The 225 km long Saigon River in the historical city of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam has been the pollution hotspot of the city for a very long time. The river has in recent years come under the spotlight from the city and regional authorities, by failing to meet water safety standards.
It serves as one of the main water sources for the city’s water plant but has become contaminated with domestic and industrial waste dumping.
The Sai Gon River is contaminated with garbage and wastewater. Photo by Diep Duc Minh
The irrigation canal system of Saigon River is also a significant freshwater recharge source for the groundwater aquifers in the canals basin, located in the west and southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
THE FLOW OF POLLUTION INTO THE RIVER
Statistics from the Asian Research Centre for the Water Resources and the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology proves that the average amount of plastic waste a citizen throws away into the lakes and rivers of the city each year is 350g to 7.2kg and that a cubic metre of water from Sai Gon River contains 10 to 233 plastic pieces. The level of Ammonia in the river is 2-3 times higher than what is permitted
When the tides go down, a huge amount of rubbish is exposed from Binh Trieu bridge to Thanh Da bridge in Binh Thanh District. When the flood tide control system at Binh Trieu bridge works, it discharges wastewater directly into the river.
Even when the river is adjacent to industrial parks and clusters, they are not being governed which is a reason for the pollution.
SOURCES OF POLLUTION
Most of the industries own treatment plants to treat hazardous wastewater before discharging into the river.
On the other hand, only 40% approximately 15,000 m3/day, of industrial wastewater has been treated efficiently by the centralized wastewater treatment plants located inside the five industrial parks (including Tan Thuan, Linh Trung 1, Linh Trung 2, Tan Binh, Le Minh Xuan, and Tan Tao industrial parks).
The other 10 industrial parks in the city are still in the progress of setting up the wastewater treatment plant. The city also has well-equipped sewage treatment plants.
TAPIOCA AND SUGAR PROCESSING INDUSTRIES
Besides industrial parks, there are many tapioca and sugar processing industries with high organic pollutant loads which are located in the upstream basin of Saigon River.
Animal farms located close to the river also play a role in contaminating the river with animal wastes.
THE REAL CULPRIT: LOCAL POPULATION’S OPEN DUMPING HABIT
The ones dominantly responsible for the unpleasant condition of the river is solely the city’s local population living along the banks. Open dumping of domestic waste has led to the outstanding waste disposal rate of Saigon River.
Accumulation of domestic waste alone is 62.2% of the total sewage into the river.
The main attraction of the Saigon Riverbanks is the presence of stilt houses which plays an important role in the country’s culture. These types of houses are raised on stilts on the banks of the river as a protection against flooding. They also provide great attention towards tourism.
Canals severely polluted for years and have been affecting local people’s health (Viet Nam News/ANN)
Since the houses are constructed on the river bed, the households find it easier to dispose of the waste into the water rather than sorting and recycling or composting.
Illegally built semi-permanent boathouses on Tau Hu, Te, and Ben Nghe canals have also contributed to the total waste discharge on these waterways going to the Saigon River.
Of the 1.3 million cubic meters of household sewage produced daily in Saigon, only 186,000 cubic meters of this waste is properly collected and treated, according to Tuoi Tre.
Water pollution is more visible during the rainy season when the inadequate drainage system cannot cope with the water flow. In many areas of the city, the traffic cannot move due to extensive flooding after the rain.
ALSO A PROBLEM: PLASTIC WASTE
Across the city, over 85% of household sewage goes untouched. There is also a high rate of plastic waste disposal into the river. Part of these wastes flows into the ocean while others settle down to the river bed.
The ones that have settled down take hundreds of years to decompose. The ‘decomposing’ process does not eliminate the waste but disintegrates them into microplastics (i.e. smaller than 5mm in size).
The microplastics are consumed by aquatic life which in turn becomes a part of the human diet and can lead to health issues.
It is a disappointing fact that the local residents have a very careless approach towards waste management and plastic disposal. Their ignorance of this cyclic process is capable of causing dreadful consequences.
AUTHORITATIVE MEASURES TOWARDS THE PROBLEM
- In 1992, the Saigon Water Corporation developed the Tan Hiep Water Treatment Plant (THWTP).
- On 23 July 2009, the THWTP integrated treated water to the water supply network of Ho Chi Minh City. A new project called the Tan Hiep Water Treatment Plant 2 was constructed later in 2015 with more advanced treatment technology.
- Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe wastewater treatment plant is a part of a sanitation infrastructure development program financed by the World Bank, covering the north and east of Ho Chi Minh City. It involves building a new wastewater treatment plant on the left bank of the Saigon River to improve the situation of the water quality of the city. The Project was started in 2013, focusing primarily on reducing untreated wastewater discharge into the river by creating a wastewater treatment plant.
- A second project, also funded by the World Bank, called the Second Ho Chi Minh City Environmental Sanitation Project will be constructed by 2022 to take raw water from the Saigon River and supply treated water to the western part of HCMC.
ZERO WASTE SAIGON
Saigon’s top environmental organization, Zero Waste Saigon started the ‘BIG CLEAN UP EVENT’ in Ho Chi Minh and three other cities of Vietnam in 2018 to spread the idea of reducing plastic waste amongst the existing and upcoming generations of Vietnam.
The active volunteers were within the age group of 15-25. Plastic waste was collected and recycled by presenting it at the art installation project by Zero Waste Saigon.
“Strawpocalypse” art installation to raise awareness on the impact of plastic waste by international artist, Von Wong (Zero Waste Saigon)
RIVER CLEAN UP BY LES RIVES
Les rives, a Saigon River tour operations organization have also taken initiatives in cleaning the Saigon river banks with Khiri travels and other supportive organizations to bring awareness among their clients, local partners, stakeholders, and staff about the cleanliness of the river.
Their first work was launched on 20th August 2017. The initiative was named ‘Beautify the Saigon River’ which involves collecting and sorting waste from river banks and contributing to the reduction of waste in the Saigon River.
The polluted banks of Saigon River (Les Rives travel operators)
MORE TREATMENT PLANTS ARE NOT THE NEED
A water treatment plant has many limitations and it is majorly constructed and operated based on estimations. In the case of a change in water flow rate, flood level or change in concentration of different components in the water, the treatment plant may not be able to provide efficient results.
In the dry season, when the salinity of the Saigon River increases up to 350 mg/L, THWTP needs to shut down temporarily. Otherwise, this can lead to an interruption of the raw and clean water pumps and also cause machinery damages.
Most of the industries around Saigon River have their own wastewater treatment plant and moreover, the country is relying on the organizations to produce more treatment plants to tackle the situation.
ADVERSE EFFECT OF TREATMENT PLANTS
The existence of the treatment plants can have an adverse effect on the daily life of the local community.
The construction of the treatment plant itself can produce air, water, and noise pollution.
Chemicals used in the processing of the water can become quite harmful to the plant workers and for the people living closer to the plant.
If the sludge formed between the treatment processes is not disposed of properly, it can lead to serious health issues.
So, building treatment plants for safe drinking water can have its own limitations.
FINDING METHODS TO PRESERVE, NOT TO RESTORE
The fact that the entire city is filled with water treatment plants and upcoming projects with most of its industries having their own treatment plants is not a solution for the city’s dying rivers.
The place where they failed to make a point is among the community itself. Instead of focusing all their efforts on cleaning the river, they should also formulate methods to reduce pollution from its root.
These methods would not only benefit the economy but also help in the development of society.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY BASED SOLUTIONS
- The problem with open dumping can be resolved with adequate knowledge. The local communities must be aware of the situation they will have to face as the problem worsens.
- They should get the opportunity to know about how they could make a difference by being a part of the solution. The best initiative will come from the younger generations so the children must be taught from the get-go.
- Another effective way to reduce the level of waste dumping is household compost. Organic waste management should be encouraged by installing composting units and teaching people the process of composting.
- Enlightening people about the benefits of composting can even lead to social entrepreneurship.
- Sorting and recycling non-degradable waste materials, especially plastics, can play a major role in supporting a circular economy.
Earth5R volunteer giving live demonstration on compost installation in Mumbai, India (Earth5R)
The present condition of the Saigon river needs immediate attention for the people relying on the river.
- The people must realize that the change is within them. Paying tax to the authorities for building water purification plants for drinking water is not the only solution. But learning what could be gained and created from a sustainable lifestyle is more important.
- By establishing circular economy based programs that have active collaborations with local stakeholders such as city administrations, local community, universities and educational agencies, private sector companies, and NGOs / NPOs, local problems like bad waste management can be turned into opportunities for the local community.
Reach out to Earth5R to know more about solving environmental issues by creating circular economy based sustainability projects
A NEW APPROACH TO RIVER RESTORATION: EARTH5R MITHI RIVER CLEAN UP PROJECT AT MUMBAI
Earth5R is a part of Mithi river clean up project in partnership with United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL), Huhtamäki Oyj, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and RiverRecycle.
The goal is to clean the Mithi with innovative tools while raising awareness on waste management and building a circular economy and livelihood based model to restore the Mithi River.
- Under this project, Earth5R team will conduct various waste management training for the residential buildings, slums, and industries along the catchment of Mithi River.
- Earth5R team will also conduct a large-scale cleanup, waste segregation, and recycling program in the Mithi River area.
- The River will be mapped with the help of drones pre and post-project and the data will be analyzed to develop further solutions.
- Various research on plastic waste will be conducted to develop innovative solutions that support circular economies.
- Children and citizens in various Colleges, Schools, Offices of Mumbai will be mobilized for a solution-based approach to solve the Mithi River plastic pollution problem.
This partnership is one step forward towards sustainable restoration of the Mithi river.
Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.
Earth5R is conducting large-scale online training on COVID 19 Coronavirus prevention, response, management, and self-sustainability. These trainings are conducted on digital platforms in regional languages across India and other countries.
Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.
–Written by Mehfil Mubarak, edited by Riya Dani