Hanoi pollution crises expose growth risks

Hanoi, Oct 23 (AFP/APP): A major mercury leak, tap water contamination, and “alarming” levels of haze: several pollution crises in Hanoi have sparked public fury and accusations that communist Vietnam is putting the economy ahead of the environment.

Long tapped as an investors’ paradise thanks to its low-cost labour and pro-business policies, rapidly industrialising Vietnam is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies.

Buoyed by exports of cheaply made goods from Nike shoes to Samsung phones and H&M T-shirts, growth has hummed along at more than five percent for more than a decade.

But that has come at a cost, especially in major cities like Hanoi, the buzzing capital of more than eight million people — and 13 industrial zones — that has been rattled by a series of environmental disasters.

First came a lightbulb factory fire in August that saw a mercury leak and an official warning not to eat vegetables, chicken or fish from the area.

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Then came a spate of bad air days that briefly landed Hanoi at the top of major polluted cities list by Swiss-based monitor AirVisual.

Now an estimated one million people are reeling from a contaminated tap water crisis after a brick factory was blamed for dumping oily sludge into a river that supplied several Hanoi neighbourhoods.

“The government is prioritising economic growth more than the environment,” said Do Thanh Huyen, an associate at Dezan Shira & Associates, a business consultancy firm in Hanoi.

The water crisis — and the government’s slow response to it — sparked a flurry of online protest from locals, many still relying on bottled water more than 10 days after the oil dump.

Residents reported pungent-smelling water coming out of taps and showerheads but it took authorities days to warn people not to drink or cook with it.

Local media reports it tested positive for styrene, an industrial chemical linked to some cancers.
Three people have been arrested in connection with the incident, but some lay blame with the government despite its promises to investigate.

“Authorities here lack transparency and professionalism, that’s why we don’t trust them,” said office worker Ngo Kim Ngan, who sent her children out of her neighbourhood to bathe during the crisis.

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