Vietnam Sustainability Issues

The critical environmental and sustainability issues of Vietnam:

  1. Ageing Population

Twenty percent of Vietnam’s population will be 60 years of age or older within the next 20 years, resulting in the country experiencing an “elderly population crisis”, the General Office for Population and Family Planning at the Ministry of Health reported recently.

According to Mr. Nguyen Doan Tu, General Director of the General Office, Vietnam is facing a rapidly ageing population. Now standing at 96.2 million, average annual population growth over the last decade has come in at 1.14 per cent. Some 1 million people are added to the population each year. Vietnam has now reached the peak of its “golden population” phase and is about to enter a period with a rapidly-ageing population.

“In 2011, when Vietnam first entered the aging stage, the number of people over 60 accounted for 9.9 per cent,” said Mr. Tu. By 2018, the figure was 11.95 per cent. It is forecast that Vietnam will become a country with a very old population by 2038, when the proportion of people aged 60 or over will exceed 20 per cent. By 2049, the proportion will be about 25 per cent. Vietnam has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world. While developed countries take decades or even centuries to transform from a young population to an ageing population (France 115 years, Australia 73 years, and China 26 years), the process in Vietnam took just 15 years.

Vietnam’s ageing population is marked by many more older women than older men, with an increase in the proportion of widows and elderly people living alone. The elderly in Vietnam face many difficulties, as 68 percent live in rural areas and still work in agriculture-related jobs with low incomes. Current figures show that more than 72 percent of the elderly in Vietnam live with their children and grandchildren. However, the traditional Vietnamese family model, with many generations living under the one roof, has gradually shifted to the nuclear family model.

Average life expectancy is quite high, at about 73 years, but the number of years Vietnamese people live healthy lives is only 64 years. Ninety-six per cent of people carry the burden of chronic non-communicable diseases. An average elderly Vietnamese is suffering from three diseases at any one time. The country’s healthcare system is yet to meet the increasing needs of the elderly. This will pose major challenges for the government, while the number of people living in poverty or near poverty remains quite high.


  1. Clean water accessibility and water crisis

Vietnam is the 13th most populous country in the world and almost two-thirds of its people live along the country’s three main river basins- Thai Binh, Mekong Delta and Dong Nai.

Vietnam has 2360 rivers totaling to more than 10 km and it would appear that this should provide copious supply of water to the nation. However, due to the lack of physical infrastructure and financial capacity there is low utilization of the supply along with an uneven distribution of rainfall resulting in water shortages throughout the country. Although Vietnam has improved its water supply situation in the past few decades, many rural parts of the country who are often the poorest communities, have not seen significant improvement. It is reported that only 39% of the rural population has access to safe water and sanitation. The rural population has moved from using surface water from shallow dug wells to groundwater pumped from private tube wells. 

In the Northern region of Vietnam around Hanoi, there is evidence of arsenic contamination in the drinking water. About 7 million people living in this area have a severe risk of arsenic poisoning and since elevated levels of arsenic can cause cancer, neurological and skin problems, this is a serious issue. In addition, due to the rapid economic development in Vietnam, river water quality has been affected along with an increased concentration of various toxins in the water. The surface water in the rivers is locally polluted by organic pollutants such as oil waste and solids. There is also pollution from untreated waste water released by industries and agriculture activities. The geography and topography of Vietnam also makes the country susceptible to natural hazards such as typhoons, storms, floods and drought. This then leads to a multitude of problems such as water pollution and waterborne diseases along with an impact on agricultural lands and livestock. Both the environmental pollution in these river basins and natural disasters affects the nation’s public health. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment state that almost 80% of the diseases in Vietnam are caused by polluted water. There are many cases of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and malaria each year in the country. It is without doubt that agriculture has the largest burden on water resources in Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the richest agricultural regions in the world and a top producer and consumer of rice. Currently, water used for agriculture purposes takes up over 80% of total water production. 

The government of Vietnam is tackling the water resources management issues in the country by implementing policies and programs relating to this. Some of the challenges that still exist include improving access to clean water and sanitation for both urban and rural populations, improving public participation and knowledge and strengthening river basin management.


  1. Rural poverty

Vietnam scored 37.6 in the Gini coefficient index, with the top 10% accounting for 30.2% of the nation’s income and the bottom 10% receiving 3.2%. In 2008, 14% of the population lived below the national poverty line of US$1.15 per day. Gross Domestic Product grew at an average of 7.5% from 2000-2008. The country was able to reduce poverty from 58.1% in the 1990s to 14% in 2008. While the country grew and overall poverty dropped, urban dwellers benefitted more than their rural counterparts and a wide income disparity grew between the rich and poor. The regions with the highest relative poverty include the north-west, north-central, central highlands, central coast and north-east. These regions do not offer the resources to conduct agricultural activities, the main source of income. The poorest rural people live in remote areas with small plots of low quality land that is unsuitable for farming. Similarly, people living along the coastline are faced with harsh climate conditions that restrict farming. Even though the Vietnamese poor is associated with rural mountainous areas, there is a significant difference between majority (Kinh and Hoa people) and minority people living in the same region. The incidence of poverty of Kinh and Hoa people in high mountains area is as low as 10.4 percent, while the figure is almost six times larger for ethnic minority people.The 2017 and 2018 findings show that, between 44 and 45 percent of the respondents were worried that they would fall back into poverty; and 55 to 57 percent worried about their families falling back into poverty. 

About 6.6 million of the 9 million poor people are from ethnic minority heritage, although they only account for around 15 percent of the total population. Some ethnic minority groups even have poverty rate as high as 70-80 percent such as Hmong, Kho Mu, Xo Dang. As the poor and non-poor households differ not in the level of crop income, but rather in the level of diversified non-farm activities, which are not accessible to the poor due to low education level and skills, improving access to education would introduce the poor to new non-farm opportunities which are considerably more sustainable. Poor households, nevertheless, have limited access to credits, which is required should they invest in perennial crops as these crops often need expensive intermediate inputs, possibly hired labor and take longer time to yield returns. The lack of access to credits generally stems from the lack of assets (houses, expensive equipment, ect.) and land user certificates which are in favor of financing institutions as collateral. This constrains poor households to crops that require little investment such as rice, maize even though it is more profitable for them to plant perennial crops in mountainous areas.

According to 2012 statistics, social protection provided is very limited. There were a number of poor households, living below the poverty line but were not included in the social protection program of the government. Only about half of the poor households were officially covered in the social safety net with the supporting allowance barely enough to survive. Poverty reduction could be tackled if the government approaches to assist them to change from cereal crop to perennial crop in microfinance and in skills and vocational training. However, when their daily subsistence is not guaranteed, they will be denied of any such help. 


  1. Child Poverty

Child poverty declined from 65.2% in 1993 to 26.7% in 2004. The Survey on Household Living Standards data set from 2008 showed that 1 in 3 children in Vietnam is poor. Despite the drop, child poverty remains much higher than the national poverty rate. Many children lack access to the basic necessities of food, water, education and sanitation. This is especially so in rural areas. 

The relationship between poorness and education level in Vietnam has always been reversed and shows no improvement over time. Their average years of schooling are lower than that of Kinh and Hoa people. In 2015, the number of ethnic minority population aged 15 and above, who cannot read and write, was 20.8%, four times higher than the national average of about 5.3%. In fact, ethnic minority children start to lag behind only after a few years at primary school and the gap between them widens with each year of age.

Evidence shows that the dropout rate at secondary schools are higher for students in communes at a farther distance from the district center. For poor households, the costs of having a boarding school student completely outweighs the benefits in the short run, de-incentivizes schooling by losing one labourer (the child) who can generate income while covering room rent and pocket money for themselves at the same time. It is no surprise that they choose to drop out of school and start working at a very young age. As Vietnam’s economy grows and modernizes, the poor without good enough education and skills will continue to be left even further behind. Aside from that, children from poor households are also disadvantaged in the aspect of tutoring. The government needs to address this issue by reforming the education system in a way that offers equal access to education for every child, poor or not poor, both in the aspect of tutoring and travel distance to school.


  1. Environmental Issues

Vietnam is a rapidly developing country, with over 96 million people as of 2019. Rapid development combined with deforestation, few or nonexistent vehicle emission standards, polluting gasoline motorbikes, and poor urban planning have caused poor air quality in major cities.

Environmental problems such as floods in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, Vinh and Phu Quoc, and red-level air pollution in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and some other major cities triggered calls for greater responsibility on the part of management and executive agencies, businesses, and people involved in environmental protection.