|Polluted air: Commuters wearing masks is a common scene in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
by Victoria Fritz
Soon after arriving in Ha Noi, I noticed many of the locals were wearing masks. I didn't give it another thought, taking it merely as part of living in a big city. Until recently, that is.
I heard someone say that Ha Noi is the most polluted city in Southeast Asia. This piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look further into the matter.
In the 90s, Manila had the dubious distinction of being the "3rd most polluted city in the world". Yes, in the entire globe. That notion stuck, and people from Manila merely take it for granted.
So hearing the rumor that Ha Noi is the most polluted city in the region prompted me to ask the question, "What happened to Manila?" Is this rumor even true?
According to "Manila Air Quality", a report presented in 2009 by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources, air quality has improved over the decade prior.
This is attested to by the website www.usa.com, whose page comparing air quality in Manila with Arkansas shows a significant decline from 1999-2009 (http://www.usa.com/manila-ar-air-quality.htm).
The World Health Organization (WHO) uses a standard, called the Air Quality Index, to measure the level of air pollution in a given area. The Air Quality Index in major cities in the world at any given time can be checked at http://aqicn.org. As of 10am, 24 February, the Air Quality Index in Hanoi was 163, UNHEALTHY for the general population.
What led to an improvement in the air quality in Manila?
According to the "Manila Air Quality" report, the following steps contributed to improved air quality.
Ban leaded gasoline
In 1999, a spirited group of environmental activists lobbied hard for Congress to ban leaded gasoline. It seemed insignificant at the time, and effects are not visible.
Today, children have lower levels of lead in their blood.
Other developments include a reduction of benzene and aromatics in unleaded gas; a reduction of sulfur content in diesel oil and industrial diesel oil (IDO) and the implementation of MC 55 requiring all government vehicles to use diesel fuel blended with 1 per cent CME in 2004.
The use of 2 per cent biodiesel blend fuel and the availability of other biofuels have also helped.
Although fraught with corruption and loopholes, it appears to have helped lower the amount of suspended particulates in the air. The anti-smoke belching law also encourages ordinary citizens to report any errant vehicles on the road.
The train system has done wonders to decrease the number of public utility vehicles on three main thoroughfares in the metropolis. The layout of Ha Noi does not seem suitable to a train system, but is certainly conducive to alternative transport like electric bikes and bicycles.
A recent Viet Nam News article showed how some workers are going back to the trusty bicycle to avoid traffic and parking problems. Electric bikes also work well in Ha Noi with its medium sized roads and relatively small city centre.
Ha Noi has an advantage over Manila in this matter. Biking in Manila is a life-threatening endeavor.
As for alternative fuels, taxis in Manila have all but converted to Liquefied Petroleum Gasoline and buses are starting to use Compressed Natural Gas. In 2006, motorcycle manufacturers implemented a voluntary phase out of the two-stroke engine.
The burning of trash and other such matter is also banned, and citizens can simply approach anyone incinerating their garbage and point out that the act is punishable with jail time.
There are many simple ways to clean the air. Ha Noi can take it one step at a time. — VNS