Updated  
November, 24 2013 18:23:56

Urban growth sparks environmental headache

No one home: A new urban area was being developed on the outskirts of Ha Noi but has now been abandoned due to the economic and financial difficulties of project owners. — VNA/VNS Photo Tuan Anh

by Ha Nguyen

After more than three decades living in a degraded 36-sq.m tenement house, elderly Nguyen Thi Hoa and her family are delighted to have moved to a newly built flat in Tu Liem District's My Dinh urban apartment block, west of downtown Ha Noi.

"We're retired government employees and thought we would have to live the rest of our lives in the dark and narrow house if my son and his wife couldn't buy the 103 sq.m flat by paying in installments.

"Our living standards have now changed remarkably as we have clean water, waste collection, nearby supermarkets and schools, plus most importantly, a clean and fresh environment surrounding our flat where we can go walking with our neighbours."

Hoa is among thousands of people whose lives have changed for the better thanks to new apartments with improved living conditions.

But it is often a double-edged sword.

By the end of last year, Viet Nam had 765 urban areas, compared to just 629 in 1999, according to figures from the Department of Urban Development.

Due to urbanisation, many farmers have lost their agriculture land and now face unemployment.

Le Van Tinh, a resident in Ha Noi's Dong Anh District, said he sold his 700sq.m of land to local authorities in the 1990s so they could build an industrial zone.

"All the money we earned from selling land had to be invested in building a four-storey building for my family," said Tinh. "We are farmers, but we have no land for production. Our five children now have to work for whoever will hire them, often for unstable salaries."

Slum skyline: Ha Noi has still many apartment blocks that need to be replaced. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Hai

Many farmers in the southern provinces of Binh Duong, Dong Nai and HCM City are in the same situation as Tinh as thousands of hectares of farm land have been transformed into urban developments.

Research conducted by Dr Tran Thi Thu Luong of HCM City National University showed that on average, more than 1,000ha of agriculture land had been turned into urban development areas in the city's districts 2, 7, 9, 12, Thu Duc and Binh Tan each year.

Despite the huge swathes of redesignated land, a number of new urban areas had been left desolate in HCM City, Dong Nai, Binh Duong and many other areas, according to Luong's research.

Bui Thi Ngoc Thu, from Binh Duong's Thoi Hoa Commune of Ben Cat District, said more than 200 newly built houses in the district had been left empty for more than 5 years. " Many of these houses have merely become a toilet for passers-by, causing an awful stink and unwanted pollution."

Tran Thi Phuong, one of the investors in this housing project, said due to the frozen real estate market, her company could not sell any houses, even at a discount.

In with the new: During the urbanisation process, thousands of villas have been being built across the country. — VNA/VNS Photo Bui Tuong

Tran Du Lich, former head of HCM City's Economics Institute, told the media the issue required a helping hand from the State by investing in sufficient services - such as electricity, schools and clinics - in under utilised urban areas to attract more home buyers.

"We should stop scattering investment across many urban projects at the same time and clearly define an economic aim before forming an urban area," Lich said. "If we do not, we will face failure."

In addition, the reduction of agriculture land has threatened food security and cost many farmers their jobs - a major concern when you consider 70 per cent of Viet Nam's population relies on agriculture to earn a living, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Every hectare of farm land destroyed costs 10 farmers their jobs, the ministry claims.

In Ha Noi alone, where farm land is three times as productive as in the rest of the country, rapid urbanisation had made 4,000 farmers jobless, the ministry said.

In addition, urbanisation has caused environmental pollution from increased fumes, dust and noise. As a result, the dust indexes in big cities like Ha Noi, HCM City and Da Nang have surged the World Health Organisation's recommended safe levels, while green areas with trees are ever diminishing.

Going swimmingly: A new residential area in Ha Noi's Bac Linh Dam has recently come into use. — VNA/VNS Photo Xuan Truong

Phan Thi My Linh, head of the Construction Ministry's Department for Urban Development, said development of urban areas had been too fast for the management of local authorities.

"Comprehensive development has caused major issues, particularly traffic jams and traffic accidents, because the amount of roads account for only 13 per cent of total urban construction land, when they need to be between 20-25 per cent," Linh said.

Andrew Head, deputy director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Viet Nam, said during a recent seminar in Da Nang that the rapid development of urbanisation could cause many risks such as environmental pollution and climate change.

The government is understandably eager to mitigate these factors.

Last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the National Strategy on Green Growth, which covers city planning and management; building technological infrastructure, green urban areas, as well as eco-urban and green construction.

"It will require a high level of determination from urban authorities, in close co-operation with enterprises and locals, to meet the National Strategy criteria," said Dr Vu Thi Vinh, general secretary of the Viet Nam Association of Urban Areas.

She added that urban authorities should form concrete plans and solutions to achieve effective results.

She emphasised the key roles of enterprises, both State and private, but advised "they should embrace modern technology to increase production, while people should only consume necessary materials and services to protect the environment".

"For example, they should choose fuel efficient cars and save energy by being smart about their use of appliances to conserve water and electricity," Vinh said.

The country planned to have 870 urban areas by the end of 2015, an increase of 125 compared to current figures, Minister of Construction Trinh Dinh Dung told baoxaydung.vn.

"To reach that figure, we need speedy solutions to attract resources from inside and outside the country to invest in urban development, which is a key ingredient in economic growth and social security," he said. — VNS

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