Steep limestone pillars rising sharply out of the emerald green waters of Ha Long Bay – the image is synonymous with Vietnam. Every year, thousands of tourists visit this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site to experience its majestic beauty. The weight of these visitors combined with rapid regional industrialization, however, is straining the bay’s environmental health.
In response, the U.S. government, in partnership with the provincial (Quang Ninh) People’s Committee, has recently launched the Ha Long Bay Alliance. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the alliance aims to improve environmental management and foster stronger cooperation and communication among stakeholders.
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, 165 km from the bustling capital city of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most economically and ecologically important regions. Home to eight diverse ecosystems and an extensive collection of unique karst formations, the bay sits in close proximity to a major shipping route and the city of Haiphong, the largest port in northern Vietnam. In addition to shipping and an expanding tourism sector, the region is also home to burgeoning manufacturing, mining and aquaculture industries. Facing challenges such as sustainable water quality and solid waste management, the area is seeking the right balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
Aiding this effort is the Ha Long Bay Alliance. Implemented by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Marinelife Conservation and Community Development (MCD), these groups will work at all levels of society; from raising grassroots awareness and strengthening environmental monitoring, to collaborating on social responsibility initiatives and improving the sustainability of the hundreds of tourist boats that cruise the bay daily. Using this holistic approach, the alliance will work at finding a balance between sustainable economic development and effective environmental protection.
Despite more than a decade of extensive research, planning assistance, and financial aid from the domestic and international community, Ha Long Bay continues to face environmental and social threats. With improving knowledge, technology and innovation, however, solutions to issues such as waste recycling within the Bay become more attainable. The goal of IUCN’s project will be to work in partnership with stakeholders, provincial government, and local leaders to promote sustainable strategies that encourage effective and efficient conservation management within the business and tourism sector.
As part of the initiative to strengthen local environmental awareness, the alliance will also work to attract broad support from the community. Through a small grants program, MCD will focus on grassroots engagement to strengthen the capacity of local NGOs, assist in improving natural resource management, and broaden the level of environmental education in the region.
As U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, commented at the launch on April 15, “I envision a broad public-private partnership of political actors, innovative businesses, and local organizations, working together to address the economic, environmental, and political challenges of preserving Ha Long Bay.”
The original grants are issued for a three-year period, but it is hoped that the IUCN and MCD projects will evolve into self-sustaining entities able to continue operating long into the future. The spectacular limestone seascape and diverse ecological habitats of Ha Long Bay are unique and irreplaceable. Only through the establishment of sustainable economic development and the promotion of grassroots conservation can Ha Long Bay, the surrounding communities, tourism industry, and economic sector coexist and prosper.
Katie Jacobs is a Hanoi-based writer and environmental consultant. She is currently working on a project for IUCN.