Growing pollution problem in Vietnam

degraded waterway in Vietnam

Pollution, an ever-present problem in Vietnam, is once again in the news thanks to a court case that is dragging through the courts, with farmers suing a Taiwanese MSG producer for destroying the river they need for their livelihoods.

“It was polluted many years ago,” says farmer Nguyen Lam Son via phone from Can Gio district outside Ho Chi Minh City. He is suing Taiwanese MSG {monosodium glutamate} producer Vedan whi ch was caught dumping thousands of litres of untreated waste water into the Thi Vai River via hidden pipes.

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He says most of his aquaculture stocks have been destroyed by the long time pollution of the Thi Vai River, which runs through Dong Nai province, home to many industrial and manufacturing hubs, through larger Ho Chi Minh City to Ba Ria-Vung Tau in the south.

He was part of a collective asking for close to 9O million USD of the company, which had been disposing of its waste this way for 15 years until it was caught by inspectors in September 2OO8. The case dragged on and has now been rescinded by the Farmers’ Association .He and another farmer is now suing the company on their own. He says he is “raising his voice in defence of reason”.

Many would agree with him. Though pollution is a well-known problem in Vietnam the sheer scale and audacity of Vedan’s actions has angered many.

In September 2OO8 Vedan was caught dumping over thousands up thousands of litres of waste water into the Thi Vai River. It was not mere oversight; the pipes were carefully hidden below the river’s surface, allowing the company to get away with monumental acts of environmental degradation that has affected thousands of people and killed a ten to 15 kilometre stretch of river.

That the river was suffering was no secret. The Vietnam Environmental Protection Agency published a report in 2OO6 about the effects of pollution in Vietnam and said a stretch of the 76-kilometre river was “dead”, as in unable to support life or regenerate.

polluted vietnames riversBut locals were aware of problems before that.

Chairman of the Thanh An farmers’s committee Le Hong Phuc says that three years after the factory opened residents started to notice something.

“People started to notice bad effects… from Vedan,” he said. However little was done. It was the mid-199Os and Vietnam was still in a rush to modernise and attract foreign investment. Knowledge of environmental issue was much lower.

“The legal framework for environment protection was not cohesive, and people did not pay much attention to environmental damage. They wanted to complain to authority but they didn’t have any persuasive evidence.”

The company is still taking that line now, and refused to pay the 9O million USD demanded. It claims it does not believe reports tabled by government agencies.

The Thi Vai River runs through some of Vietnam’s biggest industrial and manufacturing zones, responsible for sizable chunks of investment. These factories, which also dump their waste water and pollute the river, are still allegedly responsible for far less than Vedan. A report by the Institute of the Environment and Natural Resources estimates that the Taiwanese company is responsible for 77 per cent of the pollution, a figure the company disputes. The river receives waste from some 2OO companies.

Vietnam has developed terrifically fast in the past two decades and with a growing economy has come a growing pollution problem. Though millions are no longer as poor as even ten years ago the scale of pollution may derail some of these good efforts.

Fines for companies have long been low, symbolic more than anything else. In many cases paying the low fine is cheaper than installing proper treatment equipment. But as the country modernises the public is beginning to become concerned.

The outcry when the Vedan story first broke is evidence of that, as is the fury when Vedan was nearly given an award for good practices at the end of last year, when it was stull denying wrong doing and refusing to compensate farmers.

Concern about these issues has become so severe that President Triet was quoted last month calling it “much more serious than just a pollution crime.”

It might be a crime, but enforcement is still low. Many laws are not strongly enforced in Vietnam. A biodiversity law was brought into effect at the beginning of July last year. Local and international exports agreed it was good however much has not been enforced and stories of the wildlife trade are still common. More awareness, stronger laws that are properly enforced and higher fines are all needed.

“The government needs to enhance the legal enforcement in environment protection,” says Mr Phuc. Without that, more will suffer the same fate as farmers in his commune. Right now, “farmers are very angry with the actions of Vedan.”

This article was originally published in Vietnam Pathfinder.