Despatch from Ha Long Bay | International

Something is stinking in Vietnam’s heritage sites

Floating village and rock islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam, Southeast Asia

Floating village and rock islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam, Southeast Asia  

Every morning, That, a fisherwoman from the floating villages in Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam, rows her bamboo boat past the limestone rocks rising from the emerald waters. She takes tourists, who have come to catch a glimpse of the 1,553 sq km of a UNESCO World Heritage site, through the narrower serene islets and caves. Her daily routine concludes at dusk as tourists return to their cruises and she to her village, she said, unaware that her livelihood and home are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of rising water pollution in the Ha Long Bay.

In July, experts discussed environmental pollution in Ha Long at the Quang Ninh People’s Council. Poorly enforced waste management norms and unsustainable practices in the tourism sector were among the major concerns. However, these issues plague the entire country, not just Ha Long. Pollution could cost Vietnam 3.5% of its GDP by 2035, according to the 2018 World Bank report on Vietnam. While identifying water pollution as a key concern, the report noted that only 46% of the households have connections to a drainage system, a third of industrial wastewater and over 87% of municipal waste is untreated.

The increasing number of tourists are a burden on this weak waste management system. In 2018, the tourism boom in Vietnam attracted over 15.49 million people, of which nearly 12 million visited the Quang Ninh province where Ha Long Bay is located. Experts warn that pollution not only threatens the ecologically sensitive geography and livelihoods of those like Ms. That, but climate change may make it impossible for them to return to traditional occupations.

A tipping point

“The pollution impacts (in Ha Long Bay) are clear and are increasingly cited in TripAdvisor comments that praise the majestic landscape but are highly critical of dirty water and trash-strewn beaches,” said Jake Brunner, deputy head, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Southeast Asia. As a critical mass of negative opinion forms, a tipping point is reached at which visitation declines rapidly, with negative impacts on jobs, revenue and the economy, he explained in an email interview.

At Ha Long, the picturesque vistas are no longer perfect. Above the water, there is constant buzz of the motor engines as nearly 500 cruise liners dot the seascape; underneath, nearly all of them quietly discharge untreated wastewater into the Bay. Plastic and garbage are easy to spot. Only 20 boats have on-board waste water treatment systems, and the rest discharge an estimated 500 cubic metre per day of untreated water into the Bay, according to the multi-stakeholder partnership called Halong Bay-Cat Ba Alliance, a project of the Switzerland-based IUCN.

In central Vietnam, a similar saga of pollution plays out in the ancient port town of Hoi An, another popular UNESCO site. The old town, filled with houses and shops on narrow lanes, leads up to the Thu Bon river. As evening falls, tourists lower lit lanterns into the river. Within minutes, the lanterns burn out as acrid fumes rises.

While this stream of colours is Instagram-able, the stench of sewage in the air is unbearable. Hoi An, like Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, has extreme levels of air and water pollution, and a high level of dissatisfaction with regards to garbage disposal in the city, data on the crowd-sourced global database Numbeo shows. The town does not have adequate solid and liquid waste management systems for its population of just over 150,000, let alone for the 5 million tourists who visited in 2017. Households, markets, restaurants and hotels produced approximately 75 tonnes of solid waste per day in 2018, according to the Global Environment Facility.

In 2015, the Japanese government offered an aid of $10.2 million for a modern wastewater treatment facility near Hoi An’s famous 18th century Japanese bridge. After delays in completion of the project, operations hadn’t taken off till late 2018. While such investments are important, it is not enough. “Time is running out,” Mr. Brunner said. “The good news is that science, technology and financing exist to solve these problems. What’s missing so far is decisive government leadership.”

Mahima A. Jain is a freelance journalist.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 4:50:36 PM |

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