Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Vietnam: A Race to Save the Dying Rivers

October 8, 2008

By To Kim Lien

Over the past few weeks, Vietnam’s dying rivers have been the subject of intense media and public outcry. Reports indicate that Vedan, a Taiwanese company, which produces monosodium glutamate, has inflicted significant environmental damage for over a decade to the Thi Vai River. The Thi Vai River’s destruction has severe consequences. Many Vietnamese are dependent on aquacultural production; their livelihoods along the river have been destroyed. Ships can no longer anchor at Go Dau port in Dong Nai province because of pollution damage — and the port is losing revenue.  The river is also the source of drinking water for many, which seriously affects public health.

The Thi Vai River, 76 kilometers long, winds from Nhon Tho Village of Dong Nai’s Long Thanh Province, to Tan Thanh District of Ba Ria”Vung Tau Province and the Can Gio District of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) before pouring into the Eastern Sea. Given its geography and area of approximately 300 square kilometers, the Thi Vai River has become a receptacle for discharged waste water from HCMC, Bien Hoa Town, and Dong Nai Province. According to the Vietnam Environmental Protection Agency (VEPA), the river receives daily some 34,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater discharged from nearly 200 companies operating along the basin.  While Vedan was not the only company discharging waste water into the Thi Vai River, the scale of the pollution by Vedan — aided by the company’s systematic effort to elude Vietnam’s environmental regulations — was enormous, which is why media attention is so focused on it. Yet the Vedan example raises questions about how dozens of other companies are also polluting the rest of Vietnams major waterways, such as the To Lich, Nhue Day, Sai Gon, and Dong Nai rivers, and what can be done to salvage them — and prevent future damage.

Vietnam has enjoyed over a decade of strong economic growth, but a legacy of simultaneous environmental neglect is becoming glaringly evident. The government and the people of Vietnam both clearly want sustainable development, but the current approach and existing institutions are proving problematic. What is referred to as the “three pillar approach” to development — economic, environmental and social development — permeates most government documents, reports, and policies, but is rendered meaningless in practice. The required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process in investment projects, for example, is overwhelmed by economic considerations. As a result, land use permits for specific locations are frequently issued to investors before an initial environmental examination or full-scale EIA has been conducted.  As Vietnam’s economy grows at a breakneck pace, many Vietnamese are worried about the potential trade-off between economic development and the environment.  While the government proclaims attention to both, the first priority is the economy. Now, environmental pollution is threatening to undercut economic gains. Negative effects on human health, water and soil are causing losses in agricultural and aquacultural production among other revenue sources.  Environmentalists and citizens alike are extremely concerned.

We can learn from the case of the Thi Vai River. According to many environmentalists, researchers, and scientists, the Thi Vai River is dead and cannot be rehabilitated naturally. However, its pollution had been documented for years by numerous environmentalists, researchers, relevant state agencies, and local communities. Unfortunately, no concrete action has been taken against the polluting companies until now.  In 2006, the VEPA conducted a substantial inspection in response to public complaints, resulting in many discussions, workshops, and media reports on the seriousness of the river’s environmental situation. At a recent workshop on potential solutions to fix the river, a Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) official, Mr. Hoang Duong Tung, stated that “Comparing the monitored data of the river water between May 2006 and 2008 August, the heaviest pollution area of the river has extended from 10 kilometers to 15 kilometers” and that “many pollution data have also increased by hundreds of times in the last two years.”

Environmental protection law in Vietnam is introduced at a national level, but implementation guidelines are often unclear and enforcement at the local level is difficult. Local environmental protection authorities provide only weak enforcement, mostly because provincial revenues are tied to development projects. The public is also quiescent, given the traditional notion that the state leads and all should follow. Yet, while answering media questions about the responsibility of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on the violations by companies like Vedan Vietnam, Bui Cach Tuyen, vice head of Vietnam Environmental Administration, said “this falls under the local government’s responsibility.”

Lax enforcement, under-funded compliance monitoring, and priority on economic growth compel many investors to forego the costs associated with reducing pollution and pay the low fine instead. With Vedan, MONRE recently estimated that the company discharges over 4,000 cubic meters of waste water per day into the Thi Vai River, but if it closes its treatment facilities for one day, it can save over 100 million Vietnamese dong (US$6,060). In the past, MONRE inspectors found Vedan guilty of unlawful discharge of waste water, and the firm was fined three times, totaling only some VND20 million (US$1,300).  These symbolic fines clearly explain the growth of industries’ non-compliance with environmental policies.  In the case of Vedan, it was discovered that the company has built secret tunnels to discharge waste water directly into the river; its fine figures may now go as high as VND90 billion, or US$5.4 million.

Given its youth and inability to bring in revenue, MONRE has far less power than other traditional ministries. A small number of trained environmental inspectors working with a small budget cannot keep up with the proliferation of factories and other potential polluters.  According to MONRE, 90% of the compliance inspections are done in response to the demands of affected communities. This suggests not only that local government is responsive to public pressure, but also that much can be accomplished when citizens participate in addressing environmental problems.  Community-based organizations and environmental NGOs are emerging, seeing the need to connect citizen interests to a broader view of the country’s development process. This is an encouraging trend, but civil society organizations are still too new and too weak in Vietnam to have much impact in advocacy.

There is also one last factor. Vietnamese are taught in school that the country enjoys great natural resources, including water.  The reality, however, is that the Red River Delta and the Mekong Delta — as well other major rivers in the country — can no longer provide surface water for daily life. They must pump water from underground, which is resulting in a falling water table. Because of frequent drought, Vietnamese are subject to frequent blackouts during the summer; this immobilizes major hydro power plants.

Recent environment challenges have greatly improved public awareness and attention on environment protection for sustainable development. However, it is still necessary to promote the larger concept of environmental stewardship. Vietnamese NGOs would be well placed to carry out such necessary environmental education.

To Kim Lien is a Program Manager for The Asia Foundation in Hanoi.

Related locations: Vietnam
Related programs: Environmental Resilience


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