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Since the Doi Moi (renovation) free market reforms of the late 1980s, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has experienced remarkable economic growth evidenced by an 8 percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 14 percent industrial growth rates per annum; rapid urbanization (4.5 percent per annum); and dramatic increases in the use of motorized vehicles and the manufacture and use of chemicals. Population has tripled over the past 50 years, and now stands at 83,689,518 (July 2005 estimate). Together, these factors have led to significant environmental problems, especially on densely populated coastal plains.
Coastal waters are polluted with suspended solids, nitrite, nitrate, heavy metals, grease, and oil, in some cases at levels four times greater than the Vietnamese standard. Freshwater is in increasingly short supply as a result of rapid industrial and urban growth and is often polluted by untreated industrial and municipal wastewater discharged directly into rivers and lakes. There exist serious water pollution problems in Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, and Hue. Freshwater resources, however, are now regulated by the Water Resources Law (effective 2000). Wastewater treatment facilities have been built in the four largest cities and others will be developed in cooperation with international agencies.
Most urban areas experience serious air pollution problems. For example, Ho Chi Minh City’s estimated 28,000 factories generate airborne dust content that exceeds Vietnamese standards by 2.1-6.0 times and lead content that is 1.4-3.4 times World Health Organization standards. Greater use of motor vehicles and inadequate fuel and emissions standards have exposed millions to airborne lead, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide. A range of remedial strategies, however, are being pursued, including tightening fuel quality specifications and setting maximum emission limits for motor vehicles.
Solid waste disposal brings unique problems in Vietnam. For instance, as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of athletic shoes, Vietnam generates tons of shoe leather waste each day. Solid waste collection efficiency is very low. Only about half of the generated waste is collected, the rest being scattered into waterways and unsafe dumping grounds. Annually, Vietnam produces more than 15 million tons of waste and 80 percent of that is municipal waste. Open dumping is the most popular disposal method but of the country’s 91 disposal sites only 17 are sanitary landfills, and 49 have been identified on a national list as hotspots with high environmental and human health risks.
Land degradation is a major issue, particularly in upland areas. Causes include poor logging practices, insecure land tenure, salinization, acidification, pollution, and organic reduction. Agricultural yields now depend on fertilizers and pesticides-use of which increased 200 percent from 1992 to 2002to the extent that management of agrochemicals is an environmental concern of high priority.
Most of Vietnam’s virgin forest and forest with rich standing volume has now been degraded. The government aims to protect 9.6 million hectares of existing natural forests, however, and to recover five million hectares of open lands in the next 20-30 years. Moreover, 150,000-200,000 hectares of new forest, of improving quality, are planted each year.
Vietnam is one of the world’s 10 most biologically diverse countries, but that astonishing biodiversity is under threat from forest clearance, illegal wildlife trade, agricultural expansion, and dam and road construction. In response, a protected areas system comprising national parks, nature reserves, and protected landscape areas has been established.
The Vietnam government faces considerable challenges balancing continuing rapid development with effective environmental management. That it is working toward this end is signified by the country’s Socio-economic Development Strategy 2001-2010, which gives shared emphasis to economic growth, social equality, and environmental protection, and by the commitment of at least one percent of the state budget to environmental activities from 2006. However, although Vietnam is making considerable progress establishing environmental regulatory systems, a host of legal, institutional, and funding limitations continue to make enforcement a problem.
- Dara O’Rourke, Community-Driven Regulation: Balancing Development and the Environment in Vietnam (MIT Press, 2003).