Boom times lead to record pollution levels in Vietnam and beyond
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Boom times lead to record pollution levels in Vietnam and beyond

ON March 5, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi issued a startling report on local pollution levels that caused considerable alarm for a city not used to Beijing-style waves of smog.

Having already had their concerns, embassy staff installed an air-quality monitor to measure PM2.5 particulate matter, microscopic particles that are suspended more or less permanently in the air. It is these that are responsible for a wide host of respiratory ailments that can lead to illness, incapacity and death.

The reading was unprecedented: seven times the World Health Organization’s recommended level. More surprisingly, though, is that the quantity of PM2.5 particles exceeded even Vietnam’s own rather lax environmental standards by three times.

Recent international focus on the issue of urban pollution usually seems to concentrate on Chinese and Indian cities, but that simply obscures and arbitrarily limits the field of study. With the advent of breakneck industrialization rates across the developing world (especially in Southeast Asia), environmental concerns rank high on the agenda.

Vietnam is just one such example. In fact, so swift was Vietnam’s march towards industrialization, that the sector has achieved a yearly growth rate of 14 percent – which is great for its economy, but disastrous for the roughly 30 million Vietnamese city dwellers.

Like many other Asian dragons, Vietnam does have standards governing pollution levels but, in pursuit of development, their enforcement has been rather lax. Out-of-date industrial technologies are only making the issue worse, as does that other most significant by-product of industrialization – a rapidly swelling and urbanized population.

Moreover, incorrectly treated wastewater is being discharged from Vietnam’s thousands of production centers at an ever increasing rate. Containing heavy metals, chlorine, formaldehyde PBDEs and arsenic, these effluents are not just contaminating water supplies, but will influence the ecosystem for generations.

Hanoi could do worse than look to its neighbor to the north to see exactly what can happen when the state ignores the first signs of industrial pollution. Since China began rebuilding its economy in the 1980s and 1990s, the meteoric rise of Asia’s former hegemon has been nothing short of astounding. But the environmental effects have been equally devastating, with native ecosystems near to ruined in many parts of the country.

Up to 40 percent of China’s arable land is suffering from degradation, a trend that could lead to widespread famine if left unaddressed. Out of a sample of 74 cities, only three meet Chinese air quality standards and almost 20 percent of China’s near-shore marine areas are so polluted that eating fish from them is deemed dangerous.

China is now the world’s leading polluter, by quite some way, and its mercenary approach to the environment is affecting the entire Asian region. Indeed, its hunger for resources is already causing irreparable harm to its neighbors.

As mentioned in a previous post, Malaysia’s bauxite ills are the stuff of nightmares. Brought about by China’s exploding production of aluminum – of which bauxite is a precursor – Malaysia’s lack of industrial regulations allowed illegal operators to set up camp and proceed to poison the area with virtual impunity.

Production ramped up from a few hundred thousand tons a year in 2014 to more than 20 million last year, a pace that was mirrored by an alarming presence of radioactive elements in drinking water, a spike in respiratory problems, as well as the distinct possibility that the marine waters near the shores of Kuantan may turn into a dead sea, with much of its ecosystem decimated by the lingering effects of pollution.

It remains to be seen whether a much awaited moratorium on bauxite mining put in place by Malaysia’s federal government from January 15 will ensure that more stringent regulations are put in place and illegal miners weeded out.

In addition to all the ills that have emanated from Beijing’s relentless pursuit of industrialization, a further element added to the mix is the proliferation of hydro-electric dams along the entire length of the Mekong. With the majority of the Mekong’s fish entirely unable to climb over the dam’s near-useless fish ladders, adopted in a piecemeal attempt to keep environmental NGOs quiet, around 60 million impoverished Mekong dwellers are now facing sure starvation.

One of Asia’s poorest nations, and entirely reliant on the piscine population of the Mekong for its nutrition, Cambodia is among those most likely to suffer from the dam building. Environmental campaigners from the Kingdom took to the streets calling for a resolution to their woes at the Sunnylands Summit, where Barack Obama met the ASEAN nations to discuss a number of issues, ostensibly with environmental matters high on the agenda.

Many, including the poor Cambodian fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the fish they catch on the Mekong, thought this the ideal opportunity to force the hand of the more industrially aggressive Southeast Asian nations, and have them comply with international directives on the matter.

However, it swiftly became apparent that, even among the list of vague and hazy principles which emerged from Sunnylands, the nod to environmental issues was a only a cursory and perfunctory one, and that traditional security concerns ended up dominating the entire summit.

A shared commitment to addressing climate change and developing a climate-resilient, environmentally sustainable ASEAN should be one of the central pillars of Obama’s pivot to Asia.

In a recent controversial interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the American president said, “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”

If all the legal instruments created by the pivot to Asia (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) are to survive, working against the effects of climate change and industrial pollution should rank front and center on the agenda. Otherwise, Southeast Asia economic miracle will turn out to be a fragile one.

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