SLP Environmental Co., Ltd - An ASEAN Environmental Consultancy

Vietnams’ environment creaks under the strain of breakneck development

Over the last decade, industrial and development activities in Vietnam have made a significant contribution to the stable development of the country’s socio-economic and national economic development targets and consequently around 20 million people have been lifted above the poverty line in less than a decade.  However, in the development process, these same manufacturing activities and associated infrastructure expansion works have taken a high toll on Vietnam’s natural environment and the nation’s health, and this has not been helped by the fact that environmental law enforcement has historically been patchy and often lax.  This environmental degradation is now actually threatening to undermine these admirable development objectives, as the health and livelihoods of urban and rural communities are being put at risk as a result of the unsustainable burden being placed on Vietnam’s natural environment.

It is not uncommon to read reports in the Vietnam press of rivers and groundwaters polluted by large volumes of untreated industrial effluent and municipal wastewater, or how the uncontrolled burial of hazardous wastes has contaminated groundwaters making them unusable for drinking water supply.  Atmospheric pollution has also risen as a result of rapid industrialization and smoke, dust and odour pollution from facilities such as cement manufacturing and seafood processing plants is widespread.

One environmental pollution incident extensively publicised in the Vietnam press over the last few months is the Taiwanese-financed monosodium glutamate producer Vedan Vietnam who were caught red-handed polluting the Thi Vai River in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, 67km south of Ho Chi Minh City.  They have been discharging thousands of cubic metres of untreated wastewater into the river every day for the last 14 years and as a result a 15km stretch of the river is now grossly polluted.  The Vietnamese Government have suspended the factories operations and fined the company a US$7.5 million retrospective environmental protection fine, and it is reported that some 1,000 local residents whose health and livelihoods have suffered are also preparing a class action against the company.  According to the Vietnam Environmental Protection Agency (VEPA), the Thi Vai River receives daily some 34,000 cubic metres of untreated wastewater discharged from nearly 200 companies operating in the river basin and as a result it is reported that ships can no longer anchor at Go Dau Port in Dong Nai Province because of pollution damage.

In the wake of the environment pollution scandals reported nationwide the authorities are now taking action.  The coastal province of Binh Thuan has set the 30th December 2008 as the deadline for all companies operating in the tourism sector like hotels and resorts to complete their wastewater treatment facilities, and work started in November on a common system to treat wastewater for the whole province.  A recent study found that of the approximately 115 licensed industrial zones (IZs) in Vietnam less than 25 have constructed centralized wastewater treatment facilities, and in Ho Chi Minh, which is Vietnam's largest urban conurbation, only five of the 15 IZs have centralized wastewater treatment plants.  As a consequence large volumes of heavily polluted effluents are being directly discharged to surface water courses which can have a devastating effect on both the livelihood and health of local communities who rely on these watercourses for sustenance and irrigation.  Ho Chi Minh City is currently improving its sewerage system and wastewater treatment facilities, but there is extensive scope for the expansion of wastewater infrastructure across the entire country.

The World Bank also reports that Vietnam produces over 15 million tons of solid waste each year and most of this is not disposed of in a safe or controlled manner.  Many landfills are either unlined or poorly lined, and as such hazardous materials can leach into groundwaters and surface waters where they pose a significant risk to both public health and aquatic ecosystems.  The proper handling of waste, including reuse and recycling, collection, treatment and disposal is crucial to providing a cost effective and more sustainable waste management system that actually reduces these risks to public health and the environment.  According to the World Bank, whilst Vietnam has responded to solid waste issues with a sound legal framework for environmental protection and waste management, as well as an aggressive investment plan, many weaknesses remain and the agenda is large and unfinished.  There is an urgent need to enforce the existing regulations effectively and establish municipal and industrial hazardous waste management systems.  From an industrial perspective these could include both factory-based handling, treatment, and disposal systems, as well as centralized or shared hazardous waste treatment facilities within Industrial Zones. 

Developed countries have discovered to their considerable cost that a legacy of land contamination is also a common symptom of poorly regulated development.  The uncontrolled handling, storage and disposal of hazardous materials such as oils, solvents and other process residues has, by its very nature, a tendency to result in soil and groundwater contamination.  The continuation of such dangerous industrial practices should be curtailed by improved legislation and resolute enforcement on the part of the regulatory bodies.  Existing contamination should be dealt with by a program of environmental site assessment, much like that implemented in many developed nations, whereby desk based studies are undertaken to identify sites that are potentially contaminated as a result of past and current landuses.  These sites are then ranked in terms of environmental sensitivity based on the properties of the potential contaminants and the proximately of sensitive receptors such as potable water abstractions and vulnerable communities and eco-systems.  A top down rolling programme of site investigation and chemical testing is then implemented to determine whether ground conditions at these sites represent an unacceptable risk to human and environmental receptors.  Where the assessment indicates this to be the case, the subject site should be remediated (cleaned-up) under the strict supervision of the pertinent regulators until the risks are reduced to acceptable levels, and ideally with the polluter footing the bill.

Vietnam was recently described in a UK Trade and Invest Report as one of the most attractive emerging markets globally.  Foreign Direct investment (FDI) is at record rates with Vietnam currently ranking fifth in the world with a FDI estimate for 2008 of US$60 billion, with additional billions being loaned for new infrastructure projects by International Financial Institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.  As Vietnam’s economy grows at a breakneck pace, many Vietnamese and international observers are quite rightly worried about the potential trade-off between economic development and the environment. There is a rising consensus that economic development should not come at too high a price and that more consideration needs to be given to promoting sustainable development and protecting the natural environment for future generations.  Paradoxically environmental pollution is actually threatening to undercut recent socio-economic gains as it has a detrimental effect on people’s livelihoods, human health and the ecosystems that Vietnam relies on for sustenance.

The more astute businesses in Vietnam are now realising that they have a corporate social responsibility towards the natural environment, and that foreign investors are increasingly commissioning environmental due diligence assessments before entering into any significant business transaction in the region.  In fact, the banks themselves are exercising corporate social responsibility (CSR) and refusing to lend to polluting companies without concrete evidence that they are taking real steps to tackle their irresponsible environmental behavior.  Consequently those companies which implement positive efforts to operate sustainably and responsibly will attract investment to finance upgrades and expansion, and thus improve their overall long term profitability and competitiveness in the marketplace.  Surely this represents a classic win:win scenario.

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