Vietnam's lack of transparency on environmental issues is glaring

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   July 20, 2020 | 03:32 pm PT
Vietnam needs transparency and actual public consultation on corporate environmental impacts; and clarity in regulations relating to the environment’s capacity to withstand pollutants.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Three years ago, the Vietnamese public was infuriated over the environmental ministry's approval for a proposal to dispose nearly one million cubic meters of dredged sewage by the privately-owned Vinh Tan 1 thermal power corporation.

The sewage would have been dumped into the ocean near an important national marine conservation park in Binh Thuan Province.

After writing a few articles against this devious disposal plan, I received the good news via emails saying the ministry has approved our plea to cancel the dumping proposal.

As glad as I was of the result, I understood that my contribution was small, among countless other strong supporters of oceanic preservation in a long-standing, tough battle. Soon after the Vinh Tan 1 plan, many other private thermal energy corporations attempted the same feat on an even larger scale of up to 2.4 million cubic meters.

Backward legislation

Studying the Vietnamese Environmental Protection Law, the original in 1993 and two amendments in 2005 and 2014, I was taken aback by the nature of the changes. The 2005 amendment explicitly forbade the disposal of waste into the ocean. However, the following rule, including the 2014 amendment and the 2015 Law on Marine and Island Resources and Environment, implicitly suggested the possibility that it can happen.

So what are the types of sewage these laws allow to be dumped into the ocean? They include all dredged waste of maritime vessels, regardless of the waste’s ocean-polluting nature. This goes against international norms on waste disposal and its potential impacts on environmental pollution. To prevent inappropriate handling of environmentally toxic waste, the international community has continuously imposed stronger rules and stricter legal punishments.

If the environment has already been polluted, it would take an enormous amount of both monetary and human resources to deal with the dreadful consequences. Therefore, it is universally accepted wisdom that prevention is the most cost-effective method of controlling environmental pollution.

In fact, this wisdom and realization became an embedded component of international law in 1994, with the introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), requiring member nations to "take all measures ... that are necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment" (Article 194 (1), UNCLOS), which has been ratified by 168 nations, including the European Union. With their ratification, all member nations have explicitly accepted the UNCLOS rule as a component of their domestic laws as well.

Official lip service

In Vietnam, some officials, despite claiming they will "not sacrifice the environment for economic development," have repeatedly turned a blind eye on crucial environmental issues, even during National Assembly sessions.

As corporates continue to dispose of industrial waste into the ocean, they are utilizing their opportunity to maximize self-interest, not caring for the environment or for the public in the long run.

After many years of working in environmental protection, I have realized the effectiveness of environmental protection at both local and national levels depends on having an executive branch with integrity. It serves as the first defense against lawlessness by imposing a law-abiding attitude on society and terminating trouble-making potential.

If only Vietnam had an efficient executive branch, many notorious, nefarious and hugely damaging environmental disasters in Vietnam in recent years could have been avoided.

While having stricter laws undoubtedly help prevent wrongdoings, without an efficient law-enforcing government, there is no guarantee for a brighter environmental future for Vietnam.

Two shortcomings

There are two shortcomings in implementing the law that I hope Vietnamese officials will improve upon, especially on environmental issues.

First, Vietnam ought to maintain public transparency and public consultation in the process of evaluating corporate environmental impacts.

A person holds fish carcasses that washed ashore in centra; Vietnam in April after Taiwanese firm Formosa released contaminated waste into the ocean. Photo by AFP.

A person holds fish carcasses that washed ashore in central Vietnam in April 2016 after Taiwanese firm Formosa released contaminated waste into the ocean. Photo by AFP.

The insidious impacts of this lack of public transparency were seen in the Formosa issue in 2016. In this case, the Vietnamese environment ministry allowed the corporation to dispose of waste directly into the ocean from 2014, a clear violation of the law on waste disposal. Yet, it was only when wave after wave of fish carcasses washed up on the coast in north-central Vietnam in 2016 that the public became aware of this major violation of fundamental laws.

Meanwhile, public consultation in Vietnam on environmental issues is only made for form’s sake. Without real consultation with locals and independent specialists, this process has no discernible impact on decisions and conclusions, creating a strong potential for corruption in dealing with environmental issues, not to mention the deleterious impacts such actions will have on the nation’s natural resources and on the lives of future generations.

Second, Vietnam ought to have transparent regulations on the environment’s capacity to withstand pollutants. Due to unclear laws, in the environment minister’s words, "the environmental quality in certain places has degraded beyond acceptable, without the capability of receiving any more waste."

Receiving waste is similar to intoxicating the environment, emphasis on the toxic aspect. Once the recipient is overdosed, the only possible outcome is annihilation, not of the earth, but of humans living in it.

Even 15 years after ratification, the Vietnamese environmental law has never been imposed on corporations, leading to increasing pollution nationwide.

"To take care of the population’s health," and "to ensure the universal right to live in a healthy environment" are two stated aims of a recent proposal to amend the environmental protection law submitted to the National Assembly. As idealistic as the proposed amendment sounds, how can the population trust any law ratification and amendment, when there is nobody to take the needed follow up actions?

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an expert on energy and environment issues. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top