Excessive exploitation of rivers and lakes in Vietnam has pushed down water levels and polluted water resources of local communities, according to regional experts, who want the government to better enforce regulation of waterways.
The problem is mostly evident in the central and south of the country where waterways are increasingly used for farming and to generate power.
“At the moment, water exploitation of rivers is over the limit—especially for hydropower plants—which has lowered the level of Vietnam’s rivers,” said Lam Thi Thu Suu, a coordinator with Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN), a consortium of NGOs, academics and government officials monitoring the country’s waterways.
“Pollution in the downstream sections of the rivers has made the situation worse for local communities,” Suu, who is also with Vietnam’s Center for Social Research and Development, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Vietnam’s river network includes 13 major river systems covering an area of around 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles).
International water resource organizations recommend limiting exploitation of Vietnam’s rivers to a maximum of 30 percent of their flow.
But according to a report by the official Voice of Vietnam online journal, most of Vietnam’s central provinces are exploiting more than 50 percent of their rivers’ flow, while Ninh Thuan province, in southern Vietnam, exploits as much of 80 percent of flow.
The excessive exploitation, mostly for agricultural use and energy production, has seriously degraded water resources in the basins of Vietnam’s major rivers, such as the Red River, the Thai Binh River, and the Dong Nai River, the report said.
Areas with depleted rivers and lakes are particularly susceptible to pollution from farming pesticides and fertilizers, as well as wastewater from industrial and urban zones, putting water sources for local populations at risk.
According to Suu, the government needs to develop a plan to limit usage of Vietnam’s rivers on a sector-by-sector basis.
“We need to have plans on water usage for each river area,” he said.
“The government needs to have a specific plan on how many hydropower plants can use water from each river, how much water is used for farming and how much for running [tap] water.”
Lacking clean water
Le Anh Tuan, a climate change expert with VNR based in Can Tho city, said that because of exploitation and increased pollution, the majority of people in Vietnam’s rural areas—particularly in the south near the Mekong Delta—do not have daily access to clean water.
“There are a lot of rivers and lakes around the Mekong Delta where the water is very polluted because of fertilizer for rice, run-off from factories and … waste from fish farms,” said Tuan, who is also a professor with the Research Institute for Climate Change at Can Tho University.
Pollution tends to be worst in areas with high concentrations of people, especially around Ho Chi Minh City and in factory areas north of the city, he said, adding that industrial zones also accounted for high levels of pollution in central Vietnam.
“It directly affects the health of the people both now and in the future. The water pollution affects health, nutrition, and life in general. It can also hamper growth of the economy,” Tuan said.
“In Vietnam pollution is a problem that is getting worse and worse each year. There is less clean water available for consumption” as the number of factories and people living along the rivers grows, he said.
And while VRN has worked to increase awareness among riparian communities about the dangers of polluting their waters, Tuan said that the government must do more to enforce legislation that protects the country’s rivers.
“The government … needs an agency to control the way people deal with unclean water, especially those who live directly on the water. They need to have true implementation, not just words. And they need to work with people,” he said.
“VNR cannot do the job by itself. We understand the problem and can warn the government and people, but the government needs to increase law enforcement, especially when dealing with local officials … The government hasn’t done enough to tackle pollution.”
Tuan also said that the government needs to reconsider how it moves ahead with plans to develop its hydropower infrastructure.
According to California-based International Rivers, more than 30 projects are under development or at an advanced stage of planning to meet Vietnam's growing demand for energy.
In addition to displacing around 190,000 people, many of whom will lack cultivable land and suffer from shortages of food and drinking water, “many thousands” living downstream will face health problems due to contaminated water, the group says.
“The government wants to build a lot hydroelectric plants as part of development, but this will change the route of the rivers, and a lot of the surface water will become polluted by these projects,” Tuan said.
“The government must also make efforts to protect the surface water in the areas of the hydroelectric plants and they must consider that people displaced by the plants will use whatever water they can get, even if it isn’t clean.”
Pressuring the government
Nga Dao, a manager with VNR, said her organization has conducted several studies on water pollution in Vietnam and has been using its findings to convince local authorities to address the issue and to inform local communities.
She said VNR has called for stricter mechanisms on appraising environmental impact assessments for all projects that cause pollution to water resources.
“Right now environmental impact assessments are done as a procedure for most projects, but the implementation of mitigation measures is very weak,” said Dao, who is also director of the nonprofit Water Resource Conservation and Development.
Dao said the government must also enforce a strong penalty system that applies to both individuals and companies that cause water pollution, while creating favorable conditions for community water monitoring networks to exist and to channel information to relevant government agencies.
“When possible, we work to push for community water co-management,” she said.
“We set up community river monitoring groups, train communities in the legal aspects of water management, and conduct research and use the findings to persuade local authorities to deal with water problems.”
Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh, a professor at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, said that while Vietnamese law includes comprehensive regulations on the release of waste water into rivers, “the problem is law enforcement.”
“We need to measure the pollution … If it exceeds the legal limit, we need to have strong punishments,” Oanh said.
“With big plants, we need to have strong measures to make them follow international regulations and Vietnamese law.”
But Oanh also called on the government to build treatment plants that would lessen the cost of processing waste water and to create greater awareness about the disastrous effects of pollution.
“People's awareness is also important. If they don’t understand that a river is polluted, they will continue to add waste to the water, and within five to 10 years, the river will die.”
Reported by Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.