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Water quality management in Viet Nam

Dr. Sara L. Bennett, Environment Specialist, Water Environment International/nhc, Canada
Mr. Nguyen Thai Lai, Head, Bureau for Water Environment Management, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Viet Nam

This paper was originally published in:  Reaching the Unreached - Challenges for the 21st Century, 22nd Water Engineering & Development Centre (WEDC) Conference, New Delhi India 1996, pp31-33.  NB: this online version is for general information only.  Published version is authoritative.

1.  Introduction

Viet Nam is undergoing a period of rapid economic and demographic change, and water quality conditions and management needs are evolving rapidly.

Since the adoption in 1986 of the policy of doi moi (economic renovation) and particularly since the lifting of the U.S. embargo in 1994, the role of market forces and private enterprise has been expanding rapidly. Agricultural output has been increasing, driven in part by increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. Industrial development is being actively promoted, particularly through joint ventures between domestic and foreign firms. Environmental laws are beginning to be passed and enforced, but historically industrial wastes have been discharged to the environment without treatment.

There will be numerous implications for water quality management, similar to those experienced by other developing countries in Asia, but occurring if anything even more rapidly as the economy appears set to undergo a particularly rapid transformation.

2. Institutional Framework

As an integral part of doi moi, the Government of Vietnam is currently engaged in radical reorganization and reform of the institutional framework. With respect to environment and water, this includes inter alia:
  1. Creation of a National Environment Agency in the early 1990s
  2.  Passage of the first national environmental law in 1994
  3. Amalgamation of three ministries responsible for resource management (Agriculture and Food Industry; Water Resources; and Forestry) into one ministry (Agriculture and Rural Development or MARD) in 1995
  4. Placement of many formerly public sector, government-controlled enterprises (e.g. design, construction, water supply, and irrigation companies) on an increasingly independent footing with respect to finances and management decisions
  5. The drafting of a new Water Law by MARD for consideration by the legislature, which would put in place comprehensive new rules for water sector institutions and water users.
At present, water quality management in Viet Nam is not unitary but rather involves a mosaic of institutions and programmes:
  1. The National Environment Agency (NEA) of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (MOSTE) is charged with overall responsibility for environmental monitoring and data and environmental assessment. Working with the Departments (DOSTE) in each province and each major city, MOSTE is currently engaged in the assessment of the environment effects of existing installations; in environmental impact assessment of proposed new industrial and other developments; and in establishing environmental monitoring activities. NEA/MOSTE has expressed an interest in being the Viet Nam focal point for the GEMS/Water programme (as have one or more other agencies, and a decision from UNEP/GEMS is reportedly forthcoming). MOSTE also includes the agency responsible for national standards, including water quality standards and water quality analysis standards.
  2. MARD includes several agencies with water quality management-related responsibilities:
    • The Bureau of Water Environment Management (until recently part of the Institute of Water Resources Planning and Management) is responsible for state management activities relating to water environment management, including national water quality monitoring.
    • Since 1985, the Sub-Institute of Water Resources Planning in Ho Chi Minh City has been monitoring the lower Mekong River, with assistance from the Swedish International Development Agency and in partnership with the Mekong River Commission and the GEMS/Water Programme (Hoang Trong Quang, 1990).
    • MARD now houses the government unit - formerly with the Ministry of Labour, Invalid, and Social Affairs - that is working with the UNICEF WATSAN project to develop safe rural drinking water supplies throughout the country. WATSAN has commissioned a number of studies of rural water quality which constitute perhaps the most extensive data set of this type in the country (Le The Thu et al., 1993; WATSAN Ref. Cent., 1993; Nguyen Tat Ha et al., 1994).
    • MARD also includes the national agencies responsible for pesticide regulation and analysis.
    • Within each province, there is a Provincial Agriculture and Rural Development Service (PARS) composed of the former provincial agriculture, water resources, and forestry services. Development of a regional water quality monitoring programme and laboratory for the Central Highlands is being undertaken with the local PARS (Upper Srepok Basin Project, 1995).
    • Linked to MARD are the Irrigation Management Companies, which are responsible for the operation and maintenance of specific irrigation schemes. The IMCs function as both suppliers to and acceptors of (polluted) discharges from agriculture and all other users in their areas and are increasingly being affected by water quality issues.
  3. The Hydrometeorological Service (HMS), separated in the 1970s from the former Ministry of Water Resources, has an extensive national network of hydrological and meteorological stations, and in some locations water quality measurements as well. They are the official link through a National Committee to the UNESCO International Hydrologic Programme (IHP) (HMS, 1994).
  4. The Ministry of Construction is preparing an Urban Water Supply Strategy and an Urban Drainage Strategy. The National Steering Committee for Safe Water and Environmental Sanitation, formed in recent months and reporting to the Premier, is headed by the Minister of Construction, and includes representatives from a wide range of ministries including Public Health, Science Technology Environment, MARD, Defense, etc.
  5. Urban piped water supply companies and sewage services are under the purview of each municipality's People's Committee.
  6. The Ministry of Public Health is responsible for domestic water quality (water-borne diseases continue to be one of the major public health problems in the country). Another concern is safe water supply and proper waste disposal for hospitals and other health facilities.
  7. The General Statistics Office, historically responsible for socioeconomic statistics, has begun to take an interest in environmental statistics, as evidenced by its participation in an Asian Development Bank (ADB) regional technical assistance based on the United Nations environmental statistics framework (UN, 1984).
  8. In addition to these government agencies, private environmental consulting and technology supply companies are emerging, in many cases out of existing public-sector entities such as universities and research labs that are experiencing a diminution of government support. Private professional associations would be a highly desirable development - in countries where they exist, this type of organization provides numerous important services - but this seems as yet in its infancy.
At present, there is no interministerial body specifically addressing consultation/coordination related to national water quality management/monitoring, though at least four national committees are potential players in this area (National Mekong Committee, UNESCO IHP National Committee, the Pesticide Registration Council, and the new National Steering Committee for Safe Water and Environmental Sanitation).

3.  A Summary of Water Quality Issues in Two Irrigation Schemes in the Red River Delta

Under an ADB technical assistance project with MARD called "Capacity Building in the Water Resources Sector," (TA-2) on which the authors of this paper are currently working, environmental surveys of two irrigation projects in the RRD, Bac Hung Hai (southeast of Hanoi) and An Kim Hai (immediately upstream of Haiphong), were undertaken in early 1996. A number of water quality issues were identified, some of which are summarized below.

As throughout the RRD (GOV/MOSTE, 1994), the key issue is the public health impacts of fecal contamination of domestic water supplies. Contaminated drinking water leading to diarrhoeal diseases is the most serious problem. In addition, however, bathing in contaminated water is widely blamed for very high rates of eye inflammation and gynaecological infection - though the latter problem is thought to have more complex causes and is currently being actively investigated (J. Uhlrig, pers. comm). Though national policy no longer supports the use of nightsoil as fertilizer, this is still a common practice.

Local people take various actions to manage their water quality. Examples of the these actions include using different sources for different uses (e.g. rainfall collection tanks for drinking water, small water bodies for other domestic water), sometimes on a seasonal basis; encouraging selected aquatic macrophytes to grow in water bodies used for water supply; and community problem-solving to direct small-industry discharges into designated canal sections and withdraw irrigation water from more upstream sections. These actions should be understood and strengthened, given that outside (Government) interventions to improve rural water quality will occur slowly - and, when provided, will be effective only if appropriate actions (e.g. proper tubewell maintenance and site hygiene protection) are taken by local people.

Though the national pesticide regulation system has recently been significantly strengthened and integrated pest management is being aggressively promoted, problems persist including widespread use of restricted formulations, contamination of field canals by dumping/rinsing from pesticide applicators, as well as other, non-water-quality impacts such as loss of field biodiversity, pesticide poisoning of field workers (including pregnant/nursing women), and product contamination associated with spraying soon before harvest.

Within the specific irrigation projects studied, some point pollution sources do exist - including hospitals; small breweries, pickling plants, and slaughterhouses; and a few larger industrial plants - and these can have severe effects in their immediate neighbourhoods. The overall effects at present are relatively small (relative to the fecal contamination problem), but with this type of rural industry set to expand rapidly, the need to strengthen discharge regulation is clear.

4.  Development of a Water Quality Management Information System for MARD

In the language of strategic planning (Wiebe et al., 1994), water quality management decisions (i.e. objectives, choice of policies, programmes, and projects) should be made based on adequate information about (a) driving forces, (b) current strengths and weaknesses; and (c) future opportunities and threats.

Beginning to generate this type of information base is one of the tasks that to be addressed by TA-2. The project terms of reference refer to this activity as "environmental monitoring," but in practice this tended to be interpreted as referring to "water quality monitoring," and more specifically "aquatic chemistry," possibly because a key element of the project work plan involved designing and setting up what was understood to be an aquatic chemistry laboratory. As the work progressed, however, three things became clear:

  1. For some applications, alternatives to traditional laboratory-based aquatic chemistry monitoring are increasingly being recognized as more efficient and effective, for a number of reasons (Ongley, 1995). Alternatives to lab-based aquatic chemistry include (i) different kinds of measurements of different kinds of materials, such as ecological/biodiversity, toxicity/effects, bioassay, and sediment measurements; and (ii) different methods for data collection and analysis, such as the use of portable field water sample analysis kits and participatory monitoring wherein local people make and report simple, relevant measurements themselves.
  2. Monitoring needs to be flexible and creative - a programme of ambient water quality sampling at set stations and time intervals "forever" is not necessarily most effective and efficient way to generate the specific information needed by water quality managers. Adjuncts to ongoing static monitoring data accumulation include short, intense environmental surveys (as in out surveys of two irrigation schemes); increased emphasis on different types of data (e.g. land use, discharge inventories, public health and other effects, performance of alternative management practices); greatly increased emphasis on data analysis and interpretation; and a shift to a more consciously cost-benefit-oriented perspective.
  3. For the overall information system to be efficient and effective, it must be based on an explicit identification of what questions the assembled information is to answer, who is asking these questions (who is the audience for the answers? what information can they understand and use?), and how to present and distribute the information so that it is understood and used (Ward, 1994).
The work of TA-2 now will be to translate these principles into a plan for the development over the coming few years of MARD's water quality management information system.

5. References

GOV/MOSTE, 1994: Red River Delta master plan. Hanoi, November. 4 volumes.

Hoang Trong Quang, 1990: Vietnam - country status reports on water quality monitoring. In: Water Quality Monitoring in the Asian [sic] and Pacific Region. ESCAP Bangkok. Water Resources Series No. 67, 193-199.

Hydrometeorological Service, 1994: Regional workshop on water resources assessment and integrated management - water supply and pollution control. Hanoi, 8-11 November 1994, Viet Nam National Committee for UNESCO IHP. 220 pp.

Le The Thu, Nguyen Van Ba, and Nguyen Van Hiep, 1993: Quality of water sources in six provinces in south Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, August. 27 pp. text + 18 pp. figures and tables.

Nguyen Tat Ha, Nguyen Hung Long, Bui Van Truong, Hoang Thi Nghia, and Phung Thanh Van, 1994: Chemical analysis of drinking water sources in Hai Hung, Hanoi, and Vinh Phu provinces. Ministry of Health, Hanoi. 40 pp. (unnumbered).

Ongley, Edwin D., 1995: Water quality monitoring - changing times! Keynote speech, National Workshop of the U.S. Intergovernmental Task force on Monitoring Water Quality, 23 February. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 10 pp.

Upper Srepok Basin Project, 1995: Proposal for equipment for a water quality laboratory. Working paper No. 3. Vietnam National Mekong Committee, People's Committee of Dak Lak Province, and Mekong River Commission, supported by DANIDA. November. 16 pp. + vi appendices.

Ward, R.C., 1994: Monitoring - what do you want to know? In: Monitoring Tailor-Made. Proceedings, 20-23 Sep 94, Beekbergen Netherlands. RIZA, Netherlands. pp. 16 - 24.

WATSAN Reference Centre, 1993: Evaluation of the quality of water taken from tube and shallow wells, rainwater, and village pond water in four provinces of Thai Binh, Hai Hung, Quang Nam-Da Nang, and Binh Dinh. Thai Binh, October. 31 pp. (unnumbered).

Wiebe, H. D., D. Webster, M. Huq, D. McLean, and S. L. Bennett, 1994: Northeast regional water management plan. NERP/Bangladesh Flood Action Plan 6. May. 212 pp. + 24 figures.

United Nations, 1984: A framework for the development of environmental statistics. Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, Statistical Office, New York. Statistical Papers Ser. M, No. 78.

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