A recent article from Vietnamnet brings much-needed attention to the contradictions between Vietnam’s Law on Environmental Protection and its Law on Investment that are contributing to the country’s growing environmental problems. The article quotes Nguyen Manh Hien, former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, as stating that the overlap between these two laws, “in addition to many enterprises’ neglect in environmental protection and failure in making sound [Environmental Impact Assessment] reports, has led to serious pollution.”
Vietnam has achieved one of the fastest GDP growth rates in the world since it introduced economic and political reforms three decades ago. Per capita incomes rose to over $2000 in 2015 from about $100 in the early 1980’s, and poverty levels have dropped precipitously. However, Vietnam’s rapid development, as with other similar countries, is not without its costs. In the words of an Asian Development Bank report: “Industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural intensification have had harmful effects on air, land, and water, and have far-reaching implications for the energy and transport sectors leading to increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reduced resilience to climate change.”
Along the way, Vietnam has formulated numerous laws, decrees, and circulars in order to manage its environmental challenges and ensure the sustainable development of its economy. The government adopted the first Law on Environmental Protection in 1993, which was substantially revised in 2005, and again in 2014. Other significant environmental laws include: 2003 Land Law, 2004 Law on Forest Protection and Development, 2007 Law on Chemicals, 2008 Law on Biodiversity, 2010 Mineral Law, 2010 Law on Environmental Protection Tax, 2010 Law on Economical and Efficient Use of Energy, and the 2012 Law on Water Resources. However, effective implementation of these laws has suffered not only due to capacity limitations with regard to both human and financial resources, but also because of contradictions within the laws themselves, unclear institutional authority, and the overly complex and sometimes redundant regulatory regimes that they created.
The specific problem highlighted by the Vietnamnet article cited above has to do with the point at which a proposed project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report must be conducted during the investment approval process. Under Article 25, clause 2, subsection (a) of the Law on Environmental Protection, a project’s EIA report must be approved by an authorized environmental agency so that it may serve as a basis for the relevant investment agency to issue an investment approval. However, while the Law on Investment requires that an application file for an investment project of 300 billion Vietnamese dong (approx. $13.5 million USD) or more include “technological or environmental solutions” (Article 48), it does not specifically require the applicant to include an approved EIA report.
As a result, former Deputy Minister Hien stated,”if [enterprises] make the [EIA] report before being allowed to implement the project, the report will not have sufficient information about the project.” This has led to a situation where many EIA reports in Vietnam are of very low quality and lack sufficient information to serve as meaningful tools to promote sustainable development. The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment stated that the EIA report for the $10.6 billion USD Formosa Ha Tinh Steel facility, which earlier this year caused one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters, is “inadequate, as it lacks details.” Some EIA reports are reported to essentially by copied and pasted one to the other, as with the Song Tranh2 and A Vuong hydropower plants.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment recommends that the Law on Environmental Protection be amended so that an EIA report be conducted after a proposed project has achieved investment approval. Only then, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha stated, will the investor “have full information and data to make the report.”