Long before a government report confirmed it, villagers living along the banks of the Thi Vai river in the Mekong Delta knew full well that the waterway was dead. They had complained for years that industrial waste discharged into the Thi Vai had poisoned their wells, killed all the fish and was making them sick. Yet it wasn't until cargo companies refused to dock at the river's main port saying that the toxic brew was eating through the ships' hulls that Vietnam officials were willing to get tough on polluters.
Last month, with pressure mounting, investigators announced they had caught a Taiwanese-owned monosodium glutamate factory red-handed. Though it had taken three months of undercover work, inspectors discovered that Vedan Vietnam, a foreign-owned company, was illegally dumping untreated waste into the river. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen called it "not just a violation but, in fact, treacherous behavior." An unprecedented crackdown followed: a Korean MSG manufacturer was nabbed dumping toxic waste. Several foreign-owned starch factories, which can release cyanide during processing, were shut down. On October 10, inspectors caught a Vietnamese leather tanning company pumping carcinogenic chemicals into a river in Ho Chi Minh City.
This sudden, aggressive enforcement of environmental regulations has become almost a rite of passage for industrializing nations. Now it's Vietnam's turn. The communist government's embrace of the free market has lifted millions out of poverty over the last decade. But just as in neighboring China, environmental considerations have been largely pushed aside in the race to build factories and industrial parks, few of them equipped with adequate wastewater treatment facilities.
The predictable result: pollution of the country's lands and waters on a shocking scale. According to Vietnam's state media, thousands of large and small-scale industries discharge at least 33,000 cubic meters of waste into the Mekong River system every day. Midwife Le Thi Thanh Thuy, who lives a kilometer from the Vedan plant, tells pregnant women living along the Thi Vai River not to drink the water. Even some well water burns people's skin and isn't used to wash clothes. "They are so poor, they don't have enough money to buy rice," says Thuy. "So how can they buy water?"
Enforcement gets short shrift, because local governments benefit from development, says Doan Canh, a professor at the Institute for Tropical Biology. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has only a few environmental inspectors, who typically must get permission from factory owners to inspect an industrial site. And when a company is found to be illegally discharging wastewater, the fines are too low Vedan was fined several times in the past for a total of $1,400 to be a deterrent. "I gave evidence of serious pollution from these factories, particularly Vedan, in 1994," says Canh. "But the relevant state agencies have let those violations continue for years."
What angers villagers is that the pollution is there for anyone to see. Le Thi Nung doesn't need a scientist in a lab coat to tell her that the river is full of poison. Her village in Dong Nai's district of Long Thanh once depended upon fishing and small farms. "After Vedan opened, the pollution killed all the fish so I had nothing to feed my seven children," she complains, adding that the factory brought few of the promised benefits, only cancers and stomach ailments. With no other options, Nung's 19-year-old daughter married a Taiwanese man twice her age. The family now lives on the $100-$200 she sends home every month.
Environmental degradation is beginning to threaten some of the economic gains Vietnam has made. Once lucrative shrimp farms are dying, and the country's efforts to market itself as a tourist destination are undermined by images of poisoned rivers. And while it is doubtful that the Thi Vai river's chemical stew could actually eat through a steel hull, the threat that ships would not stop at the Go Dau port, delivered a clear message about the potential economic impact of pollution.
On Tuesday, October 14, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered the government to get tough on polluters. It fined Vedan $16,000 and ordered to the company to pay $7.6M in environmental back dues it owes. These are fees the company was supposed to pay in order to pollute. They had not paid these fees in several years and so criminal charges could still be filed. This should send out a clear message to all manufacturers, says Natural Resources and Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen.
But the Prime Minister's call for tougher enforcement also cautioned local authorities to balance environmental protection with development to ensure growth is sustainable. In a press conference after the charges against Vedan were made public, Nguyen, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, conceded he was under a lot of pressure. "Many local officials have called me to say that we have to lower standards on the environment," the Natural Resources and Environment Minister said, "otherwise they can't attract foreign investors."
Meanwhile, Vedan is still making condiments for Vietnam's dinner tables. Despite the tough talk, it does not appear that the government is going to shut them down.