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Environmental issues hinder new rural areas

Update: November, 09/2015 - 09:55

In the five years since the Government put in place Decision No 49/QD-TTg on 19 criteria for new-style rural areas for the 2010-20 period, the majority of communes across the nation fail to meet the 17th criterion on environment. Both local and central authorities find it difficult to fill all five norms, as set down. These include that 90 per cent of households in a locality receive fresh water, 90 per cent of production establishments meet environmental standards, that the area's landscape be clean and green, that graves be located in organised cemeteries, and that waste water and rubbish be properly treated.

Statistics from the Steering Committee for the National Target Programme on building new-style rural areas indicate that only 26 per cent of communes nationwide have satisfied this criterion. To learn about the obstacles being confronted in carrying out this process, Viet Nam News reporters Lan Huong, Khanh Chi, and Khanh Duong spoke to a number of managers and authorities.

Could you please explain why the environmental criterion is difficult to put in place?

Hoang Duong Tung,  deputy head of the Viet Nam Environment Administration under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment:

Hoang Duong Tung

Based on the reports by provinces and our research, the number of localities that have met the environmental criterion is very small. I think the figure is even lower than 26 per cent. We went to some communes that have been recognised as new-style rural areas. Local authorities said the environment was clean, but actually it was not like that. Many communes still have to do many things to fulfill this standard.

According to our research, it is very difficult for some localities to carry out the planning for cemeteries due to residents' burial traditions. But the most serious issue is waste water and solid waste discharged from production bases located in craft villages. Many polluting businesses have not been relocated. This is a common problem in the Vietnamese countryside. In 2014, the national environmental report in rural areas, released by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, noted these two issues.

Many people think building biogas reservoirs can solve farming liquid waste problems. But the question is, where will the liquid waste be allowed to run-off to? As far as I know, there have not been any domestic waste treatment systems installed in any communes. Finally, waste runs into ponds, paddy fields or ditches.

Ho Xuan Hung, President of the Viet Nam Agricultural Association, advisor to the National Target Programme on Building New-Style Rural Areas, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development:
Ho Xuan Hung

Actually, all 19 criteria of the rural development would be difficult to reach, not only the environmental one, if there is a lack of determination among local and central governments.

Initially, the target of production ensuring farmers' livings was thought to be a "mission impossible". But, thanks to the determination of local and central-level governments, and support by the local people, the target, so far, has been reached in many communes.

The target of rural transport was another example. It needed much money invested in it to reach the target. But implementation of the criterion has had positive results, due to support by businesses and people. Especially, many households were granted use of their own lands for the building of roads.

The environmental criterion is one the three tough missions. Implementing the criterion needs two factors: awareness of local residents and those who directly take part in the agricultural production chain.

The agricultural producers should be aware for creating safe environments in the growing fields through controlling waste from agricultural production.

So, it is obvious that it did not need much money to achieve some criteria, but the awareness of people and methods to implement the plan. The environmental issue should not have been difficult.

At present, the environment in rural areas is very dirty. It was due to a long period of traditional customs used for agricultural production, such as breeding poultry in kitchens.

Changing these customs could not be accomplished overnight.

Another factor, which was seriously destroying the rural environment, was the process of agricultural modernization and industrialization.

The process, along with the issues of safe water and waste water, was affected to reach the environmental target called for in the programme.

So, I reaffirmed that the environmental target does not need much money, just awareness by the people, along with methods for implementation.

Le Van Trien, Party Secretary of Truong Ha Commune, Ha Quang District, Cao Bang Provinc:

Le Van Trien

I have to say that the criterion becomes much more difficult to complete in mountainous areas, such as Cao Bang. Deputy PM Vu Van Ninh admitted so during a recent working visit to our commune.

Of note, the local people are mostly ethnic minority groups who often move about. Traditionally, the dead are buried in a certain location, along with other deceased family members. So it is hard to meet the 4th norm of the environmental criterion, which states that graves should be in a planned, concentrated cemetery.

In addition, it is not easy to build systems of sewage for household waste water, thanks to uneven terrain, unlike in plains or low-lying areas.

We have so far done well with gathering household garbage, as well as garbage in public areas, such as village lanes and alleys. We established an environmental group which is in charge of gathering and transporting rubbish to the district's concentrated dumping ground, which is 9km away. Our commune is located upstream of the Ban Gioc Waterfall in Pac Bo National Relic complex, so we are unable to build our own rubbish dump.

Actually speaking, we have successfully protected the environment among local people. We made local people aware that keeping their living space and surroundings hygienic was an indispensable task.

Also, we have mobilised the participation of administrations at all levels, sectors, organisations and unions, such as women and youth unions.

Nguyen Sinh Cung, Deputy head of Cao Bang Province's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and office manager of the provincial new-style rural areas programme:

  Nguyen Sinh Cung
In accordance with their customs and practices, ethnic groups in Cao Bang Province often use the space under their stilt house floors to lock up their buffalos, cows, pigs and chickens. And most families do not have toilets, let alone standard ones. For years we have campaigned to raise the public's awareness about protecting the environment by separating livestock from homes. So, the obstacle here is not about raising the awareness among people, but about financial resources.

It is necessary to finance local people's construction of toilets and bathrooms, to which the provincial budget cannot afford.

In regards to planning cemeteries, it is also not easy, as people are used to burying the dead in their own choice of locations.

With these obstacles, only two out of 177 communes in northern Cao Bang Province have been recognised as becoming a new-style rural area, having completed the environmental criteria. Another commune is expected to be recognised soon.

Now, we have targeted to add another four communes next year and a total of 20 communes to be recognised as new-style rural areas by 2020.

Thus, it will be hard to reach the target of 50 per cent of communes in the province to meet the new-style rural areas criteria in the years to come, even with the involvement of all sectors.

What are the obstacles to this implementation? 

Hoang Duong Tung: We should look straight away at why we have yet to complete the criterion. The question to be asked is whether the criterion is too high to reach, or not? If the criterion is appropriate, what do we need to do to fulfill it?

Firstly, I think it is due to the lack of awareness among authorities and residents about the rural environment. They only think about building clean and high-quality roads. Among 19 criteria, we can see that criteria, such as electricity systems, road networks, and schools, are easy to complete. Significant headquarters with expensive facilities were constructed, but there are no waste treatment systems. Are we focusing on criterion that is easy to reach rather than challenging one?

The second reason is the limited ability of communes. One commune or one village alone can not solve problems. Many provinces cannot solve rubbish issues and have assigned tasks to communes and districts. In many communes, authorities and residents do not know how to gather rubbish or how to apply technology to waste treatment. Thus, we need general province-level instructions and solutions.

The third reason is related to financial policies. Each household pays only VND5,000 (25 US cents) per month for waste gathering teams. If the situation continues, we will have a lack of human resources to treat garbage. Not to mention the fact that many waste treatment systems were built, but then left unused.

In my opinion, one more reason is the relationships between neighbours, which hinder efforts to relocate polluting craft villages.

Ho Xuan Hung: We should analyse every single criterion, so as to develop suitable solutions. Among 39 sub-criteria, farmers have assigned themselves tasks, such as cleaning houses, gardens, and kitchens.

Classifying, collecting and treating waste sneeds mall amounts of money. The problem is the way of this being implemented. If the State just gives modest financial aid to buy waste burning kilns, the results would be positive.

In terms of issues of cemeteries, in my opinion, this depends on planning, which takes time to solve.

Work in progress on a rural road in the mountainous commune of Na Luong in Cao Bang Province. — Photo

The environmental targets that are wasting a lot of money today are due to insufficient implementations.

What are solutions, in terms of mechanisms, policies and practical actions, to address these obstacles?

Hoang Duong Tung: Firstly, one ministry should take the lead and claim responsibility for environmental management.

Secondly, it is necessary to change people's awareness. They should be aware of the impact of pollution on the quality of their health and life. If the awareness of people is not improved, they only keep their own houses clean, but still litter public areas. Awareness results in actions. Instead of building large headquarters, we can spend budgets on waste treatment and cemetery planning.

Moreover, supporting policies are not specific enough. Regarding rural waste treatment programmes, the State should support mechanisms and policies to attract units' investments in the projects.

We should centralise garbage collections and avoid waste, along with preferential policies on investment, land, providing technology and solutions, in line with each region. I think policies must be not only slogans, but details.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has published specific regulations on improving the management of manufacturing bases, as well as the responsibilities of localities. I think we should have a commune officer in charge of the environment to supervise the protection of the local environment. This officer should be trained to identify problems and put forward measures.

Ho Xuan Hung: The most important thing is to define the responsibility of the people and call upon people to become involved directly in cleaning processes for rural environments.

On the other hand, the State should offer financial assistance to invest in supplying safe water, and treating water and waste.

So far, the Steering Committee of the National Target Programme on Building New Rural Areas has given support to communes to complete planning of building rural areas, as well as offered some communes with waste treatment equipment.

Also, the committee has assisted in supplying safe water for daily living, collecting waste, setting up landfills, building hygienic toilets, and planning cemeteries in localities.

The committee's reviews showed that the current environment in communes exposed several shortcomings, such as the rampant use of plant protection chemicals, no planned landfills and cemeteries, and in-house raising of animals and poultry.

The environmental criterion is a huge job. It requires participation of all political systems, related agencies and communities, which is a decisive element for the success of reaching the target.

Thus, to reach the target, it is necessary to strengthen the information on environmental protection and hygiene to people, especially ethnic minorities in poor, mountainous and remote areas.

Related agencies needs to co-operate with local authorities to mobilise all sources to invest in supplying safe water, setting up landfills and cemeteries, and instructing the removal of animal and poultry breeding away from homes.

Nguyen Sinh Cung: We think we should temporarily ignore some norms, for example, the one related to cemeteries or waste water treatment. Truly speaking, with waste water and garbage treatment, Cao Bang does not have enough resources to complete this task. So, it's really challenging.

Six out of the 12 districts in the province are impoverished districts. Under the Prime Minister's Instruction No 18, we are not allowed to mobilise funds from the poor people. We can meet many other criteria, but find it difficult with the environmental criteria.

What needs to be done to sustain the protection of the environment?

Le Van Trien: With all these, except for the cemetery criterion, we plan to propose to the Central authorities to recognise our commune as a new-style rural area. Of course, we will recommend that competent authorities adjust the target related to cemeteries.

Now local residents are aware of the significance of environmental protection. Based upon the improved living standards and raised awareness, we will encourage each household in the commune to pay a small amount for garbage fees, as currently found in urban areas, to maintain the operation of garbage workers.

Our commune's budget has nothing for this task, so it is important to have the active involvement of the community. We have assigned women's unions and youth unions to take turns in collecting garbage and transporting it to the district's landfill site twice every month. — VNS

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