Anger and suspicion at slow response to disaster

A photographer, Le The Thang, is working with local families and children to highlight their plight. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre.

A photographer, Le The Thang, is working with local families and children to highlight their plight. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre.

Food aid has finally begun arriving in areas affected by the mass poisoning of fish off Vietnam’s central coast, as the government struggles to cope with the fallout from the disaster.

Officials in Ha Tinh province began handing out sacks of rice to 4,500 of the worst hit households. Limited relief funds have also been allocated for some of the thousands of seafood farmers who risk losing their livelihoods.

Civil society organisations and religious groups have criticised the response as too little too late. Some have already begun delivering supplies to destitute fishermen and their families, and are appealing for more help from home and abroad.

Hundreds of tonnes of fish are believed to have been killed in a so far unexplained  environmental catastrophe that has already affected tens of thousands of people and could have damaging consequences for the national economy.

Vietnam VOICE is one of the NGOs involved in delivering supplies to affected families.

VOICE Vietnam is one of the NGOs involved in delivering supplies to affected families.

The authorities have finally banned the sale and distribution of all fish and marine products that washed up on the shore for fear that it could contain dangerous toxins.

The environment minister, Tran Hong Ha, apologised for the slow reaction, according to reports in state media.

He said government experts were still conducting tests on the dead fish to find out the cause of the disaster.

Bloggers and environmental experts have expressed anger and suspicion that so little progress has been made more than three weeks after tonnes of dead fish began to appear on the beaches of four central provinces.

Fears of cover-up

Some environmental experts have ridiculed one official theory that a “red tide” of blooming algae could have caused the disaster, saying that all the evidence so far pointed to chemical contamination.

The government on Wednesday said there was no evidence so far to implicate a subsidiary of the Taiwanese conglomerate, Formosa, which is building a steel plant and other infrastructure at the Vung Ang industrial complex in Ha Tinh.

The statement did little to dampen speculation that the contamination was caused by the company’s use of chemicals to clean a sewage pipe stretching far out to sea from the plant.

Some bloggers have expressed fears of a cover-up given the close relations between government officials and the Taiwanese investors.

Test for new administration

The company was one of many targeted by rioters in 2014 following tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea, and officials are thought to be anxious to dampen down public emotions.

However, Mr Ha, the environment minister, said on Friday that it was illegal to install an undersea sewage pipe, in a sign that the government could be responding to a public outcry to get tougher with the company.

The disaster is proving a major early test for the new administration of the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

He is seen as less energetic and forceful than his predecessor, Nguyen Tan Dung, and less able to take quick decisions without prior consent from the Communist party hierarchy.

The relatively free and sceptical reporting by state controlled media, as well as the public exasperation expressed through social media, are exposing the new cabinet to a degree of public scrutiny and criticism rarely experienced in Vietnam.