What scientists say about “how to have both steel and fish”

Last update: 17:49 | 27/11/2016

The environmental disaster in the central sea caused by the Formosa steel plant has been solved. After four months of research and evaluation, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment recently announced information about the positive change there: the toxins have decreased; the sea water has also been assessed as clean enough for bathing; small fish have appeared, sea moss has begun to revive. 

But there are still many questions: how did some toxins decrease, can we eat fish there, is the sea water really safe, and when will marine ecology be really revived? When will sea tourism resume and when will the life of fishermen be back to normal? 

And one more important question after this serious pollution incident is: how can we have both steel and fish? How to achieve the goal, as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc just said this morning, “Do not trade the environment for immediate benefits”?

Today VietNamNet invites two guests for online talks with the theme: How to have both steel and fish? The first guest is Professor Mai Trong Nhuan - former President of Hanoi National University. He is the leader of a team of scientists who have evaluated the marine environment in the central region of Vietnam. And the second guest is Mr. Hoang Duong Tung - Deputy Director General of the General Department of Environment - Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. 

VietNamNet: Two months ago, there were comments from scientists saying that it will take the central sea environment half a century or more to revive as it was before the Formosa incident. 

According to the latest announcement, there are positive signals: the sea water is clean enough for bathing or small fish have appeared. So what is the difference between the previous prediction and the current information? And how do we understand the concept of safety and cleanliness of the central sea today?

Prof. Mai Trong Nhuan: Firstly, the two information points are not conflicting, as we said above that the marine environment is now beginning to recover, not has recovered. 

Secondly, the recovery of the marine ecosystem is very dependent on the type of coral, the degree of impact, such as the place where 90% of the ecology was destroyed, the time for recovery will be much longer than the other sites, where the damage was less. 

So it can begin to recover today, but to recover completely it is a long process and the time for recovery is different at different places. To know the time needed for recovery, we need to conduct other studies. 

The safety here can be understood as safety of marine ecosystems, safety of fishing, and safety for the use of seafood.

The data released by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is extremely important, which we call background data, or the inputs for assessment of the cycle or the level of toxicity accumulation in the food chain so that we can measure and forecast the toxicity accumulation in seafood and when we can use seafood there. 

The second is also based on the above input data, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development can further assess the toxin accumulation in the food chain to conduct aqua-cultural activities. 

Without that input information, we cannot proceed to the next step, and so on, we can assess the level of safety for each type of activity. But I would like to affirm that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's research is reliable in safety for bathing or conducting water sports. 

The scientists involved in the research bathed there and they were still safe. That is a normal sign for us to to be sure about the safety of the water there.

VietNamNet: Mr. Tung, as an environmental expert, could you tell us that how long will it take us to restore the marine environment in the central region to the level that it was before the incident? 

Hoang Duong Tung: Yes, as scientists have said, each year the coral reefs can grow by 2-3cm long each depending on each species. So the time will be long to have coral reefs of around 30-40cm as before. 

As recently explained by Mr. Nhuan, we have seen the first signs of recovery, which means there is no more signal of death there, but there are initial signs of living. 

The coral has started to grow but it will be a long time for it to reach the height of 30-40 cm.

VietNamNet: There is another question for Mr. Tung. Recently, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment has also said that the Central region will have both steel and fish, but in fact, with what has been happening there, the people are really very disturbed and skeptical about this story. Can you explain more on this issue?

Hoang Duong Tung: Recently, we have seen that in some localities, some industries, the environment has been traded for economic development. This is a matter of sustainable development. 

Specifically in this case it is fish and steel. Did we sacrifice the environment for economic development? Through the Formosa incident we can once again confirm that it is not.

At the online environmental briefing this morning, the Prime Minister recalled it again, and it was the correct message. This means that we have to strictly control the types of investment, the operations of investors, especially their acts to protect the environment to ensure economic development without pollution. 

We must strongly refuse the projects with high risks of causing pollution. We also know that many localities have recently rejected large investment projects that are likely to cause heavy environmental pollution.

Prof. Mai Trong Nhuan: As Tung said, it is also important for enterprises themselves to improve their accountability to society and their responsibilities to the land and water or the country where they come to do business. 


It is the ethics of business people to ensure the environment to be absolutely safe for their own enterprises as well as for the people living around it; otherwise you will lose a lot. Formosa is a good example. Its credit has been destroyed globally so the price it has had to pay is huge. 

The community is responsible for monitoring, and as the Vietnamese Constitution states that people have the right to supervise the state and corporations so it is necessary to enhance the role of people in monitoring, especially in waste discharge. 

Both the state and enterprises must publicize from the technology and equipment to data so that the environment can be monitored by the people. 

For example, it has been suggested that Formosa should build a lake to contain waste water before the water is discharged to the sea so that the waste water will be supervised by the people, through the installation of specialized equipment there. 

I think with that solution, we will have both fish and steel, and broader sustainable development.

VietNamNet: I received a question a reader named Thanh Loan through the fanpage of VietNamNet as follows: It is clear that Formosa will be a big problem for a very long time because after the environmental disaster caused by this project, the new incidents related to solid waste or toxic water of this project have been detected. 

Obviously, Mr. Chu Xuan Pham’s previous statement is not wrong: choosing steel or fish? This is the law of trade. But the problem here is not just the fish but the marine ecosystems and there are many other things that we cannot name. 

What are the solutions in the short and long term for the Formosa case in particular and for FDI projects in general and also for local manufacturing companies which deliberately dodge the rules on the environment?

Hoang Duong Tung: Yes, it is clear that through the Formosan case we have already seen a number of issues that we have faced, including how to amend the legal system to fill the current loopholes. 

There are now a lot of legal documents that have been amended as well as the issuance of technical measures, like Professor Nhuan has just talked about: the automated monitoring systems that work 24/24 to enable people to closely monitor the parameters before waste is discharged into the environment. 

The Government and our department are about to launch a series of inspections of the facilities which are major sources of pollution, and then we will clarify the responsibilities of ministries and the responsibilities of local authorities.

This morning, the PM also stressed to assign the responsibility of protecting the environment to leaders of localities. So the coordination between ministries and localities from top to bottom with the application of technologies, and the issue of enhancing management responsibility, we think that somehow we can control the protection of the environment. This is the way to achieve our sustainable development strategy.

VietNamNet: However, through the question of this reader, there is a problem that we understand the regulations on environmental protection and indeed the state management agencies have tried their best but there is still a tendency, a bad habit of a part of the businesses who still get rid of the law, find every way for profit, ready to destroy the environment. Professor Nhuan, do you believe in the effectiveness of state management today?

Prof. Mai Trong Nhuan: I think that our system of norms and regulations is basically enough, if it needs to be amended, in addition to the opinions of Mr. Tung, I think the law should pay more attention to the total amount of emissions, not just the amount of toxins in the waste water because if the content of toxins is small but if the total amount of emissions is high, it is still dangerous. 

It is also necessary to set the limit for the amount of emissions in a day and night to ensure the endurance of marine ecosystems. That is the first problem in management.

The second thing is that whether the effect of our law is satisfactory for sustainable development or  prevention of pollution. I think there are two aspects: the first is the application of legal solutions and the second is the application of sanctions must also be based on scientific grounds, under scientific supervision, with the participation of the scientific community, as a source of objectivity for both state management agencies and businesses. 

They can recommend to state management agencies to apply timely solutions to prevent, to support tools for the state to stop, to fine or even to prosecute businesses if they deliberately violate the rules. 

I believe that in the past four months the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment applied extremely drastic solutions so readers can be assured with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s way of working to have both fish and steel.

Hoang Duong Tung: I would like to say that, as Professor Nhuan has just said, we must control the total emissions. Actually, the current law of environmental protection has raised that issue: we not only manage the concentration of waste but also the load capacity. So later we will take into account the capacity of the river bed, the air, the sea, etc. in absorbing waste. 

We will set waste quota. So we must set quotas to ensure that the river basin is not polluted. There are many different tools and this is a new issue for Vietnam, so it takes time to research but the law has also come up with this and I hope that in the next few years, the tools like this will be offered and we will manage the environment better.

VietNamNet: Let's say a little bit that this morning; the Government organized the national online conference on environmental protection. 

At the meeting, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated that Vietnam would not trade economic benefits and a peaceful life of the people for the environment. We think that this is certainly guidance to ensure that no similar environmental disaster like the Formosa case will happen again. 

But despite the existing sanctions and regulations, the most important issue is concrete implementation and how to turn words into action for sustainable development, for a Vietnam of green growth.


What scientists say about “how to have both steel and fish”