Vietnam’s transformation from poverty to a fast growing economy has taken its toll on the environment, but those who will be worst affected - young people - are taking action to change things.
The rickety footpath along Long Bien Bridge, one of Hanoi’s most famous landmarks, is lined with people wearing matching T-shirts. They call themselves “The Carp Team” and carry posters stating, “don’t drop nylon bags with the fish.”
One of them, 22-year-old Le Thi Lai, said seven days before Tet (the lunar new year) it’s traditional for Vietnamese people to release three fish to accompany the Kitchen God, a deity that lives in every family’s hearth, when he returns to report back to the Jade Emperor.
The problem, Lai said, that many people toss the fish along with the plastic bag they came in. This not only pollutes the environment but can kill the fish. The Carp Team’s solution is to collect the plastic bags to recycle and lower the fish down to the waterside in a basin so they can be released there.
The students are not only active at Tet, said 21-year-old Hoang Hong Vi.
She said they also support Earth Hour and are planning a cycling event in June to raise awareness of water pollution. Their work is just part of the grassroots activism that has grown over the last few years alongside increasing concern over environmental issues.
Vietnam’s rapid growth has had drastic environmental consequences with polluted waterways and extensive biodiversity loss. The country is rated 136 out of 178 countries on the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, including a rating of 170 for air quality. That puts its overall environmental performance behind China (118), but its air pollution is not as heavy as the notorious smog choking many Chinese cities.
With environmental problems worsening in big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, residents are becoming more concerned about the environment because it affects their lives and their children, said Nguyen Tri Thanh, senior program officer on the Environment for the Asia Foundation.
“In Hanoi now you can see some young people with banners saying if you stop your [motor] bike for more than 30 seconds just turn it off to save energy and the environment. They are really concerned about the way people behave... They really try to promote green behavior among people living in big cities right now,” said Thanh.
Air pollution is a particular worry for families in the big cities. Combustion engines in cars and motorcycles are one of the leading pollution causes in Vietnam, a problem that is set to worsen as traffic increases. There are now around 37 million registered motorbikes in the country, according to local media, up from 32 million in 2008.
In an effort to curb emissions, a government roadmap will tighten emission standards for automobiles to Euro 4 in 2017 and to Euro 5 in 2022. The increasingly stringent standards are set by the European Union to control air pollutants released into the atmosphere.
While Vietnam’s government recognizes the problem, tackling air pollution is not a priority at the moment as the government is putting more efforts into mitigating water pollution, Thanh from the Asia Foundation said.
“I know some people in the ministry of environment and natural resources on stricter regulations on air pollution but it’s not coming out yet. I think in the future ministry of environment will work with ministry of construction and transport to issue more regulations on air pollution,” said Thanh.
Lai from the Carp Team thinks protecting the environment should not be the responsibility of one group of people.
Pollution affects everyone, she said, so it is everyone’s responsibility to do something about it.