A Vietnamese woman wearing a face mask rides along a street amidst a blanket of smog over Hanoi on March 28, 2018. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

With one of the most dynamic economies in the world and an expected GDP growth in 2019 of 6.8%, Vietnam currently struggles to minimize one of the major drawbacks of rapid development, pollution. Along with Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most polluted cities in Southeast Asia, according to the latest World Air Quality Report by AirVisual. While there are no easy answers, how to mitigate this growth-driven pollution was one of the topics discussed at a public forum on the environment held on Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City.

The forum was the latest in a series of discussions intended to help nurture environmental awareness among Vietnamese – an effort led by the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City, part of the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy. The latest well-attended forum invited Michael Shell, an air-quality expert from the US Environment Protection Agency, to discuss air pollution in Vietnam and how residents can best protect themselves to help prevent the health impacts of poor air quality.

As an emerging economy in a rush to better living standards, compliance with expensive environmental standards in Vietnam is often overlooked and citizens are often unaware of the full extent of the environmental hazards they are exposed to. Too many Vietnamese continue to litter in public and waste electricity, though most wear protective masks while riding their motorbikes and there are several companies starting to manufacture straws from organic materials such as bamboo.

Shell began his lecture by discussing the harmful effects of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), one of the most dangerous pollutants. Primarily released by motor vehicles and industrial activity, the small size of PM2.5 (a small fraction of the diameter of a human hair) means the particulate can get trapped in the lung and cause a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung cancer. Ho Chi Minh City’s average PM2.5 level last year was 26.9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to Switzerland-based air-quality monitor IQAir AirVisual’s 2018 World Air Quality Report (for comparison, Gurgaon, India, registered the worst air pollution in 2018, at 135.8 micrograms per cubic meter of air).

The number of deaths related to air pollution in Vietnam, according to air-quality expert Michael Shell, was more than 60,000 in 2016, mostly from strokes, heart diseases and lung cancer

The number of deaths related to air pollution in Vietnam, according to Shell, was more than 60,000 in 2016, mostly from strokes, heart diseases and lung cancer. He advised forum attendees to monitor the air quality in the city, and take measures to minimize exposure during peak hours of pollution, by avoiding strenuous outdoor activity or by staying indoors.

Much of the question-and-answer session concentrated on Ho Chi Minh City’s culture of the motorbike and its notorious traffic, and what measures can be taken to reduce those emissions. According to the Institute for Environment and Resources, 99% of the total carbon-dioxide emissions in Ho Chi Minh City comes from traffic activity. One of the measures under consideration by Vietnamese authorities is a ban on motorbike traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Major subway lines are also slowly being built to counter growing traffic congestion, but pollution may only be exacerbated by a nascent and fast-growing population of cars, with sales expected to grow by 22.6% on average per year from now to 2025. Shell surprised  the audience by pointing out that while there are 790 cars for every 1,000 people in the US, in Vietnam there are a mere 23 cars for every 1,000 people.

Many of the narrow city streets in Vietnam are ill-suited for automobiles, crumbling sidewalks remain cluttered with food stalls, parked cars and motorbikes, and parking garages in downtown areas remain sparse, so it is unclear how much Vietnamese will set aside practical considerations as they aspire to acquire that symbol of middle-class status, the automobile. The percentage of Vietnamese expected to buy a car currently remains lower than in other Southeast Asian nations but could change as purchasing power grows.

One hopeful sign, discussed at the public forum, is the shift to electric vehicles by Vinfast, an automotive startup building electric cars and motorbikes. While electric vehicles could help reduce motorbike emissions, ideally the electricity to run these vehicles should come from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

The development of renewable energy, however, has lagged behind that of other Southeast Asian nations because of low feed-in-tariffs, unbankable power purchase agreement (PPA) terms, and a complex regulatory framework. While laudable efforts are now under way to increase investment in renewables, particularly solar, Vietnam continues to favor coal-fired power plants. According to Vietnam’s latest Power Development Plan, the country plans to increase the number of coal-fired power stations in operation from 20 to 66 by 2030.

Further private-sector initiatives (aided by regulatory overhauls, public-sector incentives, and infrastructure creation) coupled with more public awareness programs, could drive Vietnam in its efforts to curb the undesirable consequences of rapid and uncontrolled growth. Vietnamese people do not have to travel far to experience the devastating effects on the environments of other countries that failed to enact the proper measures needed to deal with rampant growth.

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