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Ancient craft village battles devastating pollution

In a field filled with smoke, two women burned scrap metal. They had brought the metal here to burn so the smoke would not pollute the village, a job that brought them a daily wage of VND100,000 (nearly US$5). After the fire burned out, they would bring home what was left and salvage the usable pieces.

Pollution is a major problem in Dai Bai Commune, home to a copper craft village that is more than 400 years old. In the modern era, villagers adopted the practice of using scrap metal as raw material, leaving the environment so polluted that for the last seven years, they have not been able to use local water, said Nguyen Viet Quang, vice chairman of Dai Bai Commune People’s Committee in charge of economy and environment. Instead, they must buy clean water transported by tankers from outside for VND250,000 (around US$12) per cu.m.

Women burn scrap metal in a field in the northern province of Bac Ninh's Dai Bai Commune. Pollution is a major problem in the commune - the home of a 400-year-old copper craft village
Women burn scrap metal in a field in the northern province of Bac Ninh’s Dai Bai Commune. Pollution is a major problem in the commune – the home of a 400-year-old copper craft village

“Clean water is now our most serious problem. We were occupied with pursuing profits for so long that when we realised that we had to tackle the environmental problems it was already too late,” Quang said.

Urbanisation was another reason why people in this commune of 9,000 were turning away from their surface and underground water, explained Nguyen Cong Doan, officer in charge of land, construction, environment and agriculture at Dai Bai Commune.

“With many houses being built, wastewater is running directly into channels and rivers,” Doan said.

The polluted water has left many with skin diseases, conjunctivitis and gynecological diseases, according to the Gia Binh District website. This prompted 10 better-off households in the commune to set up the Dai Bai Water Technology Joint Stock Company, which is building a water plant capable of supplying 5,000 cu.m per day. The VND34 billion ($1.6 million) water plant will be fed by the Duong River and is expected to open in late 2015.

However, the problem of wastewater disposal may be messier to solve.

In 2006, the Viet Nam Academy of Science and Technology’s Centre for Training, Consultancy and Technology Transfer and Bac Ninh Province’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment built a wastewater treatment pool at the Dai Bai Craft Village Industrial Zone with the processing capacity of 10-12 cu.m per hour.

“However, the pool no longer works as there is no funding to finance its maintenance and operations, so wastewater is again discharged directly into the channels connected to the Ngoi River,” Doan said.

The industrial zone was set up in 2002 under a plan put forth by the People’s Committee of Bac Ninh province, with the goal of gathering all the commune’s craftsmen in one place and thus concentrating solid waste and wastewater for easier disposal. While about 100 households occupy 80 per cent of the zone, many households still operate independently.

“A number of people suffer from cancer and respiratory illnesses,” said Nguyen Thi Nguyet, who works in the zone. “Although we were told to build higher chimneys to prevent smoke and dust from directly affecting us, when there is bad weather – especially when it drizzles –the air is dusty and smoky.”

Poor health

Vice Chairman Quang confirmed that many villagers suffered from respiratory diseases, mostly infectious bronchitis. Those above 60 in particular were in poor health and longevity was generally low. In the commune’s Trai sub-hamlet alone, 21 people out of the hamlet’s population of 800 got cancer in the decade from 2001 to 2011.

A Japanese project helped Nguyet’s household and others build three model burners in 2010, but the chemicals from scrap metal soon eroded them.

“Moreover, the building cost is too high –as much as VND100-150 million ($4,700-7,000) for an average craft household. Most traditional craft-producing households start up on VND50-70 million ($2,300-3,300),” Doan said.

He said the commune had made “initial success” when it came to addressing solid waste, pointing to the 8,000 sq.m landfill the commune had zoned off for Dai Bai Hamlet. However, without an incinerator or other equipment to reduce the volume of waste, the landfill could only be used for a few years.

Still, villagers take pride in their ancestral occupation, which provides a livelihood not only for them but also for the thousands of farmers from surrounding areas who come here to work as hired hands. Abandoning the traditional craft, Quang said, was out of the question.