Vietnam is suffering from some of the worst air pollution recorded. From 2017 to 2018, the annual average concentration of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) within Ho Chi Minh City rose from 23.6 to 26.9 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³). Meanwhile, Hanoi which is the capital city in the north ranked amongst the top 15 most polluted cities in South East Asia, according to the IQAir AirVisual 2019 World Air Quality Report, with a US AQI figure of 129. Ho Chi Minh City which is a large city in the south ranked as the cleanest with a US AQI figure of 79. The average annual US AQI figure was 97.
One of the worst pollutants for human health is fine particulate matter (PM2.5). There were 8 days when Hanoi registered a measurement of less than the national average of 50 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) in 2019. Ho Chi Minh City was a little better at having enjoyed only 36 days below the national average. When looking at these figures it shows that for the rest of the year, over 10 million people were exposed to this polluted air.
These fine particulates (PM2.5) are particularly harmful to health as they penetrate deep inside the lung tissue and are small enough to lodge in the alveoli. These are the tiny sacs in the lungs that receive the oxygen you breathe in. Located at the base of the bronchial tubes, these are microscopic yet number around 480 million in the average adult human. Once they start blocking the airways, diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory infections are much more likely to occur. Those suffering from asthma are prone to increased attacks.
The average PM2.5 concentration for 2019 for Hanoi were 46.9 µg/ m3 whilst Ho Chi Minh City recorded a figure of 25.3 µg/ m3.
Air pollution seems to be directly linked to the countries' GDP. Foreign investors are less likely to invest in a country where air pollution is a problem. In 2019 the country's GDP had decreased to 7.02 per cent from 7.08 per cent. The Vietnamese government is currently working on the introduction of environmental standards, rules and regulations.
In 2017 there were over 70,000 deaths attributed to the poor air quality which ranked Vietnam as the fourth in the region. The Vietnam Minister of Natural Resources and Environment is currently organising a system to address the problem of air pollution
The main cause of air pollution in Vietnam is the transportation system. There are in excess of 3.6 million cars on the roads and 58 million motorbikes. The majority of these vehicles are found in the towns and cities throughout the country. Most of these vehicles are old and therefore fall short of recommended emission’s standards. Together they cause the daily traffic jams whilst constantly emitting black smoke into the atmosphere. These vehicles also include the old buses still in use and the trucks and lorries used by the construction companies.
This transportation system is exacerbated by the planning of the road network. High-rise apartment blocks are ubiquitous in Vietnam’s large cities and house 1000’s of people who commute to work on a daily basis. The construction of a subway system is currently underway in Ho Chi Minh City but there is no real efficient means of public transport available now.
Another cause of air pollution in cities is the burgeoning number of construction sites which create a huge amount of dust. This is mainly from the demolition of the existing building and the cement powder used for constructing the new build. The creation of green open spaces in city centres would help clean the air.
The older industrial sites are slowly being encouraged to vacate the city centre and relocate to industrial parks away in the suburbs. This also applies to the coal power plants, the cement producing factories and the steel manufacturers. Many biomass cooking stoves are used by the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the big cities. In the rural areas of the country, the air pollution is caused by the burning of organic material such as straw and other waste products from the agricultural industry. This is particularly worse during the dry season which is between October and February
Short-term solutions have been identified by the local environmental groups who recommend much stricter controls over vehicle emissions. Improved traffic control and the introduction of a dust management system for construction sites will also help the air quality in Vietnam. The overall ban on the use of charcoal cooking stoves would greatly help but would be very unpopular and hard to enforce. These are only short-term solutions but are a step in the right direction. For the long term, clean, sustainable sources of energy must be made available.
The improvement and strict reinforcement of urban planning would reduce air pollution considerably. The two big cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have an abundance of densely populated government facilities, hospitals and universities could be relocated to the suburbs, thus creating much needed green open spaces. The relocation of the Rang Dang Light Bulb Factory would greatly reduce dangerous air pollutants. A new building code of practice needs to be introduced as is the development of clean energy and solar-powered buildings.
There is already a subway system under construction in Ho Chi Minh City which will eventually be advantageous in reducing the amount of personal vehicles on the roads. The gradual phasing out of the old air polluting buses and trucks should be encouraged by government subsidies. Policies could be introduced to encourage the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and to offer incentives for their use in city centres. With the advent of modern technology, the introduction of green energy powered vehicles is no longer the subject of science fiction. The entire world sees the advantages of EVs, especially when used as transportation within our large cities. Many companies are currently working on the development of autonomous vehicles which ultimately must be the mode of urban transport for the future together with their zero emissions.
There are organisations in Vietnam that are actively working to improve the air quality in the country. The Vietnam Association for Conservation of Natural Resources and Environment (VACNE) established the Vietnam Clean Air Partnership (VCAP).
A member of the Vietnam Clean Air Partnership (VCAP), has recommended a close monitoring of businesses that emit large volumes of pollutants. He also recommends a cap on the number of motorbikes that have access to the city centre during the main rush hour periods.
Because of the negative consequences of air pollution, there are many organisations around the world who are closely working with Vietnam with this problem. The Vietnamese government is in the process of introducing policies which will reduce the emissions from vehicle and industry as well as developing clean household energy.
The highest US AQI (Air Quality Index) levels were recorded from the capital city in the north of the country, Hanoi. The figure recorded was 272 on 30th September which exceeds the World Health Organisation’s recommended figure of 40 µg/m3.The cleanest city was in the south of the country, Ho Chi Minh City with an AQI figure of 153.
Between 12th September and the 30th, the levels of fine particulate matter PM2.5 µg/m3 were mainly above 50 µg/m3 quoting figures released by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Mean PM2.5 concentrations of 50 µg/m3 for a 24 hour period and 25 µg/m3 over a year are the standards strived for by this agency. The WHO (World Health Organisation) recommendations are 25 and 10 respectively. During this 19 day period, there were only 5 days when the level was low enough to be considered as “safe”. For the remaining days, it was highly recommended that air pollution masks were worn when outside the home.
The air quality is particularly bad at this time of year as it is the transition between the wet and dry seasons. Matters were made worse this year by an unusually low amount of rainfall in September which normally helps clean the air of these fine particles. Vulnerable groups of people including the elderly, children, pregnant women and those suffering from respiratory disorders were advised not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary and if unavoidable, then masks and eye protection must be worn to reduce exposure.
This was exacerbated by the dispersal of thermal radiation from the ground to the atmosphere which, in turn, contributed to the formation of fog at relatively low levels. The burning of rice husks and straw on the outskirts of the city was also a contributing factor to the alarmingly high level of air pollution.
They look to Beijing for inspiration which was infamous for its extremely poor air quality. It took many years and a concerted effort to improve air quality there, but it proves that it can be done.
As the cities became more industrialised, there was no longer room for the artisanal craft production units so they were relocated into smaller villages in rural regions. There are almost 1500 of these craft villages now which create over 30 per cent employment in these rural areas. Activities can include the production of sweets or candy and general food processing which often includes drying. Home appliances are assembled and building materials are produced. The dyeing of textiles and cloth recycling is often carried out in these rural areas. The majority of the equipment used in these villages is typically very old and inefficient. Production facilities are often installed inside people's homes and therefore very difficult to control. The production of bricks is often carried out on a relatively small scale by local families who have been making bricks for generations. The air pollutants found around these villages range from dust, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitric oxide. Black carbon can also be found at an alarming level. This mainly comes from the burning of biofuel for the cooking stoves, domestic log burning and organic material burning.
Just recently there has been an increase in the amount of non-government sensors located in and around Ho Chi Minh City which enable residents to monitor the air quality for themselves. The cost of these monitors is less than $300 as opposed to the 1000's of dollars it costs to install a typical government station. This encourages the inhabitants to have access to the figures which, in turn, makes them more aware of the situation. Once people become aware of exactly what they are breathing in and the effect it has on their health, the higher the chances are of them doing something about it. In September 2019 some residents in Ho Chi Minh City held a peaceful march as a way of generally raising awareness of the situation.
This march was the possible trigger which encouraged the local government to announce the proposed creation of nine stations to monitor air quality and also the addition of one mobile one. They also indicated their intention to establish a further 11 monitoring stations by 2030. With the advent of the latest technology, it is their intention to send warnings to residents' phones when levels reach a dangerous level.
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When the level of air quality reaches the level which is classed as unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, it is recommended that people where quality masks when going outdoors and closing windows to avoid the intake of dirty air from outside. It is also suggested that they invest in an air purifier if levels remain high for a longer period of time and reduce the amount of time spent outside.
Residents are encouraged to “carpool” where possible and to use what public transport is available as a way of reducing harmful emissions. The use of greener fuels is also encouraged whenever possible.