Notes from the Field

In Vietnam: Grow First, Clean Up Later – the Sad State of To Lich River

June 11, 2008

“If you clean up the river, we will be forced to buy chemical fertilizers.”

The leader of the village’s Party work unit smiles, and settles back in her chair, waiting to hear what we will say. She knows we are hoping to build on the early successes of an Asia Foundation program focused on water safety and food security, but she wants us to know that life is not always linear. We ask if the farmers in her village have trouble with skin rashes or stomach illnesses, and she nods. Water pollution is bad, but it is also a way to deliver fertilizer to poor farmers. Outside the open community center where we are sitting are ponds full of morning glory and cress and lotus, growing lushly green on a liquid bed of what is, essentially, sewage.

The To Lich River in Ha Noi, Vietnam, just a few kilometers north of this village, was once a vibrant waterway, used intensively for transportation by small watercraft, as a food source and as means of livelihood through fishing and agriculture. The river connected many communities that relied upon its seasonal ebb and flow for their very existence. Comprising 30 percent of the flow of the Nhue River, the health of the To Lich touches the lives of over three million people.

Today, the To Lich is more an open air sewer than a river. At the end of the dry season, fetid water trickles slowly along a watercourse with concrete banks. Every few feet, those banks are punctuated by pipes delivering sewage, sometimes treated and oftentimes not, to the flow of the river. Markets and households toss waste directly into the ditch. Small and large enterprises, from papermaking to paint manufacturing, add their toxic effluent, usually untreated, to the mix. Residents no older than 40 who remember eating crabs caught in the river,and swimming there to cool off after school, are now warned by signs to stay away.

The To Lich River has not been ignored during its decline, at least not over the past 20 years. Many projects have been completed to assess conditions, educate residents, and even dredge the river in an attempt to start from scratch. Projects funded by many donors have created the concrete banks, stabilized the shore and nearby streets, and provided environmental education to all about the effects of water pollution, hoping to create motivation to protect what is left. The city of Ha Noi has been progressive in its creation of public works to maintain the river, and has even required that all buildings have septic tanks to pre-treat their waste. But these efforts have made only tentative progress.

The story of the To Lich River is shared by waterways all over Asia, victims of economic growth that does not factor in environmental protection. Policy makers tend to follow the mantra, “grow first, clean up later.” Here on the To Lich, the next step in the official plan is to completely enclose the watercourse, completing its transformation from an artery of economic stability to a sewer pipe. The captured wastewater will be treated, many millions of cubic meters each month, to remove the polluting materials, from copper and cadmium and lead to moto repair shops and nitrogen from human waste (known as fertilizer by the farmers downstream). The restored water will then be allowed to flow back into the Nhue, and the wastewater treatment sludge will be taken somewhere yet to be determined.

One serious problem with this approach is the sheer amount of money needed to cover the To Lich and treat all its contents as waste. Several very large treatment plants and settling ponds will take up land now occupied by productive farmers. Operating costs to cover labor, millions of kilos of treatment chemicals, and millions of kilowatt hours of electricity will be a burden for generations. Another problem is the futility of treating polluted water that has such a complex mix of contaminants. News reports in the US have recently highlighted potential hazards caused by the myriad of pharmaceuticals and beauty products still present in the water after wastewater treatment. Vietnam, Thailand China and their neighbors share the same fate.

The biggest problem, however, is that we, as a human population, act as if we don’t know better. We’ve actually learned not to grow first, and then (try to) clean up later. By the 1950s, the Ruhr Valley in Germany was declared dead”unfishable and unswimmable, an environmental disaster of historic proportions. Since then, the Valley has slowly been resurrected, at the cost of tens of billions of marks. Many river tributaries, covered over in the 19th century, are now “daylighted,” or returned (roughly) to their original ecological functions at a tremendous cost. Of course this restoration has been significantly aided by the export of entire steel mills and chemical plants to other countries–countries lacking the infrastructure, knowledge and political will to behave any differently.

As polluted as the To Lich River has become, community interest in bringing it back is quite high. Various government agencies and community organizations understand the dead-end nature of blindly applying environmental protection solutions like high-volume wastewater treatment, which may have worked in the US and Europe but were built on much firmer institutional ground. They are eager for new ideas about how to merge the goals of environmental fitness and economic growth, eager for practical and affordable solutions that they themselves can contribute to, and eager to try to reclaim the river as part of Hanoi’s history, as part of their history.

“Restore” would be too ambitious of a goal, but much can be done by focusing on the human element with all its foibles to help ameliorate the To Lich River’s condition. Working with local researchers and agencies, TAF will map current pollution sources by taking water quality samples and conducting community surveys. Stakeholders and communities will work together to identify and overcome the major obstacles to solving the wastewater discharge problem; affordable pollution prevention, long-term behavior modification, and citizen participation in the greater economic and environmental policy debate are our goals.

“The problem,” says another man, down the table from the village Party leader, “is that no one knows what to do. We farmers know what our problems and ideas are, but the officials have forgotten what they knew of farming. And we know nothing of living in the city, with toilets and pipes. We need to work together more, for our country and our children.”

All the farmers at the table nod in unison, and drain their tea cups, ready to go back to the fields.

Terry Foecke is Senior Environment Program Advisor for The Asia Foundation; Kim Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Vietnam.

View all posts by Kim N. B. Ninh | Bio

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