Environmental activists say that Vietnam's poisoned Dong Nai River could meet the same fate as a heavily toxic river in China if serious measures aren't taken soon.
According to a leaked cable from the US Consulate in Guangzhou, China, to the State Department in Washington DC, the contaminated waters of China's Pearl River and other water sources in Guangdong are "as serious a threat to the region's health and economic sustainability as the decline in exports, the closure of small and medium enterprises and the increasing utilization of land for nonproductive reasons."
"It is clear that local residents in some heavily polluted areas are already displaying the effects including cancers, bone diseases and other disorders stemming from exposure to high levels of arsenic, cadmium and other toxins," said the cable published by transparency advocacy website WikiLeaks.
"Many cities have to spend large amounts of money to get water from faraway locations because sources closer in are too heavily polluted," it said.
Experts say that without long-term solutions that consider environmental protection alongside growth, or short-term actions to curb pollution, the Dong Nai River is headed in the same direction.
Vietnam has seen annual economic growth of over five percent for more than a decade, but the boom has taken a heavy environmental toll, turning many waterways into open sewers and leaving landscapes littered with toxic waste.
At a parliamentary session in March, the then-Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung said Vietnam was suffering from "low quality growth" and "serious environmental pollution."
According to the government's National Environmental Assessment released in June, the Dong Nai River has been seriously polluted by untreated wastewater discharged from industrial parks and urban areas upstream.
The report said Vietnam had 249 industrial zones nationwide in 2009, of which only half used wastewater treatment systems. About 70 percent of the 1 billion liters of untreated wastewater produced daily by these zones was being dumped into local ecosystems and environments illegally, the report found.
Serious pollution has already poisoned the Dong Nai River, a waterway that provides sustenance to some 15 million people, including most of Ho Chi Minh City.
On August 4, Dong Nai environmental police caught an affiliate company of the state-owned Sonadezi Corporation discharging untreated waste into the Dong Nai. Police said it is estimated that the plant has discharged around 14 trillion liters of sewage into the river over the last five years.
Meanwhile, experts have slammed a plan to construct two hydropower dams upstream and have warned of even more serious long term environmental damages.
Jake Brunner, program coordinator for Vietnam with the global environment network International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the Pearl River Delta experience shows that pollution imposes huge public health costs that threaten to undermine China's social stability and its development prospects.
"Vietnam should therefore take action now to prevent a similar situation here. What's currently missing is the political will to implement the necessary reforms, as the Sonadezi fiasco shows," he said.
David Blake of the University of East Anglia in the UK said air and water quality were generally declining throughout most of Southeast Asia, showing that pollution does not respect national or even regional boundaries.
"China, Thailand or Vietnam building more coal-fired power stations does not mean the carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants will remain local, just as mercury or other heavy metals released by factories in any of these countries will be mobilized into the aquatic ecosystem and via food chains, which will spread the pollution far and wide into the rivers and oceans, and back to humans eventually," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Andrew Wells-Dang, an international consultant on civil society, networks and governance based in Hoi An, said the key lesson for Vietnam and other developing countries is that economic development has inevitable social and environmental costs.
"This is not an argument against growth, since growth of the right kinds and quality can lift many people out of poverty (as has happened over the past 30 years in both Vietnam and China). But it would be better to consider the costs in advance and invest in environmental protection, such as pollution controls in this case, at the same time as industries develop," he said.
"In Vietnam, most environments have not been totally damaged beyond repair, so there is still a chance to correct the effects of pollution and unplanned growth," he added.
An ecologist who wished to remain anonymous said the Pearl River problem is mostly about industrial sources of pollution, and this extends into the upstream areas of the Pearl River because of the huge scale of development there.
"I liken that to the situation in the lower Dong Nai, like the infamous Thi Vai and similar small rivers. But here I think the industrial development does not yet extend into the upper reaches of the Dong Nai."
"I think that is the sad part about the Cat Tien dams [planned on Dong Nai River] situation, because although Vietnam has all the tools to make good management decisions, it is of not of much use when they are ignored or abused for the benefit of a few powerful vested interests," he said.
"So in my opinion, to educate the public, we need to once again shine the light on the shadow puppet play. But is it possible to do that in this case?" he said.
"Yes, the scenario in China is possible to duplicate if Vietnam is not able to manage the vested interests effectively."