Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A sewer runs through it

Sewage flows directly from a factory into the Rang River on an island off the coast of Vung Tau. Locals say the sewage is killing oysters and fish in the river. Farmers say they are losing their livelihoods as sewage kills their oysters, shrimp and fish.

Ho Van Tom gets choked up in tears and anger every time he thinks of all the money he put into his oyster business, which has all but vanished since oysters in the Rang River began dying two years ago.
Around a thousand families in the island commune of Long Son off the coast of Vung Tau are worried they may soon have no way to support themselves.

Long Son residents started collecting oysters some 10 years ago, an endeavor that was initially met with great success.

Many locals, who were until then in the throes of poverty, took out bank loans to set up small oyster operations along the Rang River.

But after years of profits, most of the farmers are finding themselves near bankruptcy these days.

The locals say that several factories pump sewage directly into the Rang River, where they breed their fish and seafood.

The factories are “cunning,” Tom says. “They install the drains underwater. They can only be seen when the river is at its shallowest point, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.”

No inspector would ever check at that time, he says.

The drains, about a meter in diameter, spew putrid, yellow water.

The residents say they want to send water samples to official agencies.

“That would prove how much these factories have polluted the river,” says Tom.

Tom himself gave three bottles ofthe water to reporters, asking them to give the samples to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. “Ask them to save the river and save us,” he says.

But authorities have remained silent.

Many locals are on the verge of selling their land and houses to repay bank loans.

Pearls go bust

The oyster business on the island began over 10 years ago when a local man saw that oysters had begun sticking to items floating in the Rang River. He then spent all his money on materials he could use to catch oysters in this way, including car tires andother makeshift “traps.”

He made hundreds of millions of dong that year.

Rang River oysters soon became popular at Ho Chi Minh City restaurants and even overseas.

Tom says he earned a profit of VND12 million (US$735) after investing VND5 million ($306) in his first oysters in 2000.

He put the whole profit into his next batch and made VND60 million ($3,600) more the following year.

Over several years, Tom was able to save enough money to buy a large house and send his three children to high school and college, a rarity on the small island.

“Those were the best days for my family. Everyone in the commune enjoyed that time,” he says.

But with more oysters dying everyday, the joy has faded.

A local named Tran Van Than says he can only catch one or two oysters per day now.

Fish and other animals living in the river have also ended up dead, local residents say.

Nguyen Van Be Tu says he had bred 700 tons of shrimp, 600 kilograms of cockles and spent another VND100 million ($6,100) on rafts to attract oysters.

“But now all is gone,” he says, adding that the 200 families in his hamlet are the poorest in Long Son Commune and many of them had mortgaged their land to fund their oyster businesses.

“They cannot even fill their stomach these days; how can they pay the bank loans with increasing interest rates?”

As a whole, Long Son Commune has lost some VND50 billion ($3 million) in total profits since 2006, Tu estimates.

“The authorities should intervene,” he says. “The longer they wait, the sooner the residents will die.”