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ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: River Pollution Scandal a Wake-up Call

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Dec 12 2008 (IPS) - The rising level of pollution in Vietnam’s waterways has been common knowledge for years. But in October it became a public scandal after Vedan, a Taiwanese maker of monosodium glutamate (MSG), confessed to discharging toxic waste through hidden pipes into a river for years.

“The river used to be clean and full of fish,” said Tran Bach, 67, who has lived for his entire life in Long Tho, a village on the bank of the Thi Vai river, the waterway at the centre of the scandal.

Fifteen years ago, he says, he could catch about 50 kg of fish per day, enough to support his family of five.

“With too many factories built along the bank, the river is now so dirty and polluted that we can no longer drink its water or catch any fish from it,” he complained. “Now, the riverbed is full of waste and it has become narrower and shallower.”

Bach’s neighbour, Le Bich Son, added that respiratory diseases and intestinal sicknesses are also increasingly common among local people. Son believes this is linked to the pollution in the river.

Bach, Son and other residents along the Thi Vai have been complaining about the critical situation of the waterway for more than a decade.

It was only after shipping companies said they would no longer dock at a nearby river port because the pollution was corroding the hulls of their boats that the government acted, uncovering the scandal.

In early October, the Ministry of Environment asked authorities in Dong Nai, the province the Vedan venture is located in, to ensure that the company stopped discharging wastewater into the river or face closure.

But action has yet to be taken been because, according to provincial officials, Vedan is a foreign direct investment project, and therefore falls under the management of the central government.

The Taiwanese maker of MSG (a synthetic food flavouring agent)maker is also one of Dong Nai’s most successful projects, providing work for 2,000 people and a buyer of local agricultural products.

Vedan is only one of an estimated 77 plants and factories releasing untreated waste directly into the river.

“The Thi Vai is now almost dead,” said Doan Canh, professor of environmental studies at the Ho Chi Minh City Institute for Tropical Biology. “No creature can live in such polluted water.”

“The Vedan scandal forces us to review our environment protection policy,” Prof. Pham Duy Hien, a well-known environment protection advocate, told Radio France International in late November. “Vedan shows that for a long time we have let manufacturers destroy the environment.”

Like many developing countries, Vietnam is undergoing rapid industrialisation. This has created prosperity but has taken a toll on the country’s natural environment and public health.

“Urbanisation and the rapid formation of industrial zones have caused rivers and waterways and their surrounding basins to become polluted at alarming levels, Duong Thanh An, deputy head of the Law Chamber of the Environment Protection Department (EPD) told a recent seminar water resources in Hanoi.

Lacking the facility to treat their own waste, many businesses secretly dump it directly into rivers and canals.

In the Vietnam’s north, along the Nhue and Day rivers running through Hanoi, there are eight industrial zones, with 157 production plants, and thousands of small enterprises and handicraft workshops.

They dump toxic sludge and carcinogens into the rivers that provide drinking water for the capital and its surrounding provinces.

In the south, the Dong Nai river, which runs through Ho Chi Minh City, and its tributaries, including the Thi Vai, receives nearly half million cubic litres of waste water from 47 industrial zones each day.

Only 16 of these zones treat their wastewater before discharging it.

According to an environment department report released in July, 80 percent of plants and factories nationwide discard waste into waterways. The department has released a ‘black list’ of major polluters that could be closed down unless they set up adequate waste treatment facility.

There are several other barriers in the way of enforcing stricter environmental controls.

The number of inspectors employed by the EPD is too small. Inspectors must give prior notice of factory visits, often allowing manufacturers enough time to hide the worst problems.

Fines for environment offences are also low at some 600 US dollars, and many companies prefer to pay these rather than fit expensive air and water pollution control systems. “Manufacturers would rather pay small fines than invest a large amount of money for modern waste treating technology,” Hien said.

In its 14 years of operation, Vedan was fined 12 times, paying a total of 1,300 dollars. The MSG producer has paid a total of only 1.4 million dollars for environment taxes.

“It’s nothing for a company which earns millions of dollars per year,” said Hien.

A financial report released by Vedan in July showed it made a profit of 8.5 million dollars in the first half of 2008 alone.

Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen told a press conference in September he had flown over the polluted Thi Vai many times and was deeply concerned about the critical situation of the river.

“Vietnam had to protect the environment,” Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the National Assembly in November. “But in the Vedan case, we also need to think of protecting the thousands of factory jobs at the plant,” he said.

“Everybody concurs that our rivers are severely polluted, but no one comes up with a scientific and comprehensive assessment of the situation,” said Hien. “When comparing what Vedan has contributed (to the economy) to the damages it has caused to the environment, we see that the investment project is not so profitable.”

“So far, we have focused more on economic development and less on environment protection,’ said Hien. ‘It’s time to revise that policy of ‘economic development at any cost’.”

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