Much as the banks of a river play a crucial role in its ecosystem and purity, what runs along two of the Mekong Delta’s major waterways is a series of non-environmentally friendly industrial plants and factories.
Dubbed the country’s rice basket, the Mekong Delta is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea via a vast network of distributaries.
Of those distributaries, the main branches of the Mekong River in Vietnam are the Hau and Tien rivers, which both play a crucial role in the region's land and climate conditions.
However, along the banks of these two rivers now exist a number of factories, processing plants and industrial parks.
Even without an official report on how dangerous these facilities are to the local ecosystem, it is possible to tell from the dying waterways nearby how the environment there has been adversely affected.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters traveled along the Hau and Tien rivers recently, discovering that at several sections, the air is too polluted to breathe.
Along the Hau River, spanning from Thot Not District of Can Tho City to Chau Doc City of An Giang Province, there are countless processing plants of all sizes, mostly seafood and animal feed facilities, all of which are located right on the riverbank.
The odor surrounding these facilities is unpleasant, and the river water is blackened and full of trash.
The situation is no better along both sides of the Tien River.
Locals point to a plant that makes steel from scrap metal in Cho Moi Town, An Giang Province, whenever they are asked to name the biggest local polluter.
The facility sits on the side of the river that administratively belongs to An Giang, while on the other side is Tan Long Commune of Thanh Binh District, administered by Dong Thap Province.
Consequently, the plant’s pollution, including the foul smell of burning chemicals, dense smoke and deafening noise, has all spread across the river to rile residents of Tan Long.
“Smoke and dust cover everything on both sides of the river near this plant,” Nguyen Thi Hien, a Tan Long villager, told Tuoi Tre.
Hien said local residents have been forced to shut all their doors and cover their houses with plastic sheets to protect against the dust all day long.
“This has been going on for years and our tolerance is limited,” she said.
In May 2013 the steel making plant was fined VND162 million (US$7,232) and suspended from operation for environmental offenses, but has since switched to night time operations.
This means the nightmare of the unpleasant odor and noise continues to haunt locals from 10:00 pm to 7:00 am the following morning, every day for the last three years.
Despite this, there are also plants along the Tien and Hau rivers, larger scale facilities – industrial parks or industry clusters that span from dozens to hundreds of hectares each.
At the My Quy Industry Cluster in An Giang, many businesses had already caused severe pollution to the environment before they began building adequate wastewater treatment systems following pressure from authorities.
However, the Binh Long and Binh Hoa industrial parks in An Giang are still poisoning the river, and upsetting local residents.
A poisoned river
At the Song Hau Industrial Park in Hau Giang, there is a station capable of treating 2,000 cubic meters of wastewater a day, to be released straight back into the Hau River.
The facility has yet to be commissioned, despite an initial plan to put it into operation by early 2014.
This means all factories at the industrial park are dumping their wastewater directly into the Hau River.
Nguyen Ngoc Dien, deputy head of the board that manages all industrial parks in Hau Giang, said every company at Song Hau Industrial Park has their own wastewater treatment system, but the quality of their operations is inadequate.
“Some of the systems still discharge untreated or poorly treated wastewater to the nearby canals,” he added.
For instance, Dien said, the Hau Giang environmental police unit once caught the Nam Song Hau Seafood Co. building an underground pipeline to dump its wastewater straight into the nearby Cai Dau River, which empties into the Hau River.
Dien said the management board will continue to tighten its watch on what businesses at the industrial park do with their dirty water.
In Can Tho, there are now five industrial parks, all located along the Hau River, with 223 operational plants.
Earlier this year, a wastewater treatment plant with a capacity of 6,000 cubic meters a day was put into use to serve three of the five industrial parks.
However, Huynh Tan Loi, the plant’s director, said only 18 businesses at those two industrial parks have contracted to have their dirty water treated at his facility, meaning the wastewater treatment plant is operating at only 50 percent of its capacity.
Businesses are likely not interested in working with the wastewater treatment plant as it will cost them money, or it is difficult to connect their pipelines with those of the plant, Loi said.
“It is worth noticing that the real amount of wastewater these businesses treat at my plant is only half the figure they declare with authorities,” he added.
Loi’s revelation matches a recent report by Can Tho police, who said some businesses have sophisticated tricks to bypass wastewater treatment laws.
They will only activate their wastewater treatment system whenever inspectors come, resulting in only part of the dirty water being treated, or build secret wastewater discharge systems, according to police.
In all cases, most of the tainted water will go straight to the Hau River, killing the waterway.