Can officials be trusted to make responsible statements during a crisis?

By Ngo Tu Ngan   October 18, 2019 | 08:29 pm PT
If Vietnam fails to deal seriously with officials' irresponsible talk, they are likely to play fast and loose with facts during a crisis.
Ngo Tu Ngan

Ngo Tu Ngan

"The water is fine now," a district official told Tu, a neighbor.

Relieved at this official confirmation, Tu, in his 40s, immediately changed the water in his five shrimp farms.

"What happened next...," Tu choked on his words as he tried to speak to my father, his face taut and lined.

After losing the shrimp, Tu and his family did not have much left and had to sell pieces of land that they'd used to breed shrimp for a living.

The day Tu signed the papers to sell the land, he cried. Those tears would never wash away the suffering farmers in the area have had to endure.

Tu's sad story happened two years ago in my hometown, a village in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu where most locals engaged in shrimp aquaculture. Tu was not the sole victim of misinformation, of course.

The water sources in my hometown had become badly polluted those days. We'd read in the news that the pollution was caused by factories dumping untreated waste into the local river.

But authorities did not provide farmers with much information. They called each other on the phone, visited each other's houses to ask one after another what was happening, and no one knew for sure what the pollution was, what had caused it and what was being done about it.

Some hope finally arrived for farmers, including my father, when district officials came to collect water samples for testing and invited some farmers over to ask questions.

"What happened next..." Tu could not express the pain of losing all five shrimp farms because he trusted what the authorities had told him. Other farming households in the village also lost one or a few farms worth hundreds of millions of dong (tens of thousands of dollars) each. Tu had poured almost all of his money into the five shrimp farms, only to see them destroyed by polluted water.

That incident hit my village hard. Everyone carried sad, tired faces.

Then came another district-level official, who told everyone to set their mind at rest, because the water had become usable gain.

Once again, farmers grasped at hope and trusted the authorities. Many invested in restarting the business to try and recoup their losses. They cleaned the ponds, making sure they got rid of all the infected soil, and filled the shrimp ponds with water again.

All the shrimps died, once again.

My village turned cold, then. People even stopped gathering at the coffee shop at the entrance to the village, an everyday rendezvous.

When the pollution was finally dealt with, things did not become easier.

Some people could not afford to start another shrimp pond and had to work as hired labor for others. Some had to mortgage their land use right certificates to borrow money from banks.

That year, when I visited some farmers during Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival, the most important event in our calendar, I felt the pain, too, seeing my people in their rundown houses with no decorations and offerings. The children wore old clothes, something unthinkable, because it was an occasion when everyone, especially children, put on new, beautiful clothes, even the least well to do among us.

For all this suffering, no official was held accountable for the false reassurances given to farmers, essentially cheating them of their livelihoods.

"How could those officials be so careless with their statements? And why didn't farmers check the water themselves before killing all the shrimps?" I asked my father.

He replied that farmers could only check some symptoms like the pH level of the water and could not tell if the water is polluted or not, especially when there was no abnormal smell or flavor.

"If they didn’t trust officials, who else could they trust?" he asked, and I had no answer.

Not again!

The suffering of farmers after they were misled by people they trusted came to mind again as the water crisis hit Hanoi last week.

Maybe I should not have been surprised. But I was.

Even in the capital city, residents worried about their stinking tap water had to contend with confusing information supplied by authorities.

Director Nguyen Huu Toi of the Vinaconex Water Supply Joint Stock Company (Viwasupco), despite knowing that the water source had been contaminated with dirty oil, said: "It is possible that the strange smell in the water is just chlorine." He explained that the company had doubled the amount of chlorine in the water (to deal with the contamination).

He also said: "To be fair, the smell would depend on the feelings of each person."

He also freaked people out, saying: "I'm not sure about the technique to handle this contaminated water, because this is the first time it has ever happened.

"Deep down I wanted to cut the water supply because I thought it could be affected, and in fact, cutting water would be a safe move for me," he said, seemingly telling the truth.

The Vietnam Environment Administration under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had said Monday that a truck with a loading capacity of 2.5 tons was seen dumping used oil into a mountain creek in Phu Minh Commune, Ky Son District of Hoa Binh Province, a northwestern neighbor of Hanoi, on Tuesday last week.

The creek is on an upstream section of the Da River, the biggest branch of the Red River, which supplies water to Viwasupco's water tanks.

Viwasupco was aware of the oil contamination but maintained regular supply until residents complained about the pungent smell and rushed to buy bottled water.

Later, tests found the stinking water to contain high levels of styrene, a substance classified as "probably carcinogenic."

Then Hanoi administration officials pitched in, saying people can use the water for other purposes like washing clothes and bathing, but should not drink or use it for cooking.

Meanwhile, the municipal health department said there was no official documentation on the level of styrene that could harm human's health.

All these statements coming from the authorities in one day sowed confusion among many people. Sales of bottled water skyrocketed.

Residents of an apartment complex in southwestern Hanoi wait to take water from a tanker after their tap water was contaminated with oil, October 14, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Residents of an apartment complex in southwestern Hanoi wait to take water from a tanker after their tap water was contaminated with oil, October 14, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

The Law on Access to Information says clearly that information on "public benefits and health" should be easily accessible to the public, and must be provided accurately and transparently in a timely manner.

Decree 117 on producing, supplying and consuming clean water "prohibits providing untruthful information affecting the rights and benefits of other individuals and organizations in the water supply process."

In case those in charge provide wrong and incomplete information, delay providing the information, or violate any other provision in the decree, they can face criminal charges.

It is obvious that the state is legally equipped to punish those providing wrongful information on essentials clean water. It can even press charges for such violations.

Millions of people have used the water whose stink "could depend on the feelings of each person."

But we have seen time and again that officials and others who make irresponsible statements and mislead the public with serious consequences to their health or livelihood are not held accountable.

Can we expect anything different from the tap water fiasco?

Here we have a company deliberately downplaying a serious contamination, brushing off concerns about the water's smell saying it is probably chlorine, when it was actually styrene. We have a company official saying water supply has resumed, but you have to wait for other people to pronounce its safety. We have officials failing to make timely, accurate statements about the problem and the steps being taken to remedy them.

At the least, will we see some accountability this time? I would not hold my breath.

*Ngo Tu Ngan is a lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are her own.

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