Independent youth team investigates environmental crisis on Vietnam's central coast

Cleanup operations underway at Hanoi's West Lake. Credit: Tan Qiuyi/

Cleanup operations underway at Hanoi's West Lake. Credit: Tan Qiuyi/

Imagine a beach covered with fish carcasses stretching over 20 miles long. In April, Vietnam faced that sight when thousands of dead fish were washed up onshore in four central provinces.

VNExpress news agency reported that a total of 40 tons of fish carcasses have washed up ashore. Industrial contaminants from the local Formosa Steel Plant (part of the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa) were blamed for the mass fish deaths after a long period of finger-pointing and political maneuvering. But finding the cause has not stopped the consequences of this crisis.

“Eating habits have changed, we used to have fish, shrimp, squid every meal,” said An, a student at the University of Foreign Languages in Da Nang, a few miles south of the affected regions. “Now it is very dangerous to consume products from sea floor because of conclusions about toxic precipitation.”

Economically, the crisis has caused a decline in growth indicators in big cities.

“Capital from tourism declined significantly in the months after the crisis,” An said. “Local seafood restaurants are empty, protests and referendums are effectless, and there is no apparent solution without government-directed action.”

This environmental incident has caused unprecedented protests. Many hope their activism will prompt the government to implement changes in its regulations. Ho Chi Minh City is one of two major areas that have harbored the most protests.

Duy is a 22-year-old native of the city, and witnessed the protests and government suppression firsthand.

“I believe our government had not fulfilled its duties in letting this happen,” Duy said. “The consequences to environment now and to people in the future are catastrophic. For the first action, I want the company which caused this disaster to leave immediately.”

While many have protested, a few have organized to bring about sustainable change. H. Tran is a 23-year-old native from Ho Chi Minh City. He worked with independent investigators, including Vietnamese students studying abroad at foreign institutions, to assess the safety of seawater and seafood in the region. His group, the Independent Project to Analyze Seawater Pollution in Central Vietnam, received legal representation from UNESCO-CEP.

Tran wanted scientific conclusions about the toxicity of the water, hoping to provide guidance for local residents and fishermen to find new, safer areas for aquaculture, and to support the local government by providing scientific guidance, mitigation and rectification. His group was funded by hundreds of people through crowdfunding website Indiegogo, raising just over $18,000 in 10 days.

Research team member collects water samples from the sea. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Research team member collects water samples from the sea. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Independent assessment groups from his team took to the sea to collect water and biological samples. Tran described the trips as nerve-racking because they had to constantly look out for government officials as there was a ban on independent investigators on the water. Eventually, the government also banned divers and leased boats from going out on the water, so Tran’s group had to stop collecting data and relied on what they had already found.

His group corresponded with research bodies, where they sent collected samples to be analyzed and investigated at multiple institutions in Vietnam and overseas, including U.S. universities, Korea’s Chonnam University and the Vietnam Institute of Oceanography. The data was analyzed at four independent chemical and environmental testing centers following international standards in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Samples collected at designated areas within affected regions. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Samples collected at designated areas within affected regions. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Mercury levels were within the safety range, but went over the safety range near the Formosa sewage line. Cyanide levels were found to be unsafe. Although heavy metal levels were within the safety range, an absolute conclusion about the safety of the water cannot be made because the water’s toxicity fluctuates daily and is higher near Formosa’s sewage plants.

Similar uncertainties about the safety of sea creatures exist because indicators such as persistent organic pollutant levels cannot be established.

Although toxicity was higher near Formosa’s plants, indicating their possible involvement, the government was hesitant to conclude the cause of the mass fish deaths.

Many reasons, from human activity to red algae tide, were proposed by the government before admitting that Formosa was most likely responsible.

“Before acquiring the land, we already advised local fishermen to change their jobs,” Chu Xuan Pham, director of Formosa’s external relations, said to Thanh Nien News. “Despite our early recommendation, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”

It took the Taiwanese corporation almost two months, until June 30, to make a public announcement taking responsibility for discharging improperly-handled toxic waste into the sea. Formosa agreed to compensate $500 million to the people.

But reparations cannot amend many of the issues still plaguing Vietnam’s coastal communities.

After toxins were found in food products, a ban on selling fish was put in place. Many of the species that sustained the fishing industry have disappeared and villagers in affected regions became ill after consuming dead fish on the shore. Divers who work for the construction company under contract with Formosa were suspected to have copper poisoning from industrial zone water.

The crisis also jeopardized the region’s tourism industry. Visitors canceled their trips to Quang Binh, the home of Son Doong, the world’s largest cave system. Mass fish deaths in Hanoi started to occur in October, and have hit West Lake in Hanoi, a prominent tourist spot in the city. Water samples indicate that ammonia concentrations are three times higher than the standard amount.

Tran’s group on the water by the Formosa Steel Plant. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Tran’s group on the water by the Formosa Steel Plant. Credit: Tran/Facebook

Formosa’s investment in Vietnam was considered an important move for the region’s economy and an incentive to stimulate more foreign investments in Vietnam. However, this crisis proves the balance between protecting native interests and welcoming foreign investment has not been met.

Protesters pushed forward a wave of resistance against Formosa and the government’s handling of the crisis. Police were quick to react with violence, and a number of protesters, including journalists for the state-run newspaper, were detained under the charge of disruptive activism. H.N. Bui, 22, is one of the protesters taken in by police. Bui was detained for eight hours and interrogated for two hours after being violently taken to the Social Support Center during a peaceful protest in Ho Chi Minh City. After the event, he revealed that the police did not respect the detainees’ rights, confiscated their personal belongings against their will, and took their phones to dispose of any information or pictures taken of protests.

Despite government suppression, activists continue to push for their cause, most prominently on social media. Facebook has become a widespread platform for spreading information during the crisis. A teacher from Ha Tinh, one of the affected regions, wrote a poem to reflect the public’s yearning for answers and solutions, which went viral and was even put in songs.

The crisis took place ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in June, who was promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Activists hope the trade deal would enable tightened environmental regulations when signed. The Vietnamese community in the U.S. offered support by forming a group called Viet Tan and fundraised for people from affected regions. Viet Tan made legal arrangements against Formosa Corporation and was declared a terrorist organization by the Vietnamese government.

This scandal has raised questions about environmental regulations and food safety regulations.

At the heart of public sentiment, this crisis reinforces the notion that government institutions are eager for political gains at the expense of the people’s livelihoods.

Editor's note: This article is powered by RadiciGroup, and is the third of a series of special country articles aimed at shedding light on youth initiatives related to sustainability around the world. More info about the project here.

Cover credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV