Squatting on a little wooden stool on the sidewalk, I am captivated by the story of a small-framed 60-year-old woman who has lived in the Dong Da District of Hanoi for over 50 years. She sits across from me on the other side of a small wooden coffee table, also known as the entirety of her family’s small business. While hopefully awaiting her next customer, she tells me the tale of the Tu Loc River and how a natural feature that was once an amenity has become her greatest source of suffering.
The woman speaks slowly but deliberately and with obvious pain in her eyes. She begins her story by describing the beauty of the river 20 years ago, when the water was blue and people took for granted their ability to swim and fish. She then guides me to the critical point, when too many residents and community members began dumping their trash in the river, thinking nothing of the plastic wrappers, oil, and household cleaners carried away by the river and into the great unknown. As years passed, human waste built up in the river, swimming became unsafe, and fish started to disappear.
As she reached the climax, it was clear this story had no happy ending. Despite government initiatives to clean the river, they couldn’t keep up with the amount of waste people had added to the water. Now, 20 years later, the river is an ominous pool of toxins smelling of sewage, or “rotten eggs” as the woman described it. The woman walked me across the street to the river, showing me the translucent film covering the water supposedly treated by the government. It was clear that swimming, fishing, or even admiring the beauty of the river was no longer a realistic activity for the residents of the community.
In the United States, and particularly in our Swat bubble, we Swarthmore students like to believe such a scene could never happen to us. Surely, the idea of needing to both boil and filter water before we can safely drink it, is one of a third world country. The United States takes better care of its water system. Especially locally at Swarthmore, we would never pollute the Crum Creek in the same way as the residents of Hanoi.
Except our optimism bias couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Swarthmore students and community members are already severely polluting Crum Creek. Last year at the Little Crum Creek Clean Up, 40 Scott Arboretum volunteers removed tires and plastic bags from the creek only to find more bags of trash floating in the river the next day. After 19 clean-ups last year to protect the Ridley Crum Watershed, 620,000 pounds of trash was removed from the river. Still, students and community members are tossing beer cans or snack wrappers into the creek to be carried onto the great unknown.
Yet, particularly with Crum Creek, the final location of our pollutants aren’t so unknown, and the pollutants are already negatively impacting people’s lives. The Crum Creek is part of a watershed that flows into Springton Lake Reservoir and the Delaware River, providing at least 19 million gallons of water per day for over 200,000 Delaware County residents. According to the Chester Ridley Crum Watershed Association, the Crum Creek is a special protection stream, home to the largest cold water fishery and native trout population in the area. Yet, fish populations and other wildlife have been substantially decreasing. Breeding populations of native brook trout and American Shad have disappeared from the creek altogether, indicating a decline in water quality and serving as a warning that the water source many of us depend on is facing the threat of an ending not much different from the Tu Loc River in Hanoi.
The good news is that for the outside community and us Swatties, actions can be taken to protect our water source for recreational and necessary uses before the fish completely disappear or Swarthmore begins to smell as rancid as the Tu Loc River. While environmental issues like climate change or the fossil fuel industry can seem daunting, there is a simple yet powerful solution to protect our water source. Our smallest responsibility as Swatties can be to not leave trash in the Crum Woods and to bring a trash bag to remove other garbage from the creek and woods. While it may be another person’s trash, it will affect the whole population. As Swatties, perhaps we can even expand our responsibility to join with the outside community and attend Crum Creek Clean Up days because, while their efforts may seem small, any less trash in the river can make a huge difference.
After concluding my interview with the woman, she locked eyes with me and pleaded, “I just need someone to clean up the Tu Loc River because I don’t want to suffer anymore.” Other residents have begun to give up on the river, stating they’d rather build a road over the water since the water serves “no purpose and causes only harm.”
While I cannot yet create a solution to solve the issues of the Tu Loc River in Hanoi, we Swatties can learn from the experiences of these residents and play an active role in protecting our own water source before future generations are forced to suffer from our mistakes. In Hanoi, the residents 20 years ago did not realize the beauty of their river and all the joy it brought to the community through giving them a place to swim, fish, and drink water. At Swarthmore, it is our duty to recognize these amenities and privileges now, and play a small yet active role in protecting one of nature’s gifts and necessities.