Vietnam’s mass fish kill isn’t simply an environmental disaster

In the mass fish die-off on the country’s central coastal region, the Vietnamese government is faced with not only Vietnam’s worst ever environmental disaster but also widespread social unrest.

Millions of dead fish have washed up across some 200 km of the coast of Vietnam’s four central provinces since early last month.

According to a figure given by an official on May 5, the disaster had killed at least 100 tons of fish. This was based on the reports from the four affected provinces, namely Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien Hue, and excluded dead fish that remained in the water.

Other farm-raised fish, shrimps and clams in this central coastal region, which is regarded as the country’s most vulnerable and poorest area and whose coastal population mainly lives by fishing and aquaculturing, have also died en mass. The life of these fishermen and aquafarmers was already difficult, and is now even tougher following the plague.

Faced with the seriousness of the matter, on April 28, the country’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Tran Hong Ha, called the mass fish kill a “very huge and serious environment disaster.”

In a statement issued on the same day, the government also acknowledged that the fish die-off caused economic and environmental damages, hurt the fisheries industry, and particularly created puzzlement among citizens.

In a meeting with officials from different ministries and the four affected provinces in Ha Tinh on May 1, Vietnam’s newly elected Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc reiterated the gravity of the fish kill and tasked related agencies to investigate the phenomenon and deal with the consequences it caused.

Yet, though it is a very grave disaster with huge environmental, social, economic and political impacts, Vietnamese authorities were very sluggish to react to it. They only started to deal with the issue three weeks after the news about the mass fish deaths were widely reported and huge public outcries aired on social media.

Dead fish

Dead fish in Vietnam’s central coastal region

Widespread social unrest

The severity of the catastrophe and especially the authorities’ slow and inefficient reaction to it have not merely made the Vietnamese public puzzled. They have, in fact, sparked a widespread and deep anger among the people.

Their resentment was compounded by other issues.

One of these is the comment by Chou Chun Fan, Formosa Ha Tinh’s public relations director on April 25 that Vietnam had to choose between catching fish and building a modern steel industry as it could not have both.

Formosa Ha Tinh is a multi-billion dollar steel plant, run by a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corporation, which has a bad record of environmental issues worldwide. Though this official was sacked and the company apologized, his blunt remark has sparked a wave of ire among the Vietnamese public.

Many believe the Formosa steel plant, which has a 1.5 km-long waste pipe running into the sea, is the source of the disaster even though the authorities have so far said there is no direct link between its discharged waste water and the fish die-off.

Another issue is that their government has failed to find out what or who caused this catastrophe. For many among them, including several experts, the authorities already knew the cause and the culprit of the disaster but did not want to let the Vietnamese people know.

All of these factors have incensed the public. In a country, where state media is closely controlled and public protest is strictly prohibited, people have used social media, notably Facebook, to express their rage and dismay over not only the government’s sluggish and inefficient response to the disaster but also its aloofness, incompetence and lack of transparency and accountability.

fish death protest

Downtown Hanoi fish death protest (Radio Free Asia photo)

On May 1 and May 8, in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh city and in some other places, despite knowing they would be violently disrupted, thousands of people from different ages and professional backgrounds took to the streets to protest against Formosa and call for a clean environment and a transparent government.

Unlike previous protests, these rallies gathered more people. Some of the participants are reportedly former and current journalists of state-run newspapers, which are not allowed to report these protests. One of these is Phan Thị Châu, who formerly worked at Phu Nu Newspaper and whose husband is a former deputy editor of Tuoi Tre Newspaper.

Châu was one of many demonstrators arrested by the police in Ho Chi Minh City on May 8. In an entry on her Facebook page afterward, she wrote that though detained, she was really pleased because thanks to her arrest she could witness first-hand all that occurred, enabling her to feel and share the pain with others. This entry, entitled “Thanks God, I was held,” received more than 23 thousand likes and 10 thousand shares two days after being published.

Judging by the fury manifested on social media and in those rallies, many Vietnamese people are becoming increasingly puzzled and dissatisfied not only with the government’s handling of the mass fish death but also the one-party regime’s political, economic and social policies.

Amidst the fish die-off crisis, a teacher in Ha Tinh, the most affected province, composed a poem that describes odd, weird and sad things currently happening in Vietnam – with one line saying that “the sea is dying” – and a uncertain and pessimistic future the country is facing. The poem published on her Facebook page has quickly gone viral, with many sharing it via Facebook and other websites. Some have also turned it into a song, recorded and published it on YouTube.

The reason why this poem has widely and immensely touched the Vietnamese both inside and outside Vietnam is that it closely reflects the reality of their country.

A clean government

Faced with the public’s widespread discontent and anger, though very sluggish, Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s government has shown certain efforts and commitments to deal with the disaster. These include its promise to probe its cause, find its culprits and “not shield anyone found causing the pollution.”

Yet, there are question marks over whether the real offenders will be publicly identified or punished because Vietnam’s one-party system greatly lacks transparency and accountability.

Moreover, the true root causes of the disaster are deep and numerous. While the fish die-off in these four coastal provinces is an unprecedented phenomenon in Vietnam, the mass fish kill has occurred in other places in the country. For instance, tons of farm-raised fish in Bach Lang River and Buoi River in the central province of Thanh Hoa have died in the last few days. The severe contamination of these rivers caused by factories’ unprocessed waste water is identified as the primary cause of this mass fish death.

To deal with these environmental disasters, the Vietnamese government must reconsider its development policy. It can no longer industrialize at all costs because the country will pay heavy environmental prices for such a careless and irresponsible industrialization.

Furthermore, in a way, like its coastal seas and rivers, Vietnam’s political environment is also severely polluted and corrupted.

The country’s increasingly severe environmental degradation will not be effectively dealt with unless its political system is cleaned up. This only occurs if the hierarchy within the ruling Communist Party is willing to undertake major political reforms, allowing its 90 million population to have a greater say and role in the policies and matters that directly affect their life, society and country.

Judging by their reaction, it is apparent that an open, clean, transparent, democratic and accountable government is also what many Vietnamese people are calling for in these days when their country is facing huge environmental catastrophes.

RELATED STORY: State TV attack unlikely to tune out dissent over fish kill

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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