Greening the troubled waters

Nhieu Loc Canal used to be “dead”. However, during the past two decades its revolting conditions have galvanized city residents to breathe a new life into it. Today it is a green, beautiful waterway.

Sadly, no similar efforts have been taken to restore other city canals that have long been beset by pollution.

Nhieu Loc has been home to many generations of Ho Chi Minh residents. And for the past two decades, more than a million people have lived in their ramshackle houses on its banks.

Sad to say, they also dumped rubbish into the canal. It didn’t take long for its water to turn dark and putrid, its foul smell permeating the air.

Garbage is a common sight in the putrid water of Te Canal. (Photo by Nhu Nguyen.)

As Nhieu Loc was breathing its last breath, the residents and city administration made a concerted effort to save it. They dredged the canal, cleared surrounding lands of rubbish, and planted trees. The city also built a wastewater treatment system at last.

All in all, hundreds of millions of dollars were expended. But it was money well spent.

Today Nhieu Loc draws large numbers of people who come to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the canal. They walk or do exercises along both banks of the now clean waterway.

What’s more, it has become a new tourist attraction, and boat tours on the Nhieu Loc have become increasingly popular.

With its water quality greatly improved, Nhieu Loc Canal has become an attraction for various activities. Here, a man releases a bucket of fish into the canal while in the background city workers pick up garbage from the water. (Photo by Vietnam Earth Hour.)

But while Nhieu Loc has been rescued from the brink of death, other city canals – some 2,000 of them – are struggling to survive.

Most of them have been mired in garbage, with plastic materials and dead fishes covering the surface.

Tham Luong Canal in district 12 and 19/5 Canal in Tan Phu district are typical. They have suffered from severe pollution as a result of residents and factories dumping garbage into their water.

Officials attempted to protect the canals by posting “Do Not Litter” signs, imposing heavy fines, erecting fences along their banks and so on.

However, these efforts were not enough to stop residents from continuing to dump garbage into the water. Some encroached on the canals and built houses right in the water, constricting the waterway and thus making the area flood-prone.

Statistics of the city’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment show that collection of garbage at the two main canals yields about five tons a day, but only 7% of it is properly treated.

The department forecasts that the city is expected to generate two million cubic meters of wastewater in 2020 and it will cost $1.7 billion to treat it.

White foam on the dark water indicates how severe a canal near Tan Binh industrial park has been polluted. (Photo by Nhu Nguyen.)

It may be hard to grasp the magnitude of the problem. But if one imagines each 100 cubic meters of waste water as a young adult whale, we are looking at a spectacular 20,000 whales swimming in the canals system.

This number is expected to increase 50% to three million cubic meters, or an equivalent of 30,000 whales, by 2025.

Prof. Dr. Nguyen Van Phuoc, director of the Institute for Environment and Resources of Vietnam National University, said the problem was “we just collect garbage but not all of it was properly treated”.

“The canals also receive wastewater from other sources. We just can’t handle it all at once. So the water quality deteriorates even more.”

Then he added: “The biggest problem is that people dump garbage directly into the canals.

“What we have to do urgently is to identify groups of people who cause pollution and what their needs are so that we could create different garbage collection services that respond to those needs.”

Low public awareness and rapid population growth have been identified as the biggest challenges facing efforts to clean and green the canals.

Enter the Earth Hour Campaign. The main activity of the campaign is to urge individuals, communities, households and businesses to turn off non-essential lights for one hour, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. toward the end of March. This is an annual event organized as a symbol of participants’ commitment to saving and protecting the planet. It aims at raising environmental awareness.

The campaign has been organized for the past nine years in Ho Chi Minh City. But campaign volunteers – most of whom are young people – run several other environmental projects as well.

They collect and sort garbage from canals. They cycle around the city, carrying banners to promote environmental protection. They help replace roofs with energy-saving ones for schools in the suburbs.

They also organize eco-tours for foreign tourists. Launched in 2016, the project, called Green Destination, introduce tourists to the city’s green attractions. Riding boats to enjoy the scenery of Nhieu Loc Canal is part of the tour.

For one of the volunteers, joining the Earth Hour campaign was an eye-opener.

Sa Tran is a 19-year-old student at RMIT University Vietnam. Last year, she decided to join the Earth Hour campaign as a member of its communication team. She said she wanted to gain experience working in a community project, especially on environmental issues.

Sa admitted that she had underestimated the severity of the city’s environmental degradation. But working as a volunteer has changed her outlook.

Earth Hour campaign volunteers ride bicycles along Nhieu Loc Canal to call public attention to environmental and water protection. (Photo by Vietnam Earth Hour.)

“Before, I thought young people are not responsible for environmental protection or cleaning up dirty canals.”

But, she said, she realized that dirty canals affect not only the environment but public health as well. So people in society – young and old – must be responsible. As a volunteer, Sa said Earth Hour provided practical perspectives about the negative impacts of polluted canals and the benefits derived from their clean-up.

“From talking to people taking our tour boats, they realize they, too, are responsible for protecting the environment. They understand the danger of degraded environment.

“As a volunteer, I could see the changes that our activities have made,” Sa said. “I’m convinced that young people are capable of improving the situation in Ho Chi Minh City.”

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