Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health

ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: Paying the Price of Rapid Development

Helen Clark

HANOI, Dec 10 2008 (IPS) - Vietnamʼs environmental issues have been pushed to the forefront after it was reported in mid-September that a Taiwanese MSG producer had been dumping untreated waste water into the Thi Vai River.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hang's houseboat on the polluted Red River near central Hanoi.  Credit: Helen Clark/IPS

Nguyen Thi Thu Hang's houseboat on the polluted Red River near central Hanoi. Credit: Helen Clark/IPS

What has left many shaken is the sheer extent of the problem in this country.

Vedan, the MSG (monosodium glutamate used as a flavouring agent) producer, was found to have been pumping its waste water into the river for over ten years and avoided detection by hiding pipes deep in the river.

Since the story broke, environmental authorities and local government have been publicly blaming each other for gross oversight.

It was an open secret that a stretch of the Thi Vai River had gone “dead”. A 2006 report by the Vietnam Environmental Protection Agency (VEPA) had made that clear, and also detailed severe pollution in other rivers in Vietnam’s north.

Numerous other factories have been profiled in the press and it is estimated that less than one third of the factories have adequate treatment facilities.

It is somewhat ironic that the scandal broke in Dong Nai, which is home to a new, ambitious environmental scheme. The Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) pilot project involves upstream “sellers”, usually local farmers, receiving money from enterprises downstream, such as hydroelectric plants, for maintaining the purity of the Dong Nai watershed.

Though it was the Thi Vai river, not the Dong Nai, that Vedan polluted, Jim Peters, chief of Winrock International, one of the international organisations involved in implementation of the PES scheme, says: “I think there will be linkages… customers pay for water quality… even if forest dwellers are provided clean water, if the water they’re getting is not high quality, payment will be reduced.”

But he was also clear that Winrock does not deal in ‘brown’ issues and more assessment is needed before conclusions can be reached.

What is clear is that the runoff from Vietnam’s development, which has contributed to a rapid rise in the communist nation’s economy and to poverty alleviation, is now being felt in its poisoned rivers and worsening air pollution. It’s a path many other countries have been down.

“You’re taking out your natural capital to provide jobs. The traditional path has been to use that capital and reinvest in it later with better pollution control,” Peters explained.

There is worry that worsening environmental conditions will inevitably lead to economic fallout, something that is already happening in some areas. Aquaculture is being affected, and in July it was reported that ships would not dock in the southern port of Go Dau, for fear that hulls would be corroded by the polluted water.

Vietnam’s lack of development in some areas also plays an, albeit smaller, role in water pollution, with most of the nation’s 1,000-plus craft villages using outdated equipment and dumping waste directly into the water ways.

And it is not just the rivers which have suffered. Ha Long Bay, one of north Vietnam’s most popular tourist spots and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has suffered thanks to rapid development and a busy tourist trade. Much of the coral has died off, and the mangroves are in poor shape.

“The death of the coral isn’t new, it’s known about,” Mike Haynes told IPS. A freelance environmental consultant, Haynes has spent years working in the bay. “(But )it’s not directly related to pollution, it’s sedimentation from hundreds of different issues.” Soil erosion from building projects in the rapidly developing coastal city is one of the leading contributors.

“There are oil slicks in tourist areas and rubbish pollution is a big problem up and down Vietnam,’’ Haynes said. Ha Long Bay receives over two million visitors a year.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hang, 35, has lived on a boat with her family on the Red River in Hanoi for ten years, eking a living from smalltime fishing and whatever odd jobs she can pick up to support her three children.

“I don’t use this water for cooking,” she told IPS. “It’s very dirty because of the garbage and household sewerage, and effluents from the factories nearby.”

“The countryside is as bad as the city,” said Bui Van Kim, a pottery trader, who travels up and down the Red River often. He has seen the river get worse in recent years, but says it still isn’t as bad as his hometown Duc Bac in nearby Vinh Phuc province, where the Lo and Dai Rivers flow.

“As a citizen I think it’s really bad and I don’t know how to ask for help. Everything in my village is really polluted,” the trader said.

He says residents have to buy clean water from elsewhere and that his doctor has suggested his skin rash was a result of the water his shirts are washed in.

Duc Bac resident Tran Van Khanh, 31, agrees. A school teacher, he has been conducting his own small tests on the waters and people in his village. He reckons some 65 per cent of people suffer from some kind of health problem including cancer, and kidney stones which are the result of the high amounts of contaminants in the water.

“The local government does care,” he told IPS via phone, “but they can’t do much. They want a clean water system but it’s hard to realise.”

It’s a common complaint. Vietnam has environmental laws many see as progressive, but enforcement at a local level continues to be difficult. That, coupled with fines which are largely symbolic, is seen as the country’s greatest hurdle in overcoming its darkening environmental record.

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