Polluted rivers, dwindling groundwater threaten Vietnam city supply

By Thanh Nien News

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A polluted section of the Siep Stream that flows into the Dong Nai River, a waterway that provides sustenance to some 15 million people, including most of Ho Chi Minh City. Experts are calling for determined action by relevant authorities to reduce river pollution to ensure supply of clean water to millions of people in Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces. PHOTO: HOANG TUAN
Nguyen Quang Thinh’s neighborhood on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City has been severely polluted ever since a wood and leather company opened there a few years ago.
“The canal water is always black and stinky,” the Cu Chi District resident said. “It becomes worse when the company discharges wastewater.”
Hundreds of people living in the vicinity of a local wood and leather company have repeatedly complained to relevant authorities, but the pollution has not abated.
Another resident, Nguyen Thi Thanh, said they also have to endure the smell of paint and sawdust from the company: “Both adults and children often fall sick.”
But experts said such environmental pollution is harmful not just for local residents but also the millions of people in the city and neighboring provinces who use water taken from the Saigon – Dong Nai river system.
The city recently ordered relevant agencies to inspect the discharge of effluents into the environment as part of a plan to end the discharge of untreated industrial wastewater.
The plan was launched following repeated warnings by scientists about the serious pollution in the Saigon – Dong Nai river system, a waterway that provides sustenance to some 15 million people, including most of HCMC.
Polluted rivers
According to a study by the HCMC-based Institute for Environment and Resources released last November, millions of people in HCMC and Binh Duong are using tap water from the Saigon and Dong Nai which are polluted by discharges from residential areas, hospitals, factories, waterway transport vessels, farms, and even garbage dumps.
Fifty industrial zones discharge 105 million liters of wastewater into the Saigon every day, a majority of it either untreated or inadequately treated.
In 2002 HCMC planned to move around 1,400 factories to the outskirts. The shift was scheduled to be completed in 2006, but only a small and unknown number moved.
The rest continue to operate in central areas and discharge untreated wastewater into the sewer system, polluting canals and acting as a drag on wastewater plants designed to treat domestic waste, the study found.
According to the Institute for Environment and Resources, a section of the Saigon River in Cu Chi District supplies more than 330 million liters of water daily to the Tan Hiep and Thu Dau Mot water plants though the water contains higher concentrations of pollutants than deemed safe.
Shrinking ground water
While the surface water is being polluted, the city’s groundwater is depleting rapidly.
According to the Saigon Water Supply Company (Sawaco), HCMC uses 2.2 billion liters of water every day, 1.65 million liters from the tap and the rest from around 300,000 tube wells.
In January the Department of Natural Resources and Environment was instructed to identify areas where groundwater exploitation will be banned or limited.
The instruction followed fears of overexploitation, which has caused saline water intrusion and the surface to sink.
Sawaco has been ordered to expand water supply, and it will become illegal to use groundwater in areas where water is supplied.
Currently, it is illegal to draw groundwater in an area of 195 square kilometers in districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, and 11 and a part of Nha Be.
But the groundwater is also polluted. A survey last September by the National Center for Water Resources Planning and Investigation found pollutants in several places.
It found dissolved solids of up to 36,900 mg/liter at a well in Can Gio District, far above the safe level of 1,500 mg/l.
Samples taken from Binh Chanh, Cu Chi, and District 12 also contained higher levels of ammonia and manganese than safe.
Uncontrolled exploitation
At a meeting with city legislators and the Ho Chi Minh City Export Processing and Industrial Zone Authority on March 4, Bach Vu Hai, Sawaco’s deputy general director, said the company would offer discounts to companies switching from groundwater to tap water.
Currently, the price of tap water is VND9,600 (US$0.45) per 1,000 liters for production activities and 10 percent lower for companies in industrial zones.
His company would work with each industrial zone to discuss more about the discounts, he said.
“This is one solution to limit the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater in industrial zones and comply with a proposed ban on groundwater exploitation in 2025,” he said.
Officials from the city’s environment department said they are unable to monitor the use of groundwater for industrial production in the city.
According to the Ho Chi Minh City Export Processing and Industrial Zone Authority, uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater causes difficulties in monitoring the companies’ discharge of wastewater and the surface to sink.
At the Tan Tao Industrial Zone in Binh Tan District, in most areas the land has sunk by 0.6-1 meters and at the Le Minh Xuan Industrial Zone in Binh Chanh District, by 0.3-0.5 meters.
This has also affected the sewer system and wastewater leaks directly into the ground.
Unquenched thirst
Faced with polluted freshwater sources and depleting groundwater, experts are calling for action from relevant authorities to reduce pollution and find alternative sources of water.
According to the Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, production activities that cause serious pollution should be moved to designated areas for easier wastewater treatment.
A group of scientists from the institute, who recently studied the issue, proposed the use of rainwater and treated wastewater to meet the rising demand for water.
Dang Van Khoa, chairman of the HCMC Association for Nature and Environment Protection, a local think tank, said there have been many warnings, studies, proposals for tackling the pollution in the Sai Gon-Dong Nai river system during the past decade.
“However, their pollution sources remain unchanged while many pollution indicators remain far above allowed levels,” Sai Gon Tiep Thi newspaper quoted him as saying.
He said the media may have reported about pollution “black spots” caused by companies, but as pollution sources they are just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“Environmental agencies give violators just a slap on the wrists and their awareness of environment protection remains low.
“[They] do not consider protection of water resources a major task while protecting the environment is as important as other development targets.”
Vo Van Sen, a city lawmaker, told Sai Gon Tiep Thi that the pollution in the Sai Gon and Dong Nai is a concern for many people because it would have dire consequences for future generations.
“In 5-10 years our children will pay the price for the huge pollution if we continue to waste water resources and not take determined steps from now,” he said.
Khoa said solutions for protecting the rivers and punitive measures are available and sufficient.
“It does not need any more laws. What we need to do is take action now.”

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