Vietnam’s Next Environmental Hotspot

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Vietnam’s Next Environmental Hotspot

Less than a year after a major pollution crisis, trouble is brewing in the Mekong Delta.

Vietnam’s Next Environmental Hotspot

A farmer harvests dried sugarcane on her drought-stricken farm in Soc Trang province in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (March 31, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Kham

While waiting to see how Hanoi handles the existing environmental crisis in Ha Tinh province, it’s worth a look southward to see how Vietnam’s government and people are responding to emerging environmental risks posed by a Chinese-owned giant manufacturing complex and supporting coal-fired thermal power plants stationed along major waterways – the only fresh water supplies to paddy fields and crowded cities in the Mekong Delta.

In recent weeks, the public’s deep concerns about the Mekong Delta’s environmental pollution, generated by industrial campuses and export-processing zones surrounding its major rivers, seem to have been overshadowed by the outbreak of a new high-profile case related to state agencies responsible for foreign investment promotion and management. In early December 2016, a debate heated up in Vietnam news media over alleged irregularities concerning the recruitment and placement of a 26-year-old graduate with no work experience, Vu Minh Hoang, into the powerful position of deputy director of Can Tho City’s Investment Promotion Center.

Hoang’s controversial employment history recalled the hasty career advancement of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former vice chairman of Hau Giang Provincial People’s Committee, who was also appointed to manage foreign investments in the province. Thanh now faces an international arrest warrant over massive losses of VND3.3 trillion ($146 million) at a state-owned company he once led. The unusual appointments of Hoang and Thanh shed some light on the privileges they may have enjoyed thanks to relationships and connections. Their leapfrogging all normal recruiting and promoting processes are the root cause of public disapproval, reflecting the lack of transparency and a very high risk of corruption in Vietnam’s public services sector.

Given such scandals related to recruitment and appointment in industrial and foreign investment-related state agencies, some may understand why and how foreign-owned highly polluting producers have been smoothly approved to operate in eco-agriculturally rich regions in Vietnam, particularly in its most fertile and vulnerable “rice bowl,” the Mekong Delta. Apparently, Vietnam is in dire need of talent to serve the nation’s economic development and integration. However, a common lack of transparency in personnel affairs among the state authorities in turn may lead to a lack of transparency elsewhere, including the process of issuing investment licenses at the provincial level. As such, public disapproval and reduced trust in the ruling Communist Party and its government may be inevitable. After all, the country’s environmental security is at stake.

That became obvious in early 2016, when a Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel mill in Vietnam stealthily discharged toxic chemicals into deep-water seas in along the north-central coastal provinces, causing one of the largest environmental disasters in Vietnam’s history. Compounding the problem, Formosa was forced to apologize for an official’s tone-deaf remarks on the mass fish deaths that resulted from the spill. In April 2016, Chou Chunfan, chief of the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS) representative office in Hanoi, told reporters, “You want the fish or the steel plant? You have to choose!”

His off-hand remark immediately resulted in public uproar and protests in major cities. The country grew disenchanted about what is referred to as the “three pillar approach” to national development — economic, environmental, and social pillars — prescribed in its Strategic Orientation for Sustainable Development. While the government commits to green growth, the first priority is the economy.

While the environmental crisis posed by FHS remains unsettled, familiar dangers have been exposed in the Mekong Delta. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of eco-agricultural land have been revoked and replaced by non-sustainable industrial projects, particularly Chinese-owned Lee & Man Paper pulp mill and thermal power plants located along vital waterways in the Delta, such as the Hau River and Tien River. The Lee & Man project is believed to have received land use permits without conducting any serious full-scale environmental impact assessment to meet Vietnam’s environment regulations. Having seen how badly their counterparts in Ha Tinh are suffering from a Taiwanese-owned company, environmentalists and farmers living around the Lee & Man manufacturing campus have been deeply concerned that this project will soon pollute the environment in the Delta, making their villages “next cancer villages in Vietnam,” in the words of Nguyen Huu Hiep, a 56-year-old farmer in Hau Giang province.

To calm down the public fears while attracting more foreign investors to maintain economic growth, new Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has repeatedly revealed his ambitions and efforts to build a constructive, incorruptible government, which should act aggressively to serve the people and develop the nation sustainably. The government will “not accept [a deal] to exchange environment in return for economic growth,” he has repeatedly promised. Such a pledge is now quoted frequently in remarks by leaders from the central to local level in Vietnamese media. To add substance to the promise, Hanoi has authorized many relevant agencies to join forces with local authorities to investigate the Lee & Man project’s licensing process, environmental impact assessment reports, wastewater treatment technologies, and its compliance with national construction rules and environmental standards. However, months have passed since the case of this firm first stirred public debate in mid-2016, yet the inspections have not been made available despite the growing public concerns.

Water, air, and land pollution have become more serious over the years in Vietnam, particularly at industrial complexes that are often equipped with low-quality technologies imported from China. The pressure to maintain economic growth and compete internationally has gradually made the country a facile investment environment that encourages export-processing and labor-intensive industries and requires more and more agricultural lands to be revoked for industrial projects. To meet great demand from those foreign investors — who tend to devote their capital flows to sectors that consume huge amount of energy and natural resources, but are not environmentally friendly — the exploitation of minerals and natural resources and construction of hydropower and thermal power plants have been approved hastily in many provinces without available avenues for concerned citizens to raise their voices on issues of national importance. This situation further contributes to the country’s environmental degradation and proves the substantial trade-off between economic development and environmental protection.

In the Mekong Delta, where more than 17 million inhabitants completely rely on the waterways’ fish resources and rice production for their subsistence, pollution has gotten much worse over many years of rapid industrialization and economic growth, affecting the living conditions of local people and causing social disorder.

Pham Thi Thu, 41, a high school teacher in Chau Thanh district, Hau Giang province, tells how her family and neighbors have been suffering from the water and air pollution emitted by an industrial zone next to her village: “The groundwater is no longer usable and the air is heavily polluted. We always have to keep the doors closed. Most of us have to buy fresh water from a local water plant using water from the same river which the factories are allowed to discharged wastewater into,” she said.

There are other concerns as well. She added that “factories and guest workers, especially the Chinese, have disturbed and changed the lifestyle in this village. Our living standards are now more improved thanks to new roads opened and urbanization that followed, but urbanization has at the same time resulted in heavy pollution and increased such social problems as crimes and cultural degradation.”

Since the historic environmental disaster in Ha Tinh, the government has made remarkable progress in reducing the negative effects posed by industrial complexes while fostering administrative reforms and transparency in the public services sector. Some 2,000 under-construction projects, including those in the Mekong Delta, have been urgently required to re-make environment impact assessment reports in consultation with prestigious institutes and experts, Tran Hong Ha, minister of natural resources and environment, explained when asked by state media.

Apparently, the government and the people of Vietnam both want sustainable development, but the current approach and existing institutions remain problematic and palliative. Scientists at Can Tho University say they are deeply concerned about the increasing environmental pollution posed by a series of industrial projects have been building around the Mekong Delta. Tri and Lan, agricultural specialists at Can Tho University, argue that the Delta has long been famous for its diverse agricultural strength rather than as an ideal place for industrial activities. “The clearer impacts by upstream dams in the Mekong River coupled with the proliferation of factories and other potential polluters in the Delta will pose more threats to its agricultural output,” they argued.

Dr. Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of the Research Institute for Climate Change at Can Tho University, points to the unique concerns raised by the paper mill. “Available wood supply for papermaking in the Mekong Delta is quite limited due to nature reserves. Thus, most of materials for the paper mill must come from waste paper and pulp imported from outside to recycle. As a result, the paper-processing project will increase more potential risks of pollution in the Delta.”

Industrialization may be necessary in the Mekong Delta, as it has potential to improve local economic revenue and narrow the development gap between the Delta and other leading economic regions in Vietnam. However, non-sustainable industrialization in the Delta may eventually result in economic growth, but not economic development — the labor-intensive industrial sector may be growing strongly but it has no linkages with the rest of the local agriculture-based economy, while generating environmental and social unrests in the long run.

In order to make growth more inclusive, in recent years Vietnam has expanded investments in rural areas and promoted foreign-invested labor-intensive manufacturing. Such a move seems to meet the need to reduce the high rate of unemployment in the Mekong Delta in the short term. However, the “serious lessons” that Vietnam has learned from the 2016 fish die-off in its four central coastal provinces appear to warn the Delta’s inhabitants of the predictable costs of industrial development by all means. The 2016 mass fish death incident, or environmental disaster, caused by Taiwanese-owned Formosa after only five years of development is no doubt a major set-back in decision-making and highly visible evidence of carelessness in government preparation for foreign-invested projects in Ha Tinh Province. The negative consequences will be far-reaching in the decades to come due to heavily contaminated seawater and substantial losses in seafood catches.

It is worth observing that Ha Tinh is not the only province in Vietnam that has suffered from Taiwanese-owned companies’ systematic efforts to elude Vietnam’s environmental regulations. Looking back a few years ago, there was another environmental incident very similar to the current situation in Ha Tinh when the Thi Vai River was polluted by Taiwanese-owned Vedan company in 2008. At that time, many believed that Vietnam would be awakened after the case of the dying Thi Vai River. But the repeat of an environmental disaster in Ha Tinh, with much larger scale of pollution and more severe impacts, reveals that a legacy of simultaneous environmental neglect is becoming glaringly evident. Vietnam’s environmental protection law remains overwhelmed by economic considerations.

Public protests are uncommon in the Mekong Delta. With almost 90 percent of its population engaged in agriculture and fishery, the public tends to be quiescent, given the traditional notion that the state leads and all should follow. But the recent flurry of public interest shows that ordinary people are becoming more vocal and underscores the popular fury over the dangers threatening the eco-agriculturally rich Delta. Not only does this demonstrate that recent environment incidents have greatly improved the Delta’s public awareness of and attention to environmental protection, but such civil disobedience is likely to turn into worse actions if the state authorities fail to thoroughly address public concerns as well as connect citizen interests to a broader view of the country’s development process. For this reason, the new leadership in Hanoi will need to be more transparent and fair, both to prevent a repeat of the 2016 environmental disaster and to regain public trust in the Communist Party-led government.

If Vietnam’s long-term strategic goal is for a flourishing Mekong Delta characterized by sustainable economic development, biodiversity, and ongoing civil obedience, the government will need to realize its commitment to green growth and transparency improvement, which may affect the flow of foreign direct investment, especially from China and Taiwan. While such a choice won’t be easy for Vietnamese leaders, Hanoi needs to evaluate whether the short-term gains in industrializing Mekong Delta really serve its long-term socio-economic goals.

Nguyen Minh Quang is a lecturer and writer on conflict studies and politics based at Can Tho University. He has a Master degree in Southeast Asian Studies. He is now pursuing a Polish language and culture course at University of Warsaw, Poland.