Vietnam's Ha Long Bay is known for its breathtaking beauty. Environmental awareness campaigns and a German project are helping to preserve that beauty from the pollution of tourism and mining.
The unique landscape of northern Vietnam's Ha Long Bay was formed 500 million years ago. In 1994, the area was dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the environmental conditions along the Vietnamese coast, east of Hanoi, have changed dramatically in the past 20 years: "The area is suffering from increasing pollution due to industrial and urban development, coal mining, and tourism," according to the Vancouver-based environmental consultancy company ESSA Technologies.
Together with the World Bank, ESSA conducted an investigation for the government of the province Quang Ninh, which led them to Ha Long Bay.
The world heritage site is under a number of threats. For one, the region is a tourist magnet. Hundreds of thousands of people travel there each year and leave behind their garbage which ends up in the bay even years later. To add to that, an increasing number of Vietnamese people are moving to the region, attracted by money-making opportunities in tourism or mining.
Vietnam's and China's growing hunger for energy mean that the region's mining industry is booming. The provincial city Cam Pha has been covered in coal dust ever since the boom started. The dust is so thick that it blankets streets and houses and ends up in food.
High price for coal
Contaminated water from the mines is a major problem for Ha Long Bay and the region's rivers. Unfiltered water is dumped into the rivers and ends up in the bay. It contains high amounts of iron, coal, manganese and other particles, which are all deposited in the soil and acidify the water.
"Life cannot develop in acidic water. Now only reeds with deep roots can grow on the banks. The soil can no longer support any other plant or animal life," Michael Illing of the German mining management company LMBV told DW.
But with help from Germany, the first steps have now been taken to counter the destruction of the environment. With financial support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Vietnamese mining company Vinacomin commissioned the LMBV to construct a water treatment plant along the Vang Dang River. In December, 2012, the plant went into operation.
The project has shown that people in Vietnam are no longer willing to pay any price for economic growth.
"The people and representatives of the municipalities are now becoming active and having a large influence on the environment. They demand the companies act in an environmentally-friendly manner," according to Illing, who was in Vietnam for a number of months for the project. He said China was a good example of how far uninhibited industrialization and neglect of nature could go.
Quyen Vu, founder of Vietnam's first independent environmental organization "Education for Nature Vietnam" (ENV), is of the same opinion. In the 1990s, Ms. Vu started campaigning for environmental and animal protection. ENV sponsored radio ads, delivered lectures in schools and universities and distributed brochures.
"In the past 10 years, I have witnessed great progress in the way Vietnamese people think about the environment," Vu told DW. "Young people are much more aware of environmental problems. A positive trend can even be seen in the government. But there is still a lot to do."
Despite the new environmental awareness, "one has to be very patient to realize such projects," according to Illing. He said that while there were laws pertaining to the protection of the environment, they were only rarely followed. In newly industrializing countries such as Vietnam, environmental protection often clashes with economic interests.
Helping people help themselves
All of Vu's efforts revolve around creating awareness among the people so that they can become active. "The most important thing is teaching people to help themselves. That way, people in Vietnam can protect their environment themselves."
From the very beginning of the project, Illinig and the LMBV have placed emphasis on integrating Vietnamese people into the project. "The planning was done in part in cooperation with Vietnamese engineers." And he is optimistic that the benefits from the project will continue to be felt for a while yet: "The new generation already has a new set of standards when it comes to the environment. That will surely have a positive impact on the improvement of environmental and also living standards."