Please dispose of your trash…

16 August 2012 | Article

“Please dispose of your trash in the approved place” the sign said, neatly summarizing many of the problems with environmental management in Vietnam. First, what and where is the “approved place”? No information is provided. Second, there were no trash cans for people to use. And third, no one present was responsible for making sure that trash was disposed of properly. The sign, which provides vague guidance, no practical support, and no enforcement, encapsulates the problems facing environmental management in Viet Nam. The steep slope that ran down to the sea was, of course, covered with trash.  

None of this would be particularly surprising if I wasn’t standing next to King Bao Dai’s French-built villa on a peninsular overlooking Nha Trang Bay. The view was spectacular. Now, if you proposed flying over Vietnam’s top tourist destinations and pouring trash out the window, you’d be considered crazy. Yet that, in effect, is what’s happening. This problem isn’t confined to Vietnam, of course. But for a country that aims to develop a higher value tourism sector it’s the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

When I ask why there’s so much trash in Vietnam, I’m often told that people aren’t aware of the problem. This implies a very long wait until the Vietnamese public is aware of the need not to litter. It also reflects the low priority given to solid waste management. This is a country with loudspeakers at street corners that the government uses to keep its citizens informed. If government considered trash a serious problem, attitudes and behavior would probably change fast.

Even if people are aware, there aren’t enough trash cans. In the park near my house in Hanoi, the few trash cans that have been installed are often overflowing and surrounded by trash. Simply installing (and emptying) many more trash cans could make a big difference. Above all, there’s absolutely zero enforcement of the rules. A few well publicized fines would do a great deal to raise public awareness. When it comes to the environment, the impact of the carrot (awareness raising) depends on the presence of a stick (a fine). In Vietnam, there tends to be lots of carrots but no stick.

Jake Brunner - Mekong Programme Coordinator (Viet Nam, Cambodia and Myanmar)