Saigon River Pollution So Bad It Corrodes Ships

The pollution in the Go Dau port on the Thi Vai river, south of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is so bad that Japanese cargo ships are refusing to dock for fears it will corrode the hulls of their boats.

This revelation is shocking - as the report states, "if the water corrodes the boats, what will it do to people's flesh and stomachs?" - but sadly it is just another indication of the environmental crisis that rapidly developing Vietnam is facing.

The Thi Vai, which runs through much of Dong Nai's industrial zones, receives an estimated 33,000 litres of waste water every day from factories in Vung Tau and Dong Nai provinces, much of which is untreated, and is consider to be one of the most polluted in Vietnam.

In a government report in March a 10km stretch of the Thi Vai river was declared 'totally dead', and nearby residents along the banks of another river are reporting that even the most resilient fish are dying.

In the past decade Vietnam has seen something of an economic miracle; by switching from a planned state economy to a market driven economy in their own unique, managed fashion the Vietnamese government have achieved one of the most impressive reductions in poverty in recent history.

However this has been driven by extremely fast development, and an explosion in the number of factories and industrial zones across the country, and regulations and enforcement in particular have struggled to keep up.

The results are pretty horrendous - the drinking water supply in Saigon is contaminated with faeces and heavy metals and many rivers can no longer support life in their waters. In the city those who can afford it buy filtered water, but many must survive off the public water supply, with serious health implications.

Outside the city, the rivers are the livelihoods of thousands of people, and fishing and fish farming are major providers for families across the country. The ongoing pollution of the rivers risks destroying these livelihoods and is putting the lives of those who depend on the rivers in a very precarious position.

Tourism is becoming increasingly important to Vietnam and helps bring money into poorer areas of the country; it is also an important source of foreign currency in a country that is running up a large trade deficit. Unless the problems of pollution are curbed Vietnam's fledgling tourism industry too faces a rough time ahead.

The government is aware of the problems and is reacting, with announcements of heavy fines for companies found without adequate waste processing facilities and the revoking of licences from some of the worst offending industries, such as casava and rubber processing.

Still, these measures have been announced several times over the years and yet there has been few announcements of factories being closed for causing pollution. The most recent report, in 2008, states the measures are going to come into force 'next year'.

The government's environmental agency itself highlights a key problem: "A number of factories that do have a wastewater treatment plant don't use it until the inspectors call to say that they're coming the next day. This saves them money. There's actually a regulation that says that the inspectors must notify a business before they go out to do an inspection. As all the neighbours know, the treatment ceases as soon as the inspectors have done their duty and gone" (NEA)

As well as the difficulties in catching offenders, there is no credible deterrence for polluters. Thanh Nien reports that the maximum fine for environmental violations is just $1,800, a fractional amount compared to the savings a company can make by not treating its waste water. This year, out of 106 inspections 98 companies have been fined, yet the dumping of untreated water continues.

It is tragic that the pollution continues unabated - Vietnam is a stunningly beautiful country but this will not last if something isn't done to abate the flow of pollution. Even more imperative are the issues of health and livelihoods - there are already areas in Vietnam known as 'cancer villages' and with the Health Ministry’s Preventive Medicine and Environment Department stating that "more than 80 percent of the diseases in Vietnam – including cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, and encephalitis – could be traced to the country’s water supply" action must come quickly to avoid a major health disaster.

Photo Credit: hermmermferm