By LE QUYNH
March 9, 2020
Up to 138 million cubic meters of sand could be removed from the already sand-depleted Mekong Delta to build a controversial reclamation project poised to transform a strip of Vietnam’s southern coast — despite strong opposition from experts. This is part 1 of a two-part report funded by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network on Ho Chi Minh City’s controversial 2,870-hectare Can Gio Tourist City project. (Part 2: Vietnam’s massive ecotourism charade)
An ambitious plan to erect a tourist city off Vietnam’s south coast has hit opposition from experts, who fear the development on reclaimed land will do irreparable harm to a critical biosphere reserve and the Mekong Delta while exacerbating climate change risks to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
The Can Gio Land Reclamation Project on the southern fringes of HCMC set alarm bells ringing from the get-go 17 years ago. Experts warned that this ecotourism project could wreck the very resource it was encouraging people to come visit: HCMC’s “green lung” – the UNESCO-listed Can Gio Biosphere Reserve whose internationally renowned mangroves also shield Vietnam’s largest city from storms.
Initially planned for 600 hectares, the project exploded in size to 2,870 hectares under its new name, Can Gio Tourist City. The sprawling development plan now boasts luxury homes, hotels, convention centres and a golf course built around a port for cruise ships and crowned with a 108-storey skyscraper. Set for completion in 11 years, it aims to accommodate 230,000 residents and draw nearly nine million tourists annually, transforming the Can Gio coast and boosting the HCMC economy.
Vinhomes JSC, the real-estate arm of Vietnam’s biggest conglomerate, VinGroup, is the project’s developer. For several decades now, property development has been the fuel propelling VietGroup’s financial success.
But controversy has accompanied VinGroup’s rapid accumulation of wealth, as experts have chronicled environmental damage associated with many of its developments. With the Can Gio Tourist City land-reclamation project being its largest effort to date, valued at 217 trillion dong (US$9.34 billion), it is feared this worrying trend will continue.
Documents obtained by this journalist from various sources – including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), the project owner and the HCMC People’s Committee – reveal potential harmful impacts far in excess of anything described in official public communications.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese media classifies all information on the project as “sensitive”, helping to stifle public and scientific debate. A HCMC-based journalist from a major newsgroup, who asked not to be named, disclosed to peers her frustration when the text of an in-depth story she produced on the project was so severely edited–with key details about the project and its potential impacts removed–she could not recognize her own writing.
VinGroup declined to be interviewed for this story saying, “VinGroup has always tried to be discreet in any situation and has no intention to talk to the media about this project. We understand that the Can Gio Tourist City land-reclamation project is planned for an extremely sensitive location and we anticipated many difficulties but are determined to implement this project as best as we can.”
Interview requests made to MONRE, HCMC’s Department of Planning and Architecture and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment were similarly declined.
Sand extraction threatens Mekong Delta
Vinhomes JSC estimates reclamation work will require 138 million cubic metres of sand, enough to fill 36,600 Olympic-size swimming pools. Most will be taken from riverbeds in the Mekong Delta, where residents already face severe erosion from illegal and excessive sand extraction, a crisis being made all the more severe due to dams impounding the Mekong River upstream.
In 2018 the Mekong River Commission (MRC) projected that if 11 planned hydropower dam projects were added to six already operating in China, by 2040 only 3 percent of the river’s silt would reach Vietnam, effectively starving the delta of the these mineral deposits on which its ecology and society depends.
Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent expert on the Mekong Delta ecosystem, says the massive amount of sand required for the Can Gio Tourist City project would trigger a cascade effect.
“The Mekong is a homogeneous system. Taking sand from any single point will cause a shortage on the whole and create a ripple-effect to the delta, riverfront and oceanfront alike.”
A study by scientists Jean-Paul Bravard and Marc Goichot estimated that between 1998 and 2008, the delta’s Hau and Tien rivers lost 200 million tonnes of sand, increasing their depth by an average 1.3 metres.
If sand is mined from the Mekong River for Can Gio, says Nguyen Huu Thien, the river will deepen and its banks will collapse, taking with them homes and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
Exacerbating this growing erosion crisis poses threats to public infrastructure as well. Last August, authorities in An Giang province had asked Hanoi for 500 billion dong (US$21.5 million) to rebuild a portion of National Highway 91 that had collapsed into the Mekong River.
Shortage of sand for construction has also become a serious issue for Vietnam, particularly the South, with reserves depleted by unfettered illegal mining. This was the theme of an April 2019 conference titled “Discussion and Approval of the Plan for the Prevention of Illegal Sand Extraction in the Coast of Can Gio”.
Major General Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the HCMC Public Security Department, warned delegates: “In their current state, sand reserves in the whole southern region can meet HCMC’s demands alone for no more than two years. Most construction projects, including those publicly funded and those prioritised for economic development and national security, are using illegally extracted sand.”
VinGroup has claimed impressive sand-extraction capacity, but the HCMC Department of Natural Resources states it has no data to corroborate this. Fears that VinGroup is exaggerating its capacity were heightened when authorities in Ben Tre province revealed its Binh Dai sand mine contained an estimated 400,000 square metres of sand – not the 4 million square meters reported by project owner.
Despite this critical issue of sand loss in the delta region, and the extensive amount of sand the project is expected to require, Can Gio Tourist City’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) failed to address sand at all.
Strong environmental risks, weak assessment
Experts are particularly concerned about the tourist city’s impact on the nearby Can Gio Biosphere Reserve.
The project site borders a buffer zone of the UNESCO-listed reserve, where more than 34,000 hectares of mangrove forest have cleansed the area of toxic Agent Orange sprayed by US forces during the Vietnam War.
Now, with pollution spiking in the HCMC metropolis, the mangrove forest serves as a green lung and a bulwark shielding the city from storms and extreme weather. Research has shown that the Can Gio mangroves also help filter greywater from upstream and regulate flood flows. Conserving the delicate balance of this ecosystem is vital not only to HCMC, but to the entire delta region.
Prof Le Huy Ba, former director of the Institute for Environmental Science, Engineering and Management, is worried that dykes built to reclaim land for a project like Can Gio would wreak havoc on the highly sensitive mangrove forest by reducing its salinity. The mangroves will not survive even a 2 percent change in salinity, he warns.
The Can Gio Protection Forest Management Board echoed these concerns in a June 2018 communique: “Although the project site is not within the Can Gio protection forest, environmental pollution [especially water] emanating from the project would pose a threat to the generation and development of the mangrove forest’s flora and fauna, which are highly sensitive to a changing environment.”
Many of the 21 scientists attending a meeting organised by MONRE on October 12, 2018 criticised the EIA for not properly assessing impacts on the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve nor impacts on erosion and sedimentation processes around the project site and in nearby areas within Go Cong and Vung Tau. The EIA also failed to adequately address mitigation measures, they stated.
Minutes of the meeting show that key scientists including Tran Phong, Director of the Southern Environment Protection Department and Ngo Van Quy of the Biodiversity Conservation Department, opposed approving the EIA report.
Promotional Video: Can Gio marine ecotourism city
At a conference marking 40 years of the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve in 2018, HCMC Party Secretary Nguyen Thien Nhan demanded that more thorough research be conducted on reclamation work for the proposed tourist city. “If we make the wrong decision, its consequences may not be felt in five or 10 years, but later on the impact might be disastrous, and future generations will condemn us,” he cautioned.
Despite these and other objections, the EIA report was approved by Vo Tuan Nhan, deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, on January 28, 2019.
This environmental green light, however, came with an additional 15 requirements, including an order to continue EIA-related assessments into impacts on the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, and on erosion, sedimentation and the hydrologic processes in nearby regions.
According to Dr Vu Ngoc Long, president of the Science Council of the Southern Institute of Ecology, failure to undertake such fundamental assessments effectively means MONRE must restart the EIA process and reconsider the feasibility of the entire project.
Indeed, many scientists say the Can Gio EIA fell well short of the most basic international EIA standards as so many important environmental questions were largely unaddressed. These additional requirements not only reinforce this view, they say, but illustrate how the EIA approval was rushed and lacked transparency.
Nonetheless, with MONRE granting environmental clearance, the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) on May 16, 2019, forwarded the Can Gio Tourist City project inspection report to the prime minister, recommending the report’s approval.
Since one of the 15 additional requirements associated with MONRE’s EIA approval states that the Prime Minister alone will grant final approval for the project, this effectively absolves MONRE of any future responsibility surrounding the project.
Many scientists voiced frustration that MONRE had done this. After all, as the public’s expert authority on environmental matters, the MONRE is compelled by law to determine the scientific legitimacy of an EIA report, and by extension any supplemental assessments that are now being required for the Can Gio Tourist City project.
MONRE should never have submitted the project to the Prime Minister says Dr Vu Ngoc Long of the Southern Institute of Ecology. “I certainly expected MONRE to act more responsibly and not approve such a flawed report,” he said.
Effectively, this approval was granted during what really was a pre-feasibility phase, since the EIA report offered only vague analysis of impacts and mitigation measures. For example, there was just patchy information on the potential damaging impact of the golf course, the entertainment centre, the cruise ship port and the rail link.
Furthermore, while Vietnam’s Environmental Protection Law requires full transparency and accountability from both project owners and government authorities, public information on the Can Gio Tourist City remains sparse and difficult to obtain. Civil society, the media and even some government agencies have been given very little information about the project and its potential impacts.
Such lack of environmental transparency has stymied social accountability and harmed the quality of many projects according to a study on community participation in EIA consultations by Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics. The alarmingly low level of public access to information on environmental issues is tantamount to “information blindness”, said the authors. Especially worrying stressed this report was the lack of participation by local communities who will bear the brunt of adverse impacts after “a perfunctory and superficial community consultation process that provides little meaningful information and low-quality consulting”.
Many expert feel that the scale of Can Gio project demands much greater public involvement, given that such an extensive land-reclamation project will have profound environmental impacts stretching northward to HCMC proper as well as the Mekong Delta.