[enviro-vlc] ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: River Pollution Scandal a Wake-up Call
vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Tue Dec 16 17:21:48 EST 2008
Subject: [SEA-SPAN] ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: River Pollution Scandal a Wake-up Call
Date: Tue, 16 Dec 2008 09:49:43 -0700
From: user at sea-user.org
ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: River Pollution Scandal a Wake-up Call
By Tran Dinh Thanh Lam
HO CHI MINH CITY, Dec 13 (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
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
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
"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
"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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