In collaboration with the Center of Biodiversity and Development (CBD) of the Institute of Tropical Biology (ITB) and Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN), IUCN co-funded a workshop called Living Rivers.
IUCN funding was provided by the Mekong Region Water Dialogues, a project of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland to address water governance issues and climate change in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos PDR. IUCN collaborates with CBD on conservation planning in Kien Giang Province. Established in 2005, VRN has 145 members and supports their efforts to promote the survival of Vietnam’s threatened rivers.
The workshop, which was held on October 31, 2009 in Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai Province, brought together 60 representatives from local government, universities, NGOs, research centers, and national newspapers. The aim of the workshop was to share information on the huge water resource management problems in Southern Vietnam and to build working relationships between researchers, activists, and government officials engaged in addressing them. For IUCN, this was an opportunity to meet new stakeholders and explore how IUCN can expand its support for civil society intervention in the water sector.
Several themes emerged from the 18 presentations. First, the situation in terms of both water quality and quantity is bad and getting worse. A presentation on the Vam Co River, a tributary of the Dong Nai, showed how the recent opening of sugar cane processing factories along stretches of the river has resulted in a sharp deterioration in water quality. Much of the discharge happens at night when government monitoring systems are not running. The prognosis is that the Vam Co will soon become another dead river, like the Thi Vai, which has been heavily polluted by the Vedan MSG factory (opened in 1994) and the Phu My thermal power station (opened in 2005).
Second, there are considerable data on river conditions and trends that could be synthesized to prepare an overall picture of the health of the region’s river systems. Scientists from An Giang and Ton Duc Thang Universities have developed rapid, low cost methods to monitor water quality that could be used to paint a more comprehensive picture of the health of the region’s freshwater ecosystems.
Third, many water resources management problems are linked. For example, Can Tho City DONRE described falling groundwater tables and increased salt water intrusion. These trends may be linked to the dense network of canals in the Mekong Delta that have been built to drain off floodwaters as quickly as possible. This is ideal for rice production by accelerating drainage it reduces groundwater recharge and the dry season base flow needed to block saline intrusion. The decline in urban water quality may therefore be ultimately driven by the government policy that prioritizes rice production above all other considerations. Evidence that may support this hypothesis was in a presentation by Can Tho University on the impacts of climate change on the Mekong Delta that included a graph showing how the lowest maximum flood levels have fallen steadily over the last 30-40 years.
A fourth issue was the lack of authority of government agencies responsible for environmental management. For example, Dong Nai DONRE reported on the very poor water quality in the Dong Nai River but was unable to provide a strategy or roadmap for fixing the problem. And managers from Cat Tien, Tram Chim, and Bi Dup-Nui Ba National Parks gave examples of how major land use decisions directly affecting the integrity of the park have been made without their review, let alone approval.
A final theme that emerged from the workshop is the fragmentation of water resources management decision-making. In 2001, MARD issued Decision 38/2001/QD/BN-TCCB to establish a Planning and Management Committee for the Dong Nai River Basin. (Similar committees were established for the Hong-Thai Binh, Cuu Long, Srepok, Cau, Day, Ca, and Vu Gia-Thu Bon.) In 2008, the Prime Minister issued Decision 157/2008/QD-TTG to establish an Environmental Protection Committee, chaired by MONRE, for the river basin. (A similar committee was established for the Cau.)
In August 2008, river basin management responsibility was transferred from MARD to MONRE. However, neither MARD nor MONRE has the power to ensure that water resource management decisions are properly scrutinized and coordinated. The 2008 Vietnam Water Sector Review described the explosion of dam construction on the Dong Nai that is taking place with no clear understanding of the cumulative impacts on other water users, and recommended the creation of a river basin organization (RBO). (EVN, which approves most dam projects, is under the Ministry of Industry and Trade and operates independently of MARD, MONRE, and provincial authorities.) The Prime Minister’s Decree 120/2008/ND-CP proposes creating RBOs for all major river basins in Vietnam but none have yet been formed.