The Vietnamese government has been accused of a slow response, and a lack of transparency and accountability, in the first independent report into the environmental disaster that killed millions of fish off the central coast earlier this year.
The report by the unregistered civil society organisation, Green Trees, also concluded that Vietnam remained vulnerable to similar disasters because of weak regulation and water management.
Green Trees came to prominence in the spring of 2015 when it helped force a climb-down by the Hanoi city administration over plans to cut down the thousands of the city’s old trees.
The report, “An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam”, was published in secret amidst growing public anger over the state’s slow response to the disaster and growing police repression in the affected areas.
The report covers a large range of topics, from a timeline of the disaster to a profile of Formosa, the Taiwanese corporation that took responsibility for the toxic leak. It also assessed the role of civil society and the performance of the government.
More than a hundred tonnes of fish were killed following the leak from Formosa’s steel plant in Ha Tinh. Dead fish first began washing up on nearby beaches in early April. Formosa finally accepted responsibility for the leak in June, but no Vietnamese officials have been held liable.
“We are convinced that the fish death crisis is the worst-ever environmental disaster in contemporary Vietnam, therefore a paucity of experience in crisis management and poor quality policies can be understood,” said the report.
“The disaster, however, reveals serious problems in public policy and governance that may question the government’s capacity and even legitimacy,” the report went on.
The authors described these problems as “a slow response, even a lack of response”, “conflicting policies”, and “lack of transparency and accountability, with signs of potential criminal cover-ups.”
Representatives of Green Trees went to the National Assembly’s office on Wednesday to hand over copies of the report, saying they wanted to give the legislators an insight into the environment disaster in preparation for the Assembly’s winter meetings.
However, they failed to meet any of the deputies. Staff at the legislature told them they’d better not come back again, and should have sent their submission by post.
At the same time, the Ministry of Public Security is reported to be looking for the authors of the report, which was published clandestinely.
Publishing in Vietnam remains a state-controlled industry. All publishing houses are state-owned, and the penal code imposes harsh sentences upon publishers who violate the law. A draft of the amended penal code, which is expected to be adopted in this National Assembly meeting, provides for prison sentences of up to five years for illegal publishers.