Reconstructions of legacy pollution amid industrialization in southeast Asia: a coupled biomarker approach


Water is critical to human welfare and future socioeconomic security. Access to clean water is a major challenge in middle and low-income countries where traditional ways of life and modern urbanisation can be in conflict with a low-pollution environment1. Vietnam, which aspires to reach a sustainable industrialized economy by 2035 [1], is typical of this challenge. Here, rapid increases in water demand combined with increasing pollution from wastewater and farm-runoff threaten both urban and rural lifestyles [1]. Traditional farming practices alone are expected to introduce ~10 billion tonnes of untreated livestock waste (i.e., manure and biomass) into coastal Vietnamese environments over the next twenty years [1, 2]. This could have disastrous effects on the health of Vietnam’s aquatic ecosystems.

An accurate assessment of pollutant distribution within the aquatic environment is difficult to constrain because of sparse monitoring programs and unreliable discharge records. This limits the efficiency and success of management plans. However, each chemical pollutant leaves a ‘signature’ in riverine and aquatic sediments, known as biomarkers. Analysis of these biomarkers enables us to reconstruct the environmental pollutant history of an area. The Red River, in northern Vietnam, is one of the largest rivers in Asia and flows through an area with a turbulent history. It travels through densely populated urban areas (e.g. Hanoi; Figure 1) and traditional farming regions and terminates with a coastal system dominated by shellfish farming and mangrove forests (Figure 2). This catchment therefore has a complex and highly interesting environmental history, but we have almost no detailed information on pollutant distribution in the catchment. Using state-of-the-art analytical techniques, this project will probe the environmental history of the suite of pollutants related to manufacturing processes (e.g. pharmaceuticals), farming practices (e.g. manure) and conflict (e.g. Agent Orange). Evaluation of the persistence of these chemicals over time will enable us to evaluate the effectiveness of land-management strategies and to make recommendations for future improvement, ultimately improving the environmental status and public health of the region.

Aim: This project will investigate the environmental distribution of emerging environmental pollutants within the Red River catchment, Vietnam. This is important as it provides the necessary environmental context for management actions towards sustainable development.

Click on an image to expand

Image Captions

Figure 1: The Red River in Hanoi.

Figure 2: The Xuân Thủy National Park, where industries such as aquaculture (left) and artisanal fishing (right) are co-located with natural & restored mangrove ecosystems is also the termination for the Red River, resulting in a complex environment.


This research will take advantage of state-of-the-art techniques in gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS) to characterize individual biomarkers extracted from sediments recovered from the Red River delta in northeast Vietnam. Pollutants will be extracted (via accelerated solvent extraction [ASE]) before isolation of individual biomarkers via ‘flash’ columns and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Target biomarkers will include compounds derived from manufacturing – such as pharmaceuticals (oestrogens) and flame retardants (organophosphates) – and farm runoff (sterols). The scholar will have the opportunity to also optimise the analytical methods to enable additional analyses of other compounds, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Sub-decadal resolution of environmental histories will be obtained through radioisotope measurements (strontium-90), allowing for interpretation of cause-effect relationships between pollutants and human action.

Some samples are already available for this project, enabling the scholar to begin analysis at the start of the project. The scholar will have the opportunity to partake in a field campaign to north-east Vietnam in Year 2 of the project for further sample collection, including shallow marine coring and delta surface sampling. The international fieldwork and direct regional policy relevance means that international collaboration will be critical to the success of this Iapetus-led project, enabling knowledge exchange and networking opportunities. Collaborators include the following researchers:
• Dr Nguyen Thi Kim Cuc (Thuyloi University), an expert in mangrove carbon storage, restoration, and environmental sustainability.
• Dr Thi Thuy Duong (Vietnam Academy of Science & Technology), an expert in coastal water quality, aquatic ecology, and riverine pollution.
• Dr Ha Thi Hien (Thuyloi University), an expert in environmental chemistry and mangrove carbon sequestration.
• Dr Cuong Ho (Vietnam Academy of Science & Technology), an expert in environmental microbiology and microbial biotechnology.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review and techniques training. Processing, collection and analysis of initial environmental samples.

Year 2

Fieldwork in Vietnam, followed by sample processing and analysis. Dissemination of findings at national conference and submission of first publication.

Year 3

Data analysis and synthesis with current literature. Dissemination at international conference and preparation of second publication.

Year 3.5

Time devoted to thesis writing and publications.

& Skills

This project will equip the student with a range of skills, including advanced biomarker analysis, fieldwork, big data analysis and translation of science for wider audiences. Specific research skills will include:
• Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry
• Radioisotope analysis
• Soil science
• Coastal and aquatic fieldwork
• Stakeholder engagement
• Environmental statistics
• Environmental data management

Project support: The facilities, equipment and expertise available within the institutions and supervisory team provide a combination of world-leading analytical, laboratory and field capability and technical support that ideally fits this PhD project maximising the expert training that will be available. The student will benefit from a network of collaborators at the Lyell Centre, SUERC, Thuyloi University (Vietnam), and the Vietnamese Academy for Science and Technology.

Scholar support: The Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, has a large research student cohort that will provide peer-support throughout the studentship. The scholar will participate in the annual post-graduate research conference within the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, providing an opportunity to present their research to postgraduates and staff within the School, and to also learn about the research conducted by their peers. All project supervisors are highly research-active: the scholar will interact with all members of their research groups, providing an opportunity to learn about other techniques and research areas which may be applicable to their research. Additionally, the supervisors are based in research-active departments that span a broad range of environmental and geoscience research, exposing the scholar to a range of other research areas. Active participation in these research groups will provide the opportunity to discuss cutting-edge topics in the field, review recent papers and to present current research plans to academics with a common research interest in an informal and supportive atmosphere.

Where required, and to maintain continued professional development, the scholar will be encouraged to attend specialist courses directly aligned to the project; full training in all laboratory and field skills will be provided. The scholar will be encouraged to undertake transferable skills training such as data management, scientific writing and science communication. These are provided for free by Heriot-Watt University and within the Iapetus2 DTP program.

References & further reading

(1) World Bank (2019) Vietnam: toward a safe, clean, and resilient water system. World Bank, Washington, DC.

(2) Vinh, V. et al. (2014) Impact of the Hoa Binh dam (Vietnam) on water and sediment budgets in the Red River basin and delta. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 18: 3987-4005.

Further Information

Apply Now