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Perspectives

October 9, 2008
Vietnam resuscitates dying rivers

The Mekong River, the 7th-longest river in Asia, flows through Vietnam.

On Wednesday, Vietnamese government authorities fined the Taiwanese-owned condiment company Vedan $7.7 million dollars for polluting a river in the southern part of Vietnam after an investigation uncovered over a dozen tanks discharging waste. The investigation raised concerns about environmental regulation.

To Kim Lien is a Program Manager for The Asia Foundation in Hanoi and writes for the In Asia blog. Lien discusses Vietnam’s economic boom and subsequent pollution of Vietnam’s rivers because of lax environmental law enforcement.

In Vietnam: A Race to Save the Dying Rivers

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.

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