Real estate investors destroying Vietnam capital's rivers

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New urban developments in Hanoi are breaking the law by not providing water treatment and dumping untreated waste directly into local rivers and lakes

The horrifically polluted Nhue River in Hanoi. Many other rivers in the capital are also seriously polluted like the Nhue, a result of rapid urbanization without proper planning and lax enforcement of wastewater treatment regulations in new residential areas. Photo by Nam An

Nguyen Thi Loi, a resident of Hanoi's Tu Liem District, said her local Nhue River is so polluted that residents have not been able use it to water their vegetable gardens for years. They say the stagnant black liquid kills plants.

"Fish and shrimp in the river used to be the main food for families living alongside the river, but they [fish and shrimp] no longer survive," said Loi.

"Contact with the water causes itchy rashes and the [river's] stink makes you dizzy."

The Nhue, a small river 76 kilometers long, is black for the 20 kilometers it flows through Hanoi. In some places it is covered in foam and too thick to even flow.

Many other rivers in the capital are also seriously polluted like the Nhue, a result of rapid urbanization without strict planning and the lax enforcement of wastewater treatment regulations in new residential areas.

Up the creek without a paddle

At the Nhue River, the pollution gets worse the further downstream you go.

People in Ha Dong District said heavy downpours reduce the stink, but only temporarily.

Things are horrific during the dry season at the turn of the year, they said.

Other major rivers in the city like the To Lich, Lu, Set, and Kim Nguu are also in their death throes.

Tran Quang Hung, a man who lives by the Nhue in Hanoi, said he has never seen the river so dirty.

"It has been very bad for around five years. First fish and shrimp died and completely disappeared. Since the fish could not survive, people did not dare use the water for bathing, washing or gardening."

The pollution has also affected groundwater, he said, which contains high quantities of arsenic.

"Well water has been turning grey and stinky."

Minh Thu, who lives along the To Lich, said when there are winds, people living near the river feel itchy all over and their eyes water.

The river receives nearly 250,000 cubic meters of directly-discharged sewage every day.

Thu said she used to run a restaurant by the river but had to move it because no one liked sitting so close to the water anymore. Many other families have also vacated their houses there.

New urban waste

Since a major real estate boom in 2002, many new urban areas have been built in Hanoi's outlying districts.

A Thanh Nien investigation found that dozens of these newer apartment buildings, each housing hundreds of families, are discharging wastewater directly into local waterways untreated.

The famous My Dinh 2 Urban Area, dozens of apartment blocks opened in 2006, has no wastewater treatment system at all.

Not so far away, untreated wastewater is also being discharged into the To Lich River from the 18-block Nam Trung Yen resettlement area.

Considered one of the city's "model" urban areas, Linh Dam also has no wastewater treatment system and is discharging huge volumes of untreated wastewater into the To Lich River and Linh Dam Lake.

Luxury apartment complex The Manor built its own treatment system, but rarely runs it to save money, its manager Truong Duc Tu admitted.

The wastewater does not even meet regulatory requirements even after being treated by the facility, he added.

Several housing companies were fined VND20-50 million (US$950-2,375) for their poor management of waste in 2012, but the violations have continued.

The city Department of Natural Resources and Environment has found exceedingly high amounts of pollutants in Hanoi's rivers. Metals and ammonia used in household cleaners, fertilizers, and textiles have been found exceeding safe limits by 18 40 times. Colon bacteria has been found at levels exceeding allowed limits by 2 100 times.

The same department in Ha Nam Province, which shares the Nhue with Hanoi, said the ammonia level in the river is 151 times higher than permitted, while the amount of dissolved oxygen needed by organisms to break down organic material present in the water is five times below normal.

Un-enforcement, no recovery

After being caught causing serious pollution, the investors of many urban areas have been fined and ordered to build waste treatment systems, but none have done so yet.

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Xuan Quyen of the Hanoi environmental police said his department fined the Housing and Urban Development Corporation VND120 million in 2012 because it had not built a wastewater treatment facility at the Viet Hung New Urban Area in Long Bien District.

Police also fined several other urban area investors in 2012 for the same violations and ordered them to take steps to help clean the rivers.

"The investors or managers of the urban areas all committed to build [water treatment] facilities when caught with violations. However, none of them did so. Wastewater is still being discharged freely into the environment," Quyen said.

Pham Sy Liem, former deputy minister of construction, said that according to regulations, an investor has to submit plans for a wastewater treatment system before starting construction on residential projects.

During constructing, the investor has to seek permission from local authorities before connecting the wastewater discharge pipes to nearby sewer systems or rivers, he said.

"Relevant authorities should review the process of issuing construction permits. I think there has been no general plan for the construction of a series of residential areas over the past years," he said.

Liem said many investors ignore the construction of wastewater treatment facilities to cut costs.

"The city's departments of construction and natural resources and environment are responsible for the situation," he said.

An inspector at the Hanoi Construction Department who asked to be unnamed said that besides regulations that require investors to submit a project design that includes a wastewater plant, relevant authorities are responsible for supervising the construction to ensure the investors follow the approved design.

"The inspectors can suspend construction if they find the investor is not following the design," he said.

"But I don't know how a number of urban areas were established without wastewater treatment facilities. There must be some problem in the process."

Phu Minh, a resident near the Van Quan new urban area along the To Lich River, said his community used to fish in the river and Van Quan Lake before the residential area was built several years ago.

"Now we can't fish and have to live near a polluted river and lake. But things are even worse because polluted substances from surface water also spread into the ground and the air and the whole environment is being seriously polluted."

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