On the afternoon and evening of Sunday, Oct. 2, Hanoi went into panic. The 500 hectares of West Lake or Tay Ho, the largest body of water in Vietnam’s capital, had become filled with dead fish. Thousands on thousands of fish rising from the depths of an on-land sea, a bit like Godzilla.
As anyone who follows current affairs in Vietnam will tell you, this is not the first time this year this country has been blighted with a plague of dead fish. Nhieu Loc Canal in Ho Chi Minh City has often had instances of dead fish appearing on the surface of the waterway.
However, most memorable (and notorious) was this year’s catastrophe in Central Vietnam.
On Apr. 6, fish carcasses were reported washed up on the beaches of Ha Tinh in Central Vietnam. In the following two weeks this spread to three nearby provinces — Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien Hue.
Naturally, the local fishing industry and populace were up in arms. This was their livelihood. How could this happen? After demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the finger of blame was pointed at Formosa Plastics, who had been discharging toxic industrial waste illegally into the East Sea through drainage pipes.
Photo by David Mann
Photo by Marika Vilisaar
The Food Chain
The present instance is of even greater concern as it affects the water system of a city of 7.5 million people. There is also a worry that whatever poison or chemical caused the fish kills could get into the food chain. Here’s a first person witness account of what happened.
[What we found were] unimaginable numbers of dead fish — all sizes and all types — as small as my little finger up to monsters dwelling in the depths of the lake with squashed up faces and deep grey-silver scales.
The road from Vong Thi Pagoda to Coco Village was packed with official vehicles and road blocks. We kept saying “ve nha” (we’re going home) and were allowed past the road blocks. They were unloading new speedboats and people were wearing uniforms, life-jackets and disposable masks. Down the road there were scores of people scooping fish into containers and sacks or shovelling them into trolleys. Further on were water trucks that normally clean the roads, fire engines, a crane truck with cargo.
The cargo was plastic wrapped — a gift from Germany to Vietnam. We saw two pallets clearly marked as part of a shipment of 15 pallets. We stopped to take a closer look. The contents stated that they will purify water when dissolved or mixed in the correct quantities. The ratio is something like 1 to 30 — so how do you measure the amount of water in the lake? Are 18 pallets of this magic German stuff enough to fix the whole lake?
Meanwhile, on the lake were dozens of boats and other floating craft, with many life-jacketed, net-wielding people scooping up dead fish and dropping them on board.
A garbage truck arrived. It took great gulps of the newly harvested dead fish, crushing and mincing them beyond recognition. The water trucks then went into action to wash the offending and super-smelly dead fish liquid off the road. There were people on standby spraying something into the road — industrial strength bleach. But wait, where does that grey water go? Into the roadside gutter which leads into the drain, which goes straight back into West Lake where the fish already have at least one chemical to contend with.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the lake, there were people fishing with nets to get as much as they can to sell it at the market. On Thanh Nien Street I asked an old couple what they are they doing with the fish.
“Oh we’re catching them to sell for cat or dog food at the market,” they replied.
Others told me they would take their catch to market “because it is still fresh.” Said someone else: “It was still moving when we took it out of the lake (so it must be ok).”
Above three photos by Scott Homan
In March this year we conducted a survey of the water in West Lake. Reports had been filtering through for a couple of years that arsenic, a naturally occurring metal in the Red River Delta, had been filtering through into the water system. Armed with a home testing kit we decided to find out for ourselves.
First stop was West Lake.
To our surprise, while there was a fair amount of contamination, the arsenic levels were around the acceptable limit. However, when we tested the tap water at two downtown locations in the Old Quarter — almost every building has its own well which is dug down into the layer of earth that includes arsenic deposits — the results were a concern. Contamination was high; between two and five-and-a-half times the acceptable limit.
For humans, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning start with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhoea and drowsiness, while acute levels of the metalloid can lead to vomiting, vomiting blood, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain and convulsions. The final result is coma and death.
Could the mass death of fish in West Lake be the result of arsenic poisoning? It’s possible, but it could also be the result of other toxins.
The local media is blaming the deaths on a lack of oxygen in the water, perhaps caused by too many organic compounds getting into the system and eating up all the oxygen. It’s a seasonal problem which also affects Vietnam’s reservoirs. There could also be excess nitrates, phosphates or even ammonia in the water.
Over time the official cause will come out in the local media. There will also be some independent analysis as well. Whatever the deaths are blamed on, the hope is that this will be a wake-up call.
In a country which has long ignored the needs of the environment in favour of raising itself out of poverty, the present disaster is too close to home to be ignored.
This photo plus lead photo by Miguel Coulier