Vietnam turning a blind eye to industrial pollution

River water pumped into a farm River water pumped into a farm

Industrial pollution of the waters of the Mekong Delta, in the southern tip of Vietnam, is taking place on an ever increasing scale, reports Andrew Martin.

Steel processing and other manufacturing businesses are becoming established in the delta because of the availability of water, cheap labour and next to no strong public control.

However, the delta is home to the country’s expanding freshwater fish industry and these businesses are discharging mostly untreated waste into the very rivers on which the farms and processing plants depend.

There is no danger, as yet, that water contaminated with industrial waste comes into contact with the fish being produced. Bacteriological and other checks are regularly carried out to ensure that the quality meets international standards.

“No piece of fish that is in any way contaminated leaves the country”, says an industry insider who didn’t want to be named.

Nevertheless, there is potential danger of contamination and the Vietnamese government and local authorities are currently turning a blind eye because of the emphasis on economic development. “The Vietnamese think more about ‘today’ than ‘tomorrow’,” says a foreign national living in Vietnam.

The scale of the industrial pollution taking place was highlighted by journalists from the national Tuoi Tre (Youth) internet news service who travelled along the Hau and Tien Rivers earlier this summer. They reported that the air in several places was too polluted to even breathe.

There was a foul smell and the river waters were blackened and full of rubbish, they said. These rivers are the main branches of the Mekong River as it divides before emptying in the South China Sea, and are at the centre of the pangasius industry. Pangasius is the main fish species being produced.

Wastewater treatment
Some wastewater treatment plants have been built to deal with factory effluent, but these are often not being fully utilised.

Businesses do not want to use a wastewater treatment plant, either because it will cost them money or because it is difficult to connect their pipelines with those of the treatment plant, said Huynh Tan Loi, director of a wastewater treatment plant in Can Tho Province.

“It is worth noting that the real amount of wastewater these businesses treat at my plant is only half the figure they declare to the authorities”, he added.

Some businesses in the province have their own wastewater treatment systems, but police and environment officials say they only activate them when inspectors visit.

Businesses even build secret wastewater discharge systems. Hau Giang environmental officials discovered Nam Song Hau Seafood Co building an underground pipeline to dump its wastewater straight into the nearby Cai Dau River, which empties into the Hau River.

It is difficult to explain the rationale allowing delta waterways to become contaminated as the region is extremely important for food production – the Mekong Delta is called Vietnam’s rice basket, although seafood is playing an increasingly important role.

About 70,000 tonnes of pangasius are produced annually in the Mekong Delta, mostly for export, and there is the potential to increase this to two million tonnes. Tilapia is also now being produced in the region and there is the potential for growing other species as well.

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