Hanoi: A city of lakes that could soon become a city of rubbish
One sunny morning in October 2016, Hanoi residents living around the city’s West Lake woke up to a foul and irritating smell.
“We could not bear the overwhelming smell,” Ms Huong, a local resident said, wearing a mask while inside her home. “But we have nowhere to go.”
The local government subsequently reported that it had collected up to 200 tonnes of dead fish in the lake in one week. The fish had died from a lack of oxygen due to extreme water pollution.
As the pollution levels have reached critical levels in the city lakes, the question on the minds of many local residents is: “What can be done, and who will do it?”
According to the Center for Environment and Community Research, Hanoi has about 120 lakes which provide many environmental benefits including regulating urban floods and providing quiet spaces for relaxation and exercise for the city’s residents. A recent water sample testing of the lake waters by Hanoi Water Drainage Company revealed that 95 per cent of the lakes are highly polluted: 115 out of the 120 testing samples showed signs of varying degrees of pollution.
After the fish deaths in the West Lake, the city’s Municipal People’s Committee said there were a number of causes. First, the limited awareness of residents who randomly discharge waste water into the lakes and throw domestic garbage (and even dead animals), making the lakes nothing more than an extension of the city sewers. The many signs prohibiting throwing rubbish into the lakes do not seem to act as a deterrent.
Illegal fish farming is another culprit. People release fish and breed them in the lakes then catch them for food or to sell for income. But often, the fish do not survive the pollution in the lake. In particular, the lakes receive a huge amount of waste around the Vietnamese Kitchen God Day (which is exactly one week before the annual Lunar New Year’s celebration). The city’s residents release fish into the lakes due to the traditional belief that this is a way to say goodbye to their kitchen gods as the old year comes to an end. But a large amount of plastic bags get thrown into the lake along with the released fish stifling the lake’s ecosystem.
The third reason is Hanoi’s rapid urbanization and the immigration of large numbers of people to work in the city. Lacking enough space to live, migrant workers often encroach on the lake’s banks putting up temporary houses. Local residents make use of the banks in Linh Quang, Van Chuong, Kim Lien, and Thien Quang lakes to operate food stalls. The waste from the stalls and nearby restaurants, hotels and markets is discharged into the lakes.
The foul-smelling and contaminated lakes have had detrimental effects on those living nearby. “The lake’s pollution level has been rising since the past five years, and it’s worse during hot, sunny days,” said Bach Thị Minh Hanh from Ha Dong District’s Xa La Urban Area, where a large number of lakes are located. Many families are forced to shut all their doors and windows most of the time to keep the smell out.
Another impact is that local dwellers are being deprived of quiet, green spaces for playing, relaxing and meeting people. Phan Thanh Thảo, another resident of Xa La Urban Area, said people had to cover their noses when walking near the lake. “The air is no longer pure as it used to be. No one wants to go to the lake to do morning exercises,” she said, adding that she has changed her daily commuting route to avoid the bad smell.
The threat of diseases from the lake pollution is very real. Hanoi’s Center for Environment and Community Research has warned that the city’s polluted lakes might become a source of infectious diseases if they are not cleaned up soon.
Urgent action is needed before it’s too late
The environmental degradation of Hanoi’s lakes is not going unnoticed and a number of actions have been initiated. Nguyen Duc Chung, chairman of Hanoi’s People’s Committee said: “If we cannot solve the problem, we cannot develop the city”.
Local authorities have come up with a wide range of solutions. They have taken strong measures to prevent people from throwing rubbish in the lakes and fishing illegally. However, there still seems to be no solution to eliminate the temporary houses and food stalls that encroach around the lakes. To recover the lake system ecology, the Hanoi People’s Committee established a steering committee for preventing environmental pollution of lakes, led by the committee’s chairman Nguyen Duc Chung. Moreover, the Hanoi Water Drainage Company, in collaboration with other institutes, has introduced new technology from Germany – Redoxy 3C – to clean three lakes as part of a pilot project since September 2016. The company will submit a plan to clean all the other city lakes during 2017 if the pilot project is successful.
A series of environmental campaigns have been organized across the city, including lake cleaning projects by young volunteers. One action gained widespread news: an enthusiastic and environment-loving expatriate living in Hanoi stunned the local inhabitants by starting a lake clean-up campaign. James Joseph Kendall, an American national, founder of the “Keep Hanoi Clean” campaign, urged his foreign and Vietnamese friends to wade into the ditch in Cau Giay District’s Yen Hoa Ward to pick up the rubbish and help clean the lake. It became a powerful message for taking urgent action to save Hanoi’s lakes that was shared widely by the city’s residents.
Many of these measures, however, remain mostly short-term solutions that cannot solve the systemic problems of the lake’s pollution. Environmental experts such as Pham Sy Liem, deputy chair of the Vietnam Federation of Civil Engineering Association, suggested that there must be specific places to dump rubbish and sewage systems must be built around the lakes to divert wastewater from entering the lakes. Nguyen Ngoc Ly, Director of the Center for Environment and Community Research said that each lake should have specific zones that are kept free of encroachment and pollution and prohibited to people’s activities.
All these measures also require money. Nguyen Ngoc Ly suggests that the Hanoi city administration should have an adequate budget for its lake management agencies to operate effectively.
In the end, it is not only the responsibility of the local government agencies but also of the residents to take urgent action to protect the city’s iconic, beautiful lakes before it is too late.