Will Vietnam avoid the mistakes China made?

As I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport last fortnight, I smelt the air anxiously to judge if the pollution levels had mounted after my last visit two years back.Being hailed as the next China, Vietnam is said to have Asia’s second largest growing economy and the pace of exports to the US is supposed to be rising faster than even China’s. What all this means to the environment, more specifically the water and wastewater sector is not hard to guess.

The colour and smell of the rivers that supply water to the city – Dong Nai and Saigon reveal the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation. Vietnam’s economic success has come at a huge price.

Altogether, there are said to be 113 licensed industrial zones (IZs) in Vietnam, with 74 industrial parks in operation, four export processing zones (EPZs), and two high-tech parks. The number of unlicensed ones could be anybody’s guess. According to a government report for the year 2006, less than 25 IZs have constructed centralised wastewater treatment plants. Therefore, large quantities of wastewater containing toxic chemicals are discharged into the drainage system without treatment or monitoring.

However, there are signs that the Vietnamese government is waking up to the situation. It announced a new Environment Protection Law in July 2006, issuing over 200 environmental standards. The Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment (MONRE) is taking responsibility for environmental management throughout the country.

Even in the midst of widespread corruption, HCM City People’s Committee is becoming stricter with industries violating environmental laws. A news report in September said that MONRE had penalised 16 companies for violations. The companies were warned that if they did not improve their treatment systems, a revocation of their licences could follow.

International experts are quite optimistic about Vietnam’s commitment to the water and wastewater sector. In the recent past, a number of countries such as Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Australia and France have been co-financing aided projects in the sector. Feasibility studies are being carried out with the help of government grants from these countries. Companies from these countries are looking forward to winning contracts to design and engineer projects as well as to supply equipment.

Singapore company Glowtec won a number of projects for wastewater treatment at food processing and rubber manufacturing units at some of the industrial parks in the country. In fact, using Vietnam as its base, the company is setting up facilities even in Cambodia.

Not to be left behind, Germany has been conducting a number of joint research programmes with Vietnamese institutes in the water and wastewater sector. Various technologies for biological treatment of wastewater and sludge are being tested for their applicability to tropical climates. All this might eventually pave the way for German technologies to be used in the country.

Today, Vietnam stands at the threshold of becoming another China – a China with a completely unsustainable growth model. Yet, if Vietnam decides to enforce environmental standards as vigorously as its push for economic prosperity, it could actually teach a thing or two to China.

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