By Hồng Minh
A drainage canal is not a garbage landfill.
Why state the obvious?
Because, on the ground, an opposite reality stares us in the face and the resultant stink assails our nostrils constantly, but we have persisted in treating our surrounding environment as a free-for-all garbage repository.
How many of our rivers and other water bodies have died and are dying?
Last week, a drainage canal in Hà Nội’s Yên Hòa area returned partly to its main function after pile of garbage was fished out, including different types of untreated household wastes and carcasses of animals. After many years, the stench had become unbearable, but it was only after the media raised a stink that the authorities deployed sanitation workers to clean it.
But the dead and dying water systems in the capital city and elsewhere are not just the authorities’ responsibility. Anyone can see that a year after Hà Nội began trying to revive its rivers and streams being choked to death by garbage, mainly Tô Lịch, Nhuệ and Đáy rivers, such efforts are just a drop in the ocean. Every Hanoian is complicit in polluting the city’s environment, and the same can be said of localities nationwide.
Which also means that every Hanoian and every citizen of this country is responsible for cleaning up our rivers, our soil and the air we breathe.
A Hanoian who has lived all 38 years of her life along the Kim Ngưu River, a distributary of the Tô Lịch River, said that despite workers from Hà Nội Sewerage and Drainage Limited Company (HSDC) coming every day to dredge out the garbage, many neighbours do not hesitate to dump their household waste in it, polluting it so badly that it has stopped flowing, and the area stinks.
Compare such crass indifference with the concern shown by someone like Gondai Shoichi, a Japanese national who is organising a volunteer group to collect garbage at different places in Hà Nội including Văn Miếu (Temple of Literature), Hoàn Kiếm (Return Sword) Lake, Thống Nhất Park and Thủ Lệ Zoo. Gondai said the pollution of rivers and lakes in Hà Nội was similar to that of Japan in the 1950s. He ticked off a few important points: garbage should be separated at source; environmental education should start very early; environmental regulations should be very strictly followed.
Actually, we need to go much further.
Beyond obedience to laws, every action that protects our environment should become second nature. This is the biggest lesson we need to learn from our Japanese brethren.
Wako Takatoshi, a Japanese expert in drainage and sewerage who has been working as a policy advisor on urban environment with Việt Nam’s Construction Ministry for the last three years, said that removing garbage from rivers and lakes in Hà Nội, as was done with the Yên Hòa canal, was very important, but by itself, it was not a sustainable measure.
The responsibility of individuals and agencies for maintaining different parts of rivers, canals and other water bodies has to be clear cut, and people’s awareness raised to a point their habits change, he said.
Wako also offered a key psychological insight: “People can easily litter some place that is dirty, but they tend not to do so when a place is very clean.”
Unlearning a few things
According to the Hà Nội Urban Environmental Hygiene Company, the capital city generates more than 6,200 tonnes of garbage each day. Only 70 per cent of this is collected and treated. The remaining 30 per cent is dumped into the environment, including our water systems.
Hoàng Thảo, who founded the Nói không với túi nylon (Say No to nylon bags) group, said many people dump garbage thinking they are being clean, and doing their part for the environment.
“For example, they put nylon bags or plastic bottles into a waste basket and think that they are doing it right, but they are not. It takes dozens of years for the former and hundreds of years for the latter to decompose completely,” she said.
Wako, Gondai and Thảo were participants at a workshop on “Clean Water for Healthy Living” organised last Sunday by the Japan-Vietnam JDS Specialist Network (JSN) and the US-based FHHER Social Impact Fund.
The workshop was organised at a coffee shop on Liễu Giai Street, with participants being advised to bring their own mugs in case the shop had no environmentally-friendly receptacles to offer.
Personally, the get-together, second in the JSN’s Coffee Talk Series, was an eye-opener that went beyond learning about safe water. Experts and environmental activists shared shocking information: Humans have created enough plastic to cover the eight largest country in the world – Argentina; Việt Nam ranks fourth among top 20 countries in mismanaging plastic waste; globally, up to 91 per cent of the plastic isn’t recycled.
Ironies abound in the way “experts” attend workshops on environmental protection, in the lavish lifestyles many of them lead, the means of travel they use, the amount of plastic used at such meets and so on.
#7 Day Challenge
As a nation, institution or individual, the biggest change starts with a single step.
One such step is the “#7 Day Challenge” launched on Tuesday by the United Nations in Việt Nam in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden and the Live & Learn environmental education organisation.
The challenge is for participants to practise ways of eating, moving and living without damaging to the environment. It commemorates this year’s Earth Day (April 22) which is ambitiously themed “End Plastic Pollution”.
Friends have posted photos and stories of taking buses and bicycles to work, not using nylon bags or plastic cutlery, turning off all unnecessary bulbs.
Our leaders, like the Environment Minister, the President and the Prime Minister, can give this campaign a powerful fillip by accepting the challenge.
I hope to see this happen, but the question remains: Will this do?
We, as people, experts and politicians, are very fond of intoning the need for “drastic” measures, but fail drastically to recognise that what is needed is a drastic, sustained change in our attitude and lifestyle, a change that cannot be postponed or passed on to others. The buck stops with each one of us.
Nothing else will work. More than a year after a hefty increase in fines for littering violations, there has been no appreciable improvement in the situation, not a dent in the magnitude of change that is needed.
We can no longer afford to accept inane, comforting messages that say small actions make a big difference. We need big actions that make a huge difference. — VNS