including plants under construction. These plants are all constructed in urban areas of special classes (e.g., Hà Nội, HCMC) to class 4 (classification based on Resolution No. 1210/2016/UBTVQH13). More than half of the WWTPs (49) are presently in operation, treating about 12.5% of urban wastewater. The total capacity of 80 WWTPs is 2.4 million m3/day, considered insufficient for the urban domestic wastewater required treatment in Vietnam5. Obviously, much more investment is needed.

The control of industrial wastewater also achieved some progress regarding legal regulations. More specifically, there have been certain modifications of environmental legislation against pollution. Generally, the regulations are stricter for the environmental violation cases as well as technical requirements. Another article about the legal framework of water resources will synthesize the situation. The following is only an example of the effort. After the environmental violation case of the steel production company Formosa, new legal documents were released in 2019, namely Decree No. 40/2019/NĐ-CP and Circular 25/2019/TT-BTNMT, requiring production establishments, which produce more than 50 m3/day, must have environmental emergency preparedness and response works (emergency ponds combined with stabilization ponds). These facilities should be equipped at the last stage of the wastewater treatment system.

For craft villages, wastewater pollution has been a major concern of many localities. Solutions are not easy due to small scale and hardly registered productions in residential areas, drawback technologies, lack of specific legal regulations. Nevertheless, many provinces have taken action. One of the efforts are the investment in environmental infrastructure and the relocation of craft productions from residential areas to craft production clusters. For example, Hà Nội is home to the largest number of craft villages in Vietnam, with 1350 villages. The majorly of these villages are polluted by wastewater. The city is implementing the project “Protection of craft villages’ environment by 2020, vision 2030” (approved in 2017). In the period 2021 – 2025, Hà Nội calls for investment in waste and wastewater projects of 9,000 billion VNĐ. In the coming time, the city will establish more than 40 craft village industrial clusters in districts of Phúc Thọ, Thạch Thất, Hà Đông, etc., to move production establishments out of residential areas27.

Concerning the control of solid waste disposed into water bodies, there have been a considerable number of international and national projects and campaigns since Vietnam was recognized as one of the global marine plastic waste polluters. Examples of international projects are Rethink Plastic Vietnam, USAID Clean Cities Blue Ocean, SIWI, and IUCN source –to-sea project “Foundations for Source-to-sea Management” to manage solid waste flows in Vũ Gia – Thu Bồn river basin, WWF Plastic Smart Cities Initiative. At the national level, Vietnam issued the “National Action Plan for Management of Marine Plastic” in December 2019 (Decision No. 1746/QĐ-TTg). The decision sets specific targets by 2025 and 2030 to significantly reduce marine plastic litter.

Nevertheless, much more effort is required since presently the water environment situation has been not much improved, as illustrated in the picture below.

Sanitation workers pick up waste on a canal in Hồ Chí Minh City, reported on 25 August 2021. Photo: Thân Tình. Source: https://www.moitruongvadothi.vn28

The World Bank assessed that water pollution is the most serious water-related threat in Vietnam. In case of inaction, the threat could reduce the GDP of Vietnam by 6% per year by 2035. The major threat is the adverse effect of water pollution on human health, resulting in an annual loss of GDP of 3.5% by 203529,30.

This article was compiled by Dr. Trần Thị Nguyệt and constructively reviewed by Dr. Ute Arnold.


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