POLLUTION, GLOBAL WARMING AND ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM

Vietnam is among the most biologically diverse countries on earth, comprising less than 1 percent of the world's land but about 10 percent of its species. But the report noted that its protected areas are suffering from deforestation and habitat loss.

Lowest ranking nations on environmental sustainability index: 1) Madagascar; 2) Bangladesh; 3) Uganda; 4) Nigeria; 5) Iran; 6) Vietnam; 7) Malawi; 8) Senegal; 9) Singapore; 10) Algeria. [Source: Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy]

Oil slicks, dead rivers and polluted air are among the environmental problems that Vietnam faces as it industrializes and develops. According to a survey of expatriates living in Asia, India, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong are regarded as the dirties countries in Asia, while Singapore, Japan and Malaysia were regarded as the cleanest. Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan were in the middle.

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report in 2009 stated: "Vietnam has one of the highest chemical input use rates among countries in Asia and the Pacific. Each year an estimated 73 million tons of livestock waste are disposed of improperly into ponds, channels, and sewers, or left in fields, eventually polluting the surrounding areas. Wastewater samples taken from livestock farms indicated that about 90 percent do not meet the applicable industrial wastewater discharge standards, especially with regard to biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand levels."

The National Environmental Agency, a branch of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, is responsible for environmental protection. At the provincial level, the Departments of Science, Technology, and the Environment bear responsibility. Non-governmental organizations, particularly the Institute of Ecological Economics, also play a role. Urbanization, industrialization, and intensive farming are having a negative impact on Vietnam’s environment. These factors have led to air pollution, water pollution, and noise pollution, particularly in urban and industrial centers like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The most serious problem is waste treatment. Land use pressures have led to significant environmental problems, including severe deforestation, soil erosion, sedimentation of rivers, flooding in the deltas, declining fish yields, and pollution of the coastal and marine environment. The use of Agent Orange by the U.S. military in the Second Indochina War (1954–75) has had a lingering effect on Vietnam in the form of persistent environmental contamination that has increased the incidence of various diseases and birth defects. [Source: Library of Congress]

China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam have toxic waste import bans. DDT was still used in 1999 in part because it is effective in controlling mosquitos that carry the malaria parasite. In rural areas recycling has traditionally not been necessary in the modern sense as villagers tended to throw away very little and find ingenious uses for mundane things such as plastic bottles and bags.

See Legacy of Agent Orange

Global Warming in Vietnam

The Mekong and Red River Deltas are threatened by rising sea leveled caused by global warming and problems associated with this such increased flooding and salt intrusion. Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 112.8 million Mt (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 38.

Kit Gillet wrote in The Guardian, “Vietnam is listed by the World Bank among the countries most threatened by rising waters brought about by higher global temperatures, with only the Bahamas more vulnerable to a one-metre rise in sea levels. Such a rise could leave a third of the Mekong Delta underwater and lead to mass internal migration and devastation in a region that produces nearly half of Vietnam's rice. "If there was a one-metre rise, we estimate 40 percent of the delta will be submerged," says Tran Thuc, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. "There is also the threat of cyclones and storms linked to climate change. The people in this area are not prepared for any of this." [Source: Kit Gillet, The Guardian, August 21, 2011]

John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh of Reuters wrote: “Cropland salination represents just one of the many increasingly acute environmental challenges in Vietnam, exacerbated by climate change, that are testing the government's ability to coordinate countermeasures. Study after study flag Vietnam as one of the most vulnerable countries on earth to the effects of climate change, such as a sea level rise and volatile weather. A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute this year estimated that a sea level rise of 17 cm (6.7 in) accompanied by other changes in climate could slash rice yields country-wide by as much as 18.4 percent by 2030. [Source: John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh, Reuters, December 9, 2012 >>>]

“The Mekong Delta is particularly at risk. Nearly half of the country's rice is grown in the Delta, including almost all that Vietnam sends abroad to make it the world's second-biggest rice exporter after Thailand. A fifth of Vietnam's 86 million people live there, and it is one of earth's most biodiverse regions. The government said in a report last year a third of the Mekong Delta could be submerged if the sea rose by 1 meter (3 ft). Other parts of the beach-lined country will be swamped, volatile weather patterns will hurt flood- and drought-prone areas and warmer temperatures will trim rice yields. >>>

"Things are happening already, it's not in the future, and it's going to get worse," Koos Neefjes, the United Nations policy advisor for climate change in Vietnam, told Reuters. "It is easy to say what needs to be there by the year 2100, but it is very difficult to say what is tomorrow's priority." >>>

Vietnamese Government Response to Global Warming

John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh of Reuters wrote: “Consultants and non-governmental organizations give the government high marks for its relatively early recognition of the risks and the need to adapt. This year, the ruling Communist Party included the need to face the effects of climate change in public drafts of policy documents prepared for a five-yearly Party Congress planned for January, underscoring its commitment. The government approved a National Target Program to deal with climate change two years ago and is collecting submissions of provincial plans to incorporate into a national plan. But there is a wide divergence in how local governments understand the problem and approach it."I think that they've done a lot over the past two years. But I think that an urgent situation needs them to act faster in the future," said Nguyen Thi Yen, climate change coordinator for the non-governmental organization CARE International in Vietnam. "We feel like there's a need for support for the communities, for the local levels, on how to adapt to climate change, how to understand the situation in the local context, how to mainstream climate change into the local planning. It's very urgent." [Source: John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh, Reuters, December 9, 2012 >>>]

“In some of the mountainous northern provinces where she recently conducted surveys, the level of understanding and action seemed very limited, she said. In the Mekong Delta and some other coastal areas, by contrast, local governments appear to have a better understanding. Adapting will also require the government to think comprehensively, encompassing social, economic, land use and other policies -- something experts say will be a challenge for a polity still emerging from an era of stovepiped central planning. "The knee-jerk response is engineering," said Jeremy Carew-Reid with the Hanoi-based International Center for Environmental Management. >>>

“Many localities, for instance, think dykes are the answer to projections of increased flooding. As an example he notes the government approved a $650 million plan to encompass Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's commercial hub, in a system of dykes. He modeled the impact for a widely read study and showed that while the plan might stop flooding it would create a whole new set of problems for the city of more than 7 million people. "Since then it's been on hold as more and more people have been criticizing it," he said.Asked if he was worried about climate change, his answer was telling: "We don't have time to worry about that stuff." >>>

Mekong Delta—Vietnam's Rice Bowl—Threatened by Rising Seas

Reporting from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, Kit Gillet wrote in The Guardian, “The vast, humid expanse of the delta is home to more than 17 million people, who have relied for generations on its thousands of river arteries. But rising sea water caused by global warming is now increasing the salt content of the river water and threatening the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and fishermen. [Source: Kit Gillet, The Guardian, August 21, 2011 :::]

A one-metre rise in sea levels. Such a rise could leave a third of the Mekong Delta underwater and lead to mass internal migration and devastation in a region that produces nearly half of Vietnam's rice. "If there was a one-metre rise, we estimate 40 percent of the delta will be submerged," says Tran Thuc, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. "There is also the threat of cyclones and storms linked to climate change. The people in this area are not prepared for any of this." :::

“Already affected by regular flooding, those who live in the low-lying delta are focusing on the rising salt content of water in land that has for thousands of years been used for rice paddies, coconut groves and other crops which locals rely on for their livelihood. Government officials and international observers are predicting significant lifestyle changes for the delta's population, which will be forced to adapt to survive. :::

Dao Xuan Lai, head of sustainable development at the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam, said: "Rising sea waters will cause inundations to the Mekong and will require drastic changes in lifestyles for the people. They will be forced to switch crops and innovate. People close to river banks and river mouths have already had to find different ways to make a living in fresh water." Tough decisions are going to become more common for Mekong residents in the years ahead as the environment changes around them. "Even if we stop all emissions worldwide now, the water will still rise 20 to 30 centimetres in the next few decades," said the UN's Lai. "At the moment the prediction is a rise of 75 centimetres by 2050. People in this region are still very poor and will need help from the international community to survive this." :::

Salt Intrusion in the Mekong Delta

Reporting from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, Kit Gillet wrote in The Guardian, “Sitting amid buckets of rice in the market, Nguyen Thi Lim Lien issues a warning she desperately hopes the world will hear: climate change is turning the rivers of the Mekong Delta salty. "The government tells us that there are three grams of salt per litre of fresh water in the rivers now," she says. "Gradually more and more people are affected. Those nearest the sea are the most affected now, but soon the whole province will be hit." [Source: Kit Gillet, The Guardian, August 21, 2011 :::]

According to the Ben Tre department of agriculture and rural development, salt water at four parts per thousand has, as of April, reached as far as 35 miles inland, causing significant damage to crops and livestock, with rice production particularly affected. "Salination will become higher and higher and the salt season will last longer and be worse," predicts Thuc.The city of Ben Tre, one of the gateways to the Mekong, is inland, on one of the many tributaries of the Mekong river where the waters are still only partially affected by the increased salination. But further downriver, the effects are more pronounced. "I have to travel five hours upstream by boat to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking," says Vo Thi Than, 60, who cannot afford the prices charged by those who travel down the river selling fresh water from upstream. :::

“Than lives beside a dock and runs a little restaurant on the small delta island of Cu Lao Oc, home to approximately 6,000 farmers and coconut growers. "A long time ago, there was no salty season at all. Now, five months a year the water is salty," she says. "We grow oranges, mandarins, lemons and coconuts, but these trees cannot survive if it is salt water only. During salty seasons, the trees bear less fruit and smaller fruits, and if there was only the salt season, nothing would grow." :::

John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh of Reuters wrote: “About a year ago some farmers from Binh Thanh commune in Vietnam's southern rice growing heartland suspected the worst — that their irrigation water had become too salty. They telephoned Vo Thanh, the head of An Giang province's hydro-meteorology center, and he came to take water samples from the commune, which is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the sea. The farmers' hunch turned out to be right. The brackish water would damage their crops, so Thanh advised officials to tell farmers to stop pumping it into their rice fields immediately. Not everyone took heed. "Those who didn't suffered losses," Thanh said. "Some 4,000 hectares (9,880 acres) of rice were damaged." [Source: John Ruwitch and Ho Binh Minh, Reuters, December 9, 2012 >>>]

“Thanh had seen salty irrigation water before, but never so far inland from the sea. What was troubling about Binh Thanh's case, though, was not the salt. It was that the problem was caused by an increasingly complex network of dykes and sluice gates built precisely to prevent salination, he said. "The other gates were closed to keep fresh water in, so the salty water flowed there," he said. >>>

“For places like Binh Thanh commune, environmental challenges will only increase. But the action-reaction cycle of change and responses will play itself out, as it has in the flood-prone region for centuries. Le Van Banh, a rice exert at the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute, says the salty water situation will worsen -- but researchers are creating new strains of rice that can withstand ever saltier water. Standing by his muddy fields that yield three rice crops a year, farmer Nguyen Van Banh poked holes in a paddy dyke with a staff and planted beans with his wife.” >>>

See Agriculture

Salt Intrusion Caused Mekong Delta Rice Farmers to Take Up Risky Shrimp Farming

Kit Gillet wrote in The Guardian, “In the area around the town of Ba Tri, near one mouth of the delta, the salination of the water has reached a point where many locals have been forced to abandon centuries of rice cultivation and risk their livelihoods on other ventures, mostly farming shrimp, which thrives in saltier water. Pham Van Bo is still able to plant rice on half his land thanks to an embankment built by the government four years ago, but he is risking his family's savings on the new venture. [Source: Kit Gillet, The Guardian, August 21, 2011 :::]

"We had to sell our fishing boat to pay to dig the cultivation pool and also had to pay someone to teach me how to do it. It was expensive, and I had to get the shrimp food and medicine on credit," he said. "It takes about four months from when they are small to selling them. It should be more profitable than rice planting, but I am worried since this is our first try." Bo needs only to walk two hundred metres along the riverbank to see a cautionary tale. Nguyen Van Lung and her family started raising shrimp six years ago, but now all but one of their pools are empty. :::

"Last October, the sea washed out all of our shrimp, we lost them all," she said. "We saw the water rising up and getting closer and closer, but we couldn't do anything about it. This season, we have been forced to just dump the shrimp in and let them grow with no fans, medicine or special food." The family received a loan from the local government to survive, but it takes a lot of money to farm shrimp, on which they now rely almost exclusively for their livelihood. :::

Olivia Dun is a PhD student at the University of Sydney's Mekong Resource Centre. She is studying environmental changes, flooding, saline intrusion and migration in the Mekong Delta. "Some households have benefited from the switch to shrimp and have been able to raise their level of income," she said. "Other households have continuously struggled to raise shrimp, which are sensitive to the conditions in their pond environment and easily susceptible to disease. These households face mounting debt, and of these households, some choose to migrate elsewhere temporarily in search of an income." :::

Environmental Problems for Wetlands in the Mekong Delta

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam wrote in the Inter Press Service, “Despite a US$6.7 million conservation project funded by Ho Chi Minh City, illegal farming and logging remain a major problem for reserve officials. "Local people have taken 12 hectares of forest land for their personal use," Thanh said, adding that all the forest land along the 19 kilometer road to Can Gio commune had been converted into shrimp ponds and salt fields. "They were taking a little more land each day," ranger Nguyen Duc Mien told IPS. "It is difficult to discover the violations because they take such a small amount each day." After four months, a family could take nearly one hectare of mangrove land to breed shrimp. The threat to the ecology system is serious. Last year, rangers seized 500 kilograms of endangered reptiles and birds, besides mangrove wood cut down illegally. "That is only a small portion of what poachers and loggers have taken away," Mien said. "We should find sustainable ways to manage wetlands in ways that help local people fight poverty and preserve biodiversity," Nguyen Duc Tu of Bird Life International's Vietnam Programme told the Hanoi meeting. [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Inter Press Service, September 22, 2005 >>>]

“Tu said that as the Arctic summer ends, thousands of shorebirds migrate to the wetlands of Vietnam from the north. They feed on small worms and crustaceans that burrow in coastal mud flats where thousands of people make their living by collecting shellfish. Wetlands are places of transition, where water and forest, fishery and farm meet and often overlap. In Vietnam, wetlands directly provide a source of livelihood for local people and provide environment services - from flood control to water purification and biodiversity conservation - that indirectly support the broader economy. The transitional nature of wetlands means they defy conventional, sectorial approaches to natural resources management. In Vietnam, no single agency has a mandate to manage the country's wetlands, with rights of use and access undefined so that conflict between government agencies and communities are frequent. Some agencies and communities are not fully aware of the special features of wetlands - their equally important environmental and economic functions - and therefore focus more on exploiting wetlands to increase food production. >>>

“While the government passed three laws regulating wetland management in 1994-95, an effective and comprehensive legal framework for wetlands protection and management is still lacking. So far, the $65.7 million multilateral project to help restore the Mekong Delta's depleted coastal mangrove swamps remains the biggest wetland investment. Entitled "The Coastal Wetlands Protection and Development Project", it is to be implemented between 2000 and 2006 and covers wetlands in four provinces of the Mekong Delta. Over the past 20 years, the area has lost well over half its cover, mainly due to unsustainable logging and failed shrimp farm developments. Project coordinators want to establish a "full protection zone" and introduce diversified and sustainable farming techniques in an adjacent "buffer zone". They also want to limit economic activities and coastal developments that pose a threat to the mangrove swamps. Unfortunately, these measures have met with strong resistance from local agencies and communities that are more concerned with economic development than ecology protection. >>>

Chinese Factories Skirt Pollution Laws by Relocating in Vietnam

Peter S. Goodman wrote in the Washington Post, “Before he left his native China two years ago, Li Shaoxing was losing money at his plastic-bag factory in the center of the country. He ventured south of the border, putting up a factory here in a new industrial park in northern Vietnam, where wages are roughly one-third cheaper than at home and where workplace safety and environmental standards are in scant evidence. [Source: Peter S. Goodman Washington Post, December 11, 2005 ***]

Some investment in Vietnam “is propelled by stricter enforcement of environmental standards in some areas of China. According to entrepreneurs in China who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering government officials, leaders in coastal areas have been encouraging pollution-intensive industries such as plastics, steel and electronics to consider relocating to Southeast Asia. A strong push is coming from Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province south of Shanghai that has long served as a locomotive for growth in China's private sector. ***

“Officials in Wenzhou have convened roundtables with local entrepreneurs to encourage major polluters to move. At one meeting, a vice mayor of Wenzhou specifically declared that high-polluting industries would be deprived of access to land, water and electricity, according to two participants. This year, the Wenzhou city government and the Zhejiang provincial government have jointly organized roughly 50 all-expenses-paid trips for local businesses to survey prospective industrial sites in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the entrepreneurs said. ***

“While few would describe China as a beacon of labor safety or high wages, Chinese investors acknowledged in interviews that Vietnam beckons as an even cheaper, less regulated place to run a factory. "Here, the workers can really accept hardship," said Qing Song, deputy general manager at Lifan Vietnam, a motorcycle factory opened outside Hanoi by a Chinese company. "Whatever requirements you set out for them in a day, they meet." At the factory on a recent afternoon, men uncoiled sheaths of aluminum without protective gloves, while others operated heavy machinery without goggles or earplugs. The work went on beneath corrugated aluminum ceilings in poorly ventilated structures. Men in flip-flops used a donkey cart to move bricks to a construction site. ***

Air Pollution in Vietnam

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “A decade ago, bicycles and three-wheeled pedal taxis rode quietly down the tree-lined streets of Vietnam's capital. Today, millions of motorcycles and scooters buzz through Hanoi in a confused and unrelieved cacophony. As its economy surges forward, motorcycles have become the symbol of economic freedom in Vietnam. But they are also the main source, together with the growing number of cars, of worrying levels of air pollution, officials and experts say. Hoping to avoid the "grow first, clean up later" pattern that most Asian countries have followed, Vietnam decided several years ago to tighten its lax vehicle emissions laws. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, July 6, 2007 ^*^]

“But after numerous missed deadlines and sparring between government ministries, environmental groups now say air pollution in Vietnam could get worse before it gets better. The air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City contains dangerous levels of benzene and sulfur dioxide, experts say. Levels of one of the most dangerous pollutants, microscopic dust known as PM10, are moderate compared with other developing Asian cities but could worsen if Vietnam chooses to build coal-fired power plants to satiate demand for electricity, which is growing at double-digit annual rates. Pham Duy Hien, an expert on pollution who is also an adviser to the Swiss-Vietnamese Clean Air Program, a government-linked environmental project, says Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have PM10 levels of about 80 micrograms per cubic meter, double the current level in Bangkok and well above the guideline of 20 set by the World Health Organization. Beijing and New Delhi have dirtier air, with levels of 142 and 115, respectively. ^*^

“At the heart of Vietnam's air pollution problem is dirty fuel, according to Hoang Hai Van, managing editor of the Thanh Nien newspaper, which recently published a series of groundbreaking articles on the topic. Van says the Vietnamese companies authorized to import fuel are resisting buying higher-quality fuel because it is more expensive. "The point is that they don't want to import fuel of better quality because they don't want to see a fall in profits," Van said in an e-mail message. The government is divided on the issue, Van and others say: the Ministry of Trade sees the fuel import business as a cash cow, while the Vehicle Registration and Inspection Agency says poor-quality fuel is negating any benefits of higher emissions standards. ^*^

“In February, carmakers based in the country, represented by the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers Association, sent a letter to the prime minister's office, complaining that newer engines would be damaged by the low-quality fuel. "The issue of fuel quality will have to be addressed sooner or later but we can't do it all at once," said Dang Duong Binh, director of the environment section of the Hanoi Department of Natural Resources, Environment and Housing. As of July 1, all gasoline stations in Vietnam were supposed to carry fuel compatible with Euro II standards, which were in place in the European Union until 2000 and limit levels of benzene, sulfur and microscopic dust, among other pollutants. The European Union now imposes significantly stricter regulations, known as Euro IV. Van says poor-quality fuel is still being sold. "In reality, diesel for vehicle use is not up to standards," he said. ^*^

“Even the vehicle registration department does not seem to trust the quality of fuel sold at gasoline stations. To assure that new vehicles made in Vietnam meet the Euro II specifications, the inspection agency provides car and motorcycle manufacturers with a reserve of specially obtained clean fuel, according to Pham Quang Thanh of the Vehicle Registration and Inspection Agency. The irony for Vietnam is that for several years, it has pumped higher-quality "sweet" crude oil offshore that could produce clean-burning fuel if refined properly, according to Hoang Viet Cuong, a technical consultant to the Swiss-Vietnamese Clean Air Program and a former employee of Petrolimex, the Vietnamese national oil company. ^*^

“But with no refineries of its own, Vietnam must send the crude abroad. "We have very high-quality sweet crude but then we import low-quality refined oil," Cuong said. Vietnam is building a refinery, but it will not come online until 2010. Another problem is lax enforcement. Vehicle inspectors have a reputation for accepting bribes, vehicle owners and drivers say. The going rate for a passing grade is around 200,000 dong, or about $12, they say. At an inspection station in the Phap Van neighborhood of Hanoi, Do Van Hoa, the head of the facility, says about 30 percent of vehicles do not even pass the existing emissions tests, which are well below Euro II standards and do not apply to motorcycles. But Hoa denies accepting bribes. "It is not the case that we pass the vehicles if someone offers us money," Hoa said. "We have cameras," he added, pointing to the four corners of an inspection station reeking of car emissions. ^*^

“Euro II regulations only apply to new vehicles, said Thanh, of the Vehicle Registration and Inspection Agency, and there is no plan to subject existing cars and motorcycles to more rigorous inspections. "You'll have to be patient and wait until they die out," Thanh said, referring to existing vehicles. But there are also signs of rising awareness about air quality, environmentalists say, and they are encouraged that in a country where information is still tightly controlled, authorities allowed critical articles such as Van's series to be published. "People were recently outraged after 17 local brands of soy sauce were found to contain a carcinogenic chemical," Van wrote in an editorial. "They should, however, realize that fuels with high pollutant levels are worse than soy sauce since, no matter who uses the fuels, everyone breathes the same air." ^*^

Air Pollution includes particles of soot, organic hazardous material, heavy metals, acid aerosols and dust. The smaller particles are more dangerous because they are more easily inhaled.

Water Pollution and Water Shortages in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City's canals are very polluted. Some families draw drinking and washing water from the same canals were people relive themselves and toss rotted vegetables.

Vietnamese wetlands include the river estuaries, deltas, submerged forests, tidal plains with rice fields seasonally under water, offshore islands, marshes, lagoons, salt fields and reservoirs, and rivers and streams. By that estimation wetland areas in Vietnam may reach one-fourth to one-third of the total territorial area of 330,000 square kilometers. These areas are under threat from rising sea levels salt water intrusion, industrial pollution and runoff and waste from shrimp farms and agriculture.

AFP reported: “Vietnam faces future water shortages due to the rapid growth of its population and economy, a government official warned, as the level of a major northern river dropped to a historic low. "Vietnam's water resources are limited, and the population has grown four-fold in 60 years," Nguyen Dinh Ninh, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry's irrigation department, said Wednesday. He warned that Vietnam's population had rapidly grown from 20 million in the 1940s to 84 million now, reducing the water supply from 17,000 to 4,600 cubic meters per person per year in that time. "We also lack water because of rapid socio-economic development," he said, stressing that water use had shifted from farming to industry and hydropower projects in Vietnam, which saw more than 8 percent economic growth last year. Water flows in streams and rivers had declined, he said, as the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that the water level in the Red River at Hanoi measured 1.53 meters (5 feet) Tuesday, the lowest mark in 100 years.

Ninh warned that the situation would worsen this year, as Vietnam is forecast to be affected by the El Nino climatic phenomenon which would likely bring lower rainfalls and shorten the rainy season. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 10, 2007]

Vietnam’s Coastal Ecosystems Under Threat

Grant McCool and Nguyen Van Vinh of Reuters wrote: “Nha Trang on the south-central coast has smooth sandy beaches, islands and mountains, but it also carries the burden of the ugly side of rapid development and fast-growing tourism. Visitors and residents of Nha Trang say they can find fish swimming close to the beach one day but the water unswimmable the next because of styrofoam, plastic bags and pieces of wood. Diving clubs and businesses have spawned along the main palm tree-lined oceanfront boulevard alongside high-rise hotels and some unfinished grey concrete buildings. "It was really up there compared with a lot of the places I've been. Beautiful," Tanya Anderson of Normal, Illinois, said on one boat after a dive to see the coral. "I saw a little bit of garbage and so it would be nice to clean up some of the garbage." [Source: Grant McCool & Nguyen Van Vinh, Reuters, July 16, 2007 *-*]

“Oil spills have struck more than 20 provinces on the coast this year, including Nha Trang in Khanh Hoa province. According to Vietnamese media reports, more than 1,720 tonnes of oil have been scraped off the beaches and water. The causes are mysterious, according to a series of investigations, which speculated oil came from a leaking oil rig, damaged tanker or oil and gas platforms in the South China Sea. Environmental awareness and "sustainable development" are built into the government's socio-economic plans to lift people out of poverty, but constant construction and proliferation of tourist sites make it difficult to carry out. A masterplan to collect and dispose of waste from islands, barges and cages raising aqua products is being worked out, said Truong Kinh, director of Nha Trang Bay Marine Protected Area Authority. "Now we are facing some challenges and difficulties such as fast urbanisation, the waste coming from industrial, agricultural sectors and daily living," Kinh said. The government says earnings from sea and seaside business would account for 54 percent of GDP in 2020, increasing pressure on provinces to meet economic targets. *-*

“In the southern beach town of Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan province, resort owner Pascal Lefebvre said work was being done in schools to educate young people about how to dispose of waste and rubbish in environmentally-sound ways. "Any developing country faces those problems. Officials understand the need to preserve the environment here, however it is often a matter of budget and who will finance the plans," Lefebvre said. A Vietnamese non-governmental organization, the Center for Marinelife Conservation and Community Development, works with local fishermen in Khanh Hoa province. The center's director Nguyen Thu Hue said it encourages fishermen to "take ownership of the water" so they can play an active part in their own business plans. "What we tell them is that if the environment is ignored, you will have nothing left to live on," she said. *-*

“In other parts of Vietnam, research shows that rivers are dying and air pollution is above internationally-accepted levels in the capital, Hanoi. Surface water in Hanoi was unusable for agriculture or for domestic use, a report in April by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said. The waterways of the biggest urban area, Ho Chi Minh City, are even worse and considered "dead" the report said. It said most enterprises do not have or do not use wastewater treatment and domestic wastewater is out of control. *-*

Rapid Coral Decline Threatens Vietnam's Dive Tourism Industry

Less than 25 percent of coral reefs surveyed have living coral and 75 percent are at high or very high risk, eight times the southeast Asian average. According to to one study About 85 percent of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are severely threatened by human activities such as pollution and overfishing. Experts say Vietnam's scuba diving capital of Nha Trang could lose all of its coral within 30 years. "The coverage of coral in Nha Trang Bay shrank from 52.4 percent in 1994 to 21.2 percent in 2005," Nguyen Van Long, head of the seafood resource department at the Nha Trang Oceanography Institute, told Deutsche Presse Agentur. "The bay may not have any coral left in 30 years if the coverage keeps shrinking at that pace." [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, June 12, 2007 >=<]

“Tourism and fishing are the mainstays of Nha Trang's economy. Tran Son Hai, director of the tourism department of Khanh Hoa province, said the city received 1.1 million tourists last year, of whom 30 percent were international. Diving is one of the city's main attractions. But the tourism and fishing industries come into sharp conflict over the area's coral reefs. Long said overfishing is the main reason for the coral's decline. Many fishermen in the area employ explosives or poisons like cyanide to stun large numbers of fish for easy harvesting. Those techniques are deadly to the coral reefs, Long said, though tourist activity also plays a role. "We are very concerned about the shrinking of the coral," said the tourism department's Hai. "If it keeps shrinking like this, the local tourism industry will be badly hurt." >=<

“In 2002 the government established a Nha Trang Bay Marine Protected Area to try to halt the decline of marine life. But bans on dynamite and cyanide fishing have been inconsistently enforced, and recent surveys show biodiversity and marine life density have continued to decline. >=<

Untreated Industrial Waste Polluting Nha Trang Bay

In December 2007, Thanh Nien reported: “Waste from nearby fisheries and seafood processing facilities are destroying Nha Trang Bay, experts said. At the Khanh Hoa Province People's Council meeting, the Department of Legal Affairs reported that the bay was in danger of overwhelming pollution. The department blamed the filth on tourists, fishing ships, fish breeders and industrial and agricultural processors. Approximately 7,000 seafood cultivation rafts were polluting the environment while 5,000 people living on boats in the area throw ten tonnes of household garbage into the bay every day, according to the department. Additionally, the Cai and Tac rivers often carry waste from industry, agriculture, seafood processors and residential areas into Nha Trang Bay. The pollution has damaged Nha Trang Bay's ecosystem and maritime environment, including its many corals. [Source: Thanh Nien, December 22, 2007 ^^^]

“A province official said that the under-construction Bac Hon Ong seafood processing zone might worsen marine pollution in the bay if local authorities did not improve waste management and reign in the polluters. The Khanh Hoa Aquiculture Department said that the project's investor was drafting an environmental assessment report. The department added that only when the zone's waste was treated to "Standard A" would it be allowed to dump into the Tac River, which flows into the bay. At least one delegate proposed moving the zone to surrounding areas such as Van Ninh District or Cam Ranh Town, about 50-60 kilometers from Nha Trang City. However, the department said the idea was not feasible because the necessary human resources and material trade areas were in Nha Trang City. ^^^

Vietnam Bans Coal Shipping in Halong Bay Heritage Area

In October 2006, AFP reported: “Vietnam has banned coal shipping in Halong Bay to reduce industrial pollution in the World Heritage-listed island seascape, industry officials said. "We have decided to stop all coal shipping activities in Halong Bay to protect the environment, from November 1," said Pham Trung Hung, head of the Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin). The group has also agreed with Quang Ninh provincial authorities to move all coal ports to Bai Tu Long Bay, 50 kilometers northeast of Halong Bay, he said. UNESCO has in the past raised concerns about threats facing the area 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. These include the rapid expansion of floating fishing villages, tourism infrastructure development and industrialization. [Source: Agence France Presse October 31, 2006]

"We are delighted about (the decision)," said Chu Shiu-Kee, Vietnam chief of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Coal loading and unloading in the World Heritage buffer zone has been an issue we have been requesting the provincial government to do something about. "It's not just making the water dirty with coal dust. The shipping concentrated in those areas has also caused other kinds of pollution."

Oil Slicks Off the Coast of Vietnam

In 2007, oil spills struck more than 20 provinces, including central Danang and south-central Nha Trang. Vietnamese media reported that nearly 2,000 tonnes of oil were scraped off the beaches and water. The causes were mostly mysterious, according to a series of investigations, which speculated oil came from a leaking oil rig, damaged tanker or oil and gas platforms in the South China Sea. [Source: Associated Press, March, 2008]

In March 2008, Reuters reported: “A small Vietnamese oil tanker capsized off the south-central coast, spilling fuel oil and leaving 14 crew missing, provincial officials said. The officials in Binh Thuan province said the tanker Duc Tri was carrying 1,700 tonnes of fuel oil, about 30 tonnes of which have leaked 50 kilometers off the popular beach resort of Mui Ne on March 2. 'The search for the missing is still ongoing and rescuers are also trying to contain the oil spill,' an official in the Binh Thuan province information center said by telephone. She said one crew member had been rescued. Binh Thuan is about 300 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. [Source: Reuters, March 6, 2008 ||||]

“The oil spill was about 2 square nautical miles, state media quoted Trinh Vu Anh, Deputy Director of the Southern Oil Spill Prevention Center, as saying. Associated Press reported: Most of the oil remained aboard the ship although a small amount had leaked through its ventilation system and begun spreading through nearby waters as the capsized vessel drifted off the coast. ||||

Mystery Oil Slick Affects Vietnam's Tourist Beaches

In March 2007, AFP reported: “An oil slick that first soiled Vietnam's central coast two months ago has spread to the country's far south, hitting fisheries and aquaculture, officials and state media. Government officials from the environment, defense and foreign ministries and the state-run oil company held a meeting to assess the cause of the pollution and how to deal with it, the Vietnam News Agency said. Authorities have not determined whether the oil was discharged by a passing tanker or leaked from an offshore oil rig in the South China Sea. The blobs of oil that first appeared on Vietnam's central coast in late January, driving tourists off the famed China Beach, have now blackened beaches as far south as the resort of Vung Tau and the far-southern Ca Mau peninsula. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 20, 2007 ==]

“Thousands of volunteers have scraped hundreds of tons of oil mixed with sand off beaches and rocky seashores in recent weeks, while the slick has killed marine life and damaged coastal shrimp and clam farms. "The source of the oil is still unknown, but local fishermen have reported catching marine products dirtied with oil," said a Tien Giang province environment department official. "We have sent teams of youth volunteers to the coastal Go Cong district to collect the oil." ==

Reuters reported: “Vietnam's prime minister has ordered an international investigation into mysterious oil spills that have blackened some of the country's most popular beaches after ruling out the country's oil rigs. "We have run thorough checks using vessels and aircrafts on our seas and found that our oil wells are safely operated and are not the culprit of the oil spills," Nguyen Tan Dung told delegates at the National Assembly in a live television broadcast. Dung was referring to two spills that occurred this year, one in January that hit beaches in the central part of the country and the second detected on March 11 along the southern coast. [Source: Reuters, March 31, 2007 +/+]

“State oil monopoly Petrovietnam president Dinh La Thang said tests showed the oil in the spill was crude oil from outside Vietnam, state media reported on Saturday. he National Committee for Search and Rescue said residents had so far collected nearly 1,500 tonnes from the two mysterious spills. The oil had affected popular Danang beach and all 125 kilometers (80 miles) of Quang Nam province's coastline, including Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage site. The second oil spill in the south has affected shrimp and mussel farms along coast, state media reported on Saturday. +/+

High Tech Lake Clean-up of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake to Save Its Legendary Turtle

In November 2007, Frank Zeller of Agence France Presse wrote: “Pollution threatens the lake that is the heart and soul of Vietnam's capital — and a legendary turtle who lives below its murky waters — but now a high-tech solution may be at hand to save them both. Over the next three years, in time for Hanoi's 1,000th birthday in 2010, scientists intend to clean up Hoan Kiem Lake, home to the creature that symbolises Vietnam's centuries-old struggle for independence. Vietnamese and German experts say they will use a new device, which borrows from the designs of corkscrews, submarines and tanks, to suck several meters (feet) of toxic sludge from the bottom of the 'Lake of the Returned Sword'. The 2.4-million-dollar project will be a delicate one. [Source: Frank Zeller, Agence France Presse, November 5, 2007 *|*]

“The famed, algae-green lake is home to an elusive turtle that is a key figure in Vietnam folklore. In a story that every Vietnamese child learns at school, the 15th century farmer-turned-rebel leader Le Loi used a magical sword to drive out Chinese invaders and found the dynasty named after him. When Le Loi, by now the emperor, went boating on the lake one day, a turtle appeared, took his sacred sword and dived to the bottom of the lake, keeping the weapon safe for the next time Vietnam may have to defend its freedom. Today, occasional sightings of a giant soft-shell turtle draw large crowds, and photographs and amateur video clips attest to the claim that at least one turtle indeed still lives in the lake. *|*

“Stormwater run-off from the growing city has sullied the stagnant lake with chemicals and organic pollutants that feed algae blooms and choke off oxygen. "The water quality is decreasing, and we expect a breakdown of the aquatic habitat within a decade," said Professor Peter Werner of Germany's Dresden University of Technology. "The lake could be dead in 10 years." Hoan Kiem Lake, about 600 meters long and 200 meters wide, is now only about 1.5 meters deep while a four-to-six-metre deep layer of sludge has accumulated on the lake bed, said Christian Richter of German company HGN Hydrogeologie. *|*

“German scientists have developed an "subaquatic vacuum cleaner" that will crawl along the lake floor using two corkscrew-like spirals that dig up and funnel the mud into a pipe while also propelling the device forward. The remote-controlled "SediTurtle" will use buoyancy to rise and sink like a submarine and use brakes on its two coils to move left and right like a tank, said engineer Dr Frank Panning of company GSan oekologische Gewaessersanierung. "We are using low-impact environmental technology that is silent and minimises turbulence and the release of toxic compounds," said Werner. "This project is very sensitive. We have to take care of the turtle." *|*

Blocking a Bauxite Mine: Rallying Point for Vietnamese Environmentalists

Plans for two Chinese-backed bauxite mines and aluminum plants in Vietnam's Central Highlands have become a major environmental issue in Vietnam, drawing in scientists, environmentalists, religious groups and bloggers. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the famed military strategist who defeated the French in 1954, and the American in the 1960s and 70s, wrote three public letters lambasting the mine, providing a major rallying point for opponents of the mine. Despite protestations plans for the mine are going ahead. In the fall of 2009, the government detained several bloggers who criticized the bauxite mine, and in December, a website that had drawn millions of visitors opposed to the mine, was hacked.

Helen Clark wrote in Time magazine, “Plans to mine the remote highlands for bauxite were first broached by the former Soviet Union, but the project was eventually dismissed due to environmental concerns. But in 2006, China signed a framework agreement with Vietnam for the state-owned mining company Aluminum Corp. of China to extract bauxite and refine aluminum at two plants in the region. The finished product would be exported to China, prompting, in addition to the existing environmental worries, new concerns that the agreement could exacerbate the large trade imbalance between the two nations. [Source: Helen Clark, Time, January 18, 2011 <^>]

“The mine projects are currently moving ahead despite criticism that the storage facilities in Dak Nong and Lam Dong provinces may not be able to properly store the aluminum production runoff containing, among other things, metal oxides and sodium hydroxide. Critics say the impact of any potential contamination of regional waterways on both highland crops like coffee and downstream crops of rice would be devastating, and that land clearance for future storage facilities could displace many ethnic-minority communities in the region. <^>

In years past, protests over the mines brought together normally disparate groups and concerns, for which the Internet was the obvious organizing ground. But online protest was soon quashed: bloggers were arrested and websites like Bauxite Vietnam were allegedly hacked. It's also thought the reason for an unacknowledged nationwide Facebook block enacted at the time was to target groups organizing via the social-networking site. "The crackdown began in 2007 in response to increasingly organized political opposition and Vietnamese taking advantage of the political space created by the Internet," says Duy Hoang, of U.S.-based Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party that is banned in Vietnam. The block has seemingly been stepped up again for the 11th Party Congress: the social-networking site is now even harder to access inside the country. <^>

Bauxite Mine Protests: A Test for Vietnamese Environmentalists

Helen Clark wrote in Time magazine, In October 2010, “several retired high-level officials, scientists and intellectuals signed a petition asking the government to postpone or entirely cancel the mines. The petition called the Hungary red sludge disaster a stern warning and said that calling off the multibillion dollar project would be an unhappy decision but one that may have to be undertaken in the interests of "national destiny." The refreshed public debate, staged in autumn in newspapers, blogs and the decisionmaking National Assembly, is in part a result of the nation's slow but growing environmental movement, says Scott Roberton, the Vietnam representative for the New York City–based Wildlife Conservation Society. He says that in Vietnam, green concerns have often been sacrificed in the interests of rapid industrialization, but a more educated populace with greater Internet access has seen environmentalism move beyond the purview of the NGO sector. "People are speaking out publicly, decisionmakers are being lobbied and there seems to be far more public debate than before. It's in the early days, but the signs are very promising," he says. [Source: Helen Clark, Time, January 18, 2011 <^>]

“Others agree. "The bauxite mining issue is the most prominent environmental issue to emerge in Vietnam," says professor Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert who recently resigned from the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He says that unlike some protests of 2009 and 2008, in which objections to the mines had at times functioned as a way to push a wider political agenda, including the legitimacy of a one-party system, the dissension voiced in the past few months has mostly been more effective, and officials, in turn, now understand there are lines they may not be able to cross. <^>

“One member of the National Assembly who has been particularly vocal in his questioning of the bauxite mining project is Duong Truong Quoc, a signatory to the October petition. The representative for Dong Nai province in the south, an important economic hub and an area that could be badly affected should runoff from the mines travel downstream via waterways from areas in the Central Highlands, says people in his province are worried. "People's concerns are very realistic," he says. He also says that key elements of infrastructure important to bauxite extraction, such as water and power supplies, are not up to the task. <^>

“The government has agreed to oversee an environmental-impact study of the mines, and a working group visited Hungary after the disaster there, but some have their doubts. The Party Congress, which sets the direction of the country for the next five years and decides important positions within the government, could reverse the decision to go ahead with the mines, but it's seen by many as a long shot. The Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, has from the beginning pushed the project forward, despite reservations by some in the government and military. "A handful of delegates might raise the issue," says Thayer, "but it's likely to be swept under the carpet." <^>

See Resources, Bloggers

Vietnam’s National Parks and Reserves and Efforts to Develop Them

Vietnam first established protected lands in the 1960s, and the network has grown to include 30 national parks and scores of other protected areas spanning forests and wetlands. Ho Chi Minh created Vietnam first national park, Cuc Phuong National Park, in 1962. By 1990 there were 90 reserves, covering 4 percent of the country, or about 3.2 million acres. There are plans to double the reserve areas. General Vi Ngyun Giap, the military strategist behind the North Vietnamese victory over both the French and Americans, was a committed conservationist. He once said that Vietnam “did not fight decades for control over its resources only to squander them once independence was achieved."

Vietnam's protected areas are increasingly becoming a battleground for conflicts between conservationists and developers. Mike Ives of Associated Press wrote: “When developers want the land, they say, environmental safeguards disappear. Vietnamese laws adhere to international environmental standards, but in practice are "minor considerations" in land-use and infrastructure-planning decisions, the World Bank said in a report last year. "It doesn't matter if the forests are protected by law or not," said Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation, one of Vietnam's few locally based conservation groups. If officials and community groups are not vocal enough, "then the private sector will try (to get) wealthier and wealthier." [Source: Mike Ives, Associated Press, November 14, 2012 /=\]

Conservationists cite the example of northern Ba Be National Park, where pollution from ore mining is said to threaten a freshwater lake that has received accolades from an international environmental convention. Scientists and hundreds of residents have protested that the pollution is causing the lake's water quality to deteriorate, state media reported last year. A local Communist Party official also has called for a probe into what the state-run Vietnam News Agency calls "rampant deforestation" by loggers inside the park.

Elsewhere, a proposal to develop two hydropower plants in Cat Tien National Park in the south has triggered opposition because the dams would inundate forests. "It took generations to establish and maintain our national parks," said former park director Tran Van Thanh, who is calling for the proposal to be scrapped. "It would be a waste if we have to surrender parts of our forests for economic development."

Experts say local development agendas often trump larger conservation goals as officials sell off protected territory for mines, hydropower dams and infrastructure or real estate projects. Tensions between conservation and development have only increased over the last decade in Vietnam. Land developers have become wealthy, powerful and ambitious on the back of rapid economic growth. Protected areas are typically under the control of local officials, who receive little funding for conservation and view the areas as potential sources of revenue.

"Vietnam is at a real crossroads where it has to make some hard decisions about whether or not it values biodiversity conservation," said Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who conducts research in Vietnam's protected areas. "The majority of folks working in the protected-area system are genuinely dedicated ... but they're facing really powerful interests." Vietnam's poor enforcement of environmental laws is adding to international criticism of its ruling Communist Party, which is castigated for its human rights record and its handling of a sagging economy.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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